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Today's Gardens Can Be Living History Museums

By Mary Small, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension agent and Urban Integrated Pest Management Coordinator

They've seen a lot of history in the last 221 years -- those lilacs, and hollyhocks, foxgloves and Johnny jump-ups that have graced our gardens since before America lit its first birthday candle.

Today, two plus centuries after our founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence, these plants are called "heirlooms," and their cultivation and nurturing is taking on new meaning with some Colorado gardeners. A plant is an heirloom, according to Burpee Seed Company, if it was introduced into America any time during the 300 years before and up to 1950. Heirloom plants generally are "open pollinated," free to cross with each other or themselves. Some authors include, as heirlooms, plants that resulted from early hybridization efforts. Many of these plants, thriving at the time of the American Revolution, are grown today and a number of them fit well into modern gardens that are planted for low maintenance, diversity and attractiveness.

The increased interest in growing heirloom plants is prompted, in part by emotions -- growing what our ancestors grew and growing a part of history. Some gardeners want to preserve the genetic diversity that old plant varieties provide. Without deliberate efforts to grow antique plants, new and more popular varieties could replace them.

Historically interesting as they are, however, heirloom plants aren't necessarily trouble-free. Depending on the species, disease resistance may be poor. Vegetables may not yield as much produce as modern hybrids nor produce as blemish-free fruit. Some antique plants are less compact and sprawl wildly. Color selection may be limited, blossoms may be fewer than modern hybrids. But certain features, such as fragrance, may be better.

What was in a typical garden at the time of the Revolution? A lot depended on the gardener, his financial status and where he lived.

America's first "gardens" usually consisted of plants whose seeds were brought from Europe. Most plants served a food, medical or seasoning use, though some were planted purely for their beauty, interest or fragrance. Many settlers couldn't bear the thought of being without their beloved honesty (Lunaria annua), rose or tulip. A typical colonial garden might include feverfew (Chrysanthemum parthenium), coriander, dill, spearmint and comfrey for medical and flavoring purposes, and hollyhock (Alcea rosea), sweet William (Dianthus barbatus), honesty (Lunaria annua), Pot marigold (Calendula officinalis) and rose (Rosa spp.) for sentiment and beauty.

By the third quarter of the eighteenth century, life was more secure. Gardens were developed for the enjoyment they could provide, rather than as a necessity of survival. In addition, gardeners slowly developed an interest in native plants and their worthwhile contributions. Some of our nation's founders, including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, were interested in the fledgling field of horticulture and grew a variety of "old" and "new", native and imported plants. Generally, the gardens of wealthier people were larger than the average because they might have servants or slaves to manage them. The gardens also contained the more unusual plants that money could buy, such as lilies.

A late eighteenth century garden might include a surprising number of flowering plants familiar to the modern gardener including hollyhock (Alcea rosea); daylily (Hemerocallis fulva and H. lilioasphodelus); sunflower (Helianthus annus); globe amaranth (Gomphrena globosa); iris (particularly Iris x germanica, Iris pseudoacorus and various wild types), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa); Maltese cross ( Lychnis chalcedonica), bee balm (Monarda didyma and M. fistulosa); foxglove (Digitalis purpurea); Johnny jump-up (Viola tricolor); tulips (Tulipa spp.); nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus); peony (Paeonia spp.); poppy (Papaver orientale, P. rhoeas, and P. somniferum); daffodil (Narcissus spp) . Vegetables might include cucumbers, lettuce, beans, peas, carrots, peppers, melons, radish, squash and cabbage along with numerous herbs.

While gardeners might recognize the names of these familiar plants, they might not recognize their appearance. Many have undergone hybridization to improve various characteristics.

For example, the only daylilies grown in these early time periods were the Tawny (or orange), Hemerocallis fulva, and the Yellow (also known as "lemon lily"), Hemerocallis flava. Not until the mid-nineteenth century were other daylily colors introduced, and not until the 20th Century did extensive daylily hybridization (and changes in size and color) take place.

Nasturtiums, at the time of the Revolution, were grown primarily as an edible crop. Their leaves, flowers and flower buds feature a peppery flavor, adding zest to foods. Around 1850, some new nasturtiums were discovered in tropical America and an interest in hybridization followed. The early garden nasturtiums had many, relatively large leaves, few flowers and only yellow or red flowers.

If you are interested in heirloom gardening, you can get started by checking with a library or a bookstore. A number of good reference books on the subject are available. Included are "The Heirloom Garden" by JoAnn Gardner and "American Gardens of the Nineteenth Century for Comfort and Affluence" by Ann Leighton. Fortunately, a number of seed companies have responded to the interest in heirloom plants and carry seeds and plants of many. Many heirloom or "old style" plants (those that are not technically heirlooms, but are characteristic of them) also be found at local garden centers and nurseries.

Heirloom Plant Facts

  • The tomato, a popular vegetable today, wasn't widely grown as an edible crop until the late nineteenth century. Although Thomas Jefferson grew them for culinary purposes, most people considered them a curiosity - or poisonous!
  • "Marigolds" are often mentioned in writings of the revolutionary war era (and before), but these were really calendulas or "pot marigolds". The marigolds we know (Tagetes sp.) were not introduced until just after the Revolution.
  • Tulips were planted in both Dutch and English colonies but only solid colors, striped and parrot types were available.
  • A variety of amaranths (such as Love-lies-bleeding, Amaranthus caudatus; Globe amaranth, Gomphrena globosa and Cockscomb,Celosia sp.) were popular eighteenth and nineteenth century plants, but by 1900 were considered gaudy and unfashionable.

Twelve Garden Plants of Eighteenth Century America

Althaea rosea Hollyhock

Asclepias tuberosa Butterfly weed

Convallaria majalis Lily of the Valley

Dianthus barbatus Sweet William

Helianthus annus Sunflower

Iris germanica German iris

Lathyrus odoratus Sweet pea

Lychnis chalcedonica Maltese cross

Monarda didyma Bee balm

Narcissus spp. Narcissus

Nigella sativa Love in a Mist, Persian Jewels

Tulipa spp. Tulip

Photo: Judy Sedbrook.


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Date last revised: 01/05/2010