|Photo: F. Martin Ramin/The Wall Street Journal, Styling by Anne Cardenas.|
In 1792, Thomas Jefferson wrote to a fellow plant enthusiast to gush about the snail flower, an ornamental bean vine named for its buds that curl like the shell of a mollusk. It is “the most beautiful bean in the world,” Jefferson said of the purple-and-white flowers, whose heady scent resembles jasmine.
Despite the founding father’s endorsement, the snail flower, Vigna caracalla, fell out of favor, and seeds from the annual vine, a South American native, were no longer sold in the U.S., the fate of a surprising number of once-popular garden plants.
“We were looking all over for it,” said Peggy Cornett, coordinator of plants at Monticello, the Jefferson estate in Virginia. Eventually, the historic site’s horticultural staff located the beans in a European catalog, began cultivating them and now sells them on monticelloshop.org.
Heirloom vegetables have been the rage for more than a decade in the garden world, with foodies cooing over zebra-striped tomatoes and blue potatoes. But a lesser-known category of historic plants has its own devoted following: heirloom flowers.
Even as this spring’s mass-market plant catalogs promote the horticultural industry’s latest inventions—black petunias, anyone?—many gardeners choose to nurture such plants as the meadowsweet, available at heritageflowerfarm.com, which Emily Dickinson is believed to have tended in her Amherst, Mass., yard in the mid 1800s. The frilly white blooms were found in her dried-flower collection.
Cooking-school manager Alicia Guy, who grows antique dahlias at her home outside Seattle, said of doing so, “It makes me feel like I have a connection with gardeners from 100 years ago that transcends technological change.” Older varieties of the summer showstoppers unfurl in color combinations today’s versions can’t deliver. Bishop of Llandaff’s brilliant red petals and yellow stamens pop against its dark bronze-colored foliage. And Ms. Guy likes knowing her great-great grandmother might have cared for the same flowers.
While not strictly defined, heirloom flowers generally date to at least the first half of the 20th century, before modern breeding techniques, which serve the needs of wholesale greenhouses. Rapid and uniform growth are often prized over fragrance and longevity in the garden, said Peter Zale, curator at Longwood Gardens, a public garden west of Philadelphia. Ms. Guy said her heirloom dahlias tend to come back more reliably each spring than contemporary versions. Heirlooms usually come “true to seed” as well: Seeds they create produce the exact same color and variety—not always the case with modern hybrids.
The bragging rights historic plants give gardeners are well-founded. You can grow the same tulips planted in the White House Rose Garden when it was redesigned for President John F. Kennedy, in 1962; the variety of tuberoses Louis XIV enjoyed at Versailles; or the diminutive Silver Bells daffodils that author Eudora Welty tended in her Mississippi yard in the 1930s. All are available through Old House Gardens (oldhousegardens.com).
Antique plants reward gardeners with quirkiness, too. Brilliant purple-blue blooms emerge along the 3-to-4-foot spikes of the perennial bee larkspur—a type of Delphinium elatum, the ancient European parent of modern delphiniums—but a peep at their deepest petals brings a surprise.
“It looks like a bee is hanging out of the flower, down to its fuzzy stripes,’’ said Amy Murray, coordinator of horticulture at Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, Mass., a historic site whose gardens host flowers popular from 1790 to 1840. Find bee larkspur seeds at anniesannuals.com.
Raising heirloom plants yields more than beauty: You ensure their survival. Catalogs from the late 1700s and early 1800s offered hundreds of varieties of hyacinths, said Scott Kunst, founder and owner of Old House Gardens, in Ann Arbor, Mich. Today, most purveyors sell a half-dozen or so types of these Easter favorites.
Heirloom flowers can’t be conserved in a museum like historic documents or antique furniture. “The only way to save them is to grow them,” Mr. Kunst said.
See specific heirloom flower profiles and entire article at: http://www.wsj.com/articles/a-guide-to-planting-heirloom-flowerswith-links-to-thomas-jefferson-and-more-1455811830