In 1970, we moved to a 100-acre farm on a remote peninsula in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, with two horses, two cows, miscellaneous chickens, cats, and a dog. After we rebuilt the barn, plowed and planted the fields, restored the fences, and established vegetable and fruit gardens, I turned my attention to the previous owner’s garden of historic ornamentals — herbs, flowers, and shrubs— which I’d inherited with the property. Purple and white lilacs shaded a carpet of Pulmonaria officinalis, and an impressive clump of tawny daylilies (Hemerocallis fulva) flourished nearby. A few mock oranges and daffodils were also struggling to survive. Few of the daffodils managed to bloom, but those that did had tight clusters of intensely fragrant, double-white blossoms.
A rosebush sprawled in front of the house, and when its many-petaled, blush-pink flowers opened, I discovered old rose essence for the first time. I knew virtually nothing about old roses then, but I later learned this rosebush was a ‘Banshee,’ or ‘Loyalist Rose,’ common at colonial sites all over the Northeast.
A large colony of yellow flag (Iris pseudacorus) with swordlike leaves and classic fleurs-de-lis blossoms kept watch by the back door. This small collection of ornamental plants opened up a new world to me, with pronounced scents, a variety of forms, and charmingly quirky habits.
I thought heirloom plants were unspoiled by human intervention, but I’ve come to understand that curious gardeners have been tinkering with nature for centuries. What constitutes an heirloom ornamental is open to interpretation — they do represent valued possessions at different periods in history, but they’re as varied as the truly antique 16th-century double-flowered dame’s rocket, the 1950s ‘Ma Perkins’ rose, and the even more recent iris and gladiolus hybrids. If one of the greatest pleasures of gardening is sharing, how great a pleasure it is to share this rich world of inherited plants. They’re easy, tolerant, robust, and enduring, perfect for creating low-maintenance landscapes in harmony with their surrounding environments.
What Are Heirloom Plants?
Heirloom ornamental plants are plants introduced to American gardens from 1600 to 1950, plus those considered “antique” even if introduced more recently, such as irises. Heirloom ornamentals are divided into ancient types, known as early as classical times, and middle-aged types, hybrids developed around the end of the 19th century on.
Strictly speaking, hybrids are the result of cross-fertilized species, but horticulturalists use the term to describe any cross-fertilization between variant parents, including cultivar crosses. A cultivar is any cultivated plant variation significant enough to name. Many heirlooms are open-pollinated, meaning they breed true, but our definition allows for a variety of hybrids with similar sturdy growth habits.
Plunging into heirloom gardening will be most fun if you have a passing familiarity with Latin names; while common names are charming and evocative, they’re also very regional, and sometimes the same common name refers to five or six completely different species! Common names can also change dramatically over time: “Hurt sickle,” so named for its habit of tangling around mowers’ sickles in grain fields, is now known as “bachelor’s button,” thanks to its Victorian use as a boutonniere. The Latin name will help you find exactly what you’re looking for — in this example, Centaurea cyanus.
Planning and Preserving an Heirloom Garden
The following garden plans offer a number of historical options, focusing on heirloom ornamentals from different eras, along with a wide-open plan for the gardener who prefers an eclectic collection of whatever strikes their fancy. Pay attention to growing zones as you plan your garden: the recommendations are based on USDA Hardiness Zones, but you can push these limits by using or creating microclimates suited to a particular plant’s needs.
An Early Settler’s Cottage Garden
Early settlers enjoyed ornamentals as much as utilitarian plants. Predictably, these gardens are characterized by sturdy, reliable plants that are adaptable and hardy, able to survive in a variety of habitats, and almost all from the Old World, with the exception of the native Canada lily (Lilium canadense), wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), and the flamboyant scarlet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens).
If you’re just becoming interested in herbs, a settler’s herb garden is a good way to start. Most kitchen herbs are easy to grow and love sun. Group these within easy reach: chives for chopping into salads, southernwood for adding to potpourri or sachets, sage for flavoring, wild bergamot for tea, calendula for decorating cakes, and at least one ‘Old Garden’ rose for rose-petal jelly. Train a hop, honeysuckle, or everlasting pea vine on an old-fashioned quiggly fence (see “Build a Quiggly Fence,” below). A fence can also support tall, single-flowered hollyhock and a variety of settler plants we value primarily for their appearance: bellflowers, feverfew, bright-red Jerusalem cross, soft-pink musk mallow, pearly Florentine iris, pastel clusters of dame’s rocket, and the flower-laden spikes of Madonna lily (Lilium candidum) to perfume the early evening air. Sow dark-blue bachelor’s buttons among these, and add a double-flowered peony or two. Before you know it, you’ll have the proverbial cottage garden.
You can carpet the ground beneath lilacs and mock oranges with plants that appreciate the partial shade and moist ground they provide: Pulmonaria, lilies-of-the-valley, sweet cicely, columbines, daylilies, Canada lilies, and Johnny-jump-ups.
Settler’s Cottage Garden Plants
Perennials (Hardy to Zone 3)
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum), columbines (Aquilegia vulgaris), cowslip (Primula veris), florentine iris (Iris florentina), garden sage (Salvia officinalis), peony (Paeonia officinalis), Jerusalem cross (Lychnis chalcedonica), lemon lily (Hemerocallis lilioasphodelus), lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis), lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis), Madonna lily (Lilium candidum), monkshood (Aconitum napellus), musk mallow (Malva moschata), peach-leaved bellflower (Campanula persicifolia), southernwood (Artemisia abrotanum), tawny daylily (Hemerocallis fulva), wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa); Vines: everlasting pea (Lathyrus latifolius), hop vine (Humulus lupulus), scarlet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens)
Biennials and Short-Lived Perennials
Canterbury bells (Campanula medium), clary sage (Salvia sclarea), dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis), feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium), hollyhock (Alcea rosea)
Bachelor’s button (Centaurea cyanus), calendula (Calendula officinalis), Johnny-jump-up (Viola tricolor)
Shrubs (Hardy to Zone 3)
Lilac (Syringa vulgaris), mock orange (Philadelphus coronarius)
An Old-Fashioned Garden
“Old-fashioned” 19th-century gardens feature everything from tropical annuals, such as morning glories and nasturtiums, to Oriental perennials, to hybridized forms of familiar European favorites. The period offers great scope through these early hybrids: lush-flowered bourbon and hybrid perpetual roses, which bloom almost all summer, and large-flowered ‘Jackmanii’ clematis among them. Another gem of the “old-fashioned” garden is the open-pollinated petunia, a tropical perennial with sweet-scented pure-white or velvet-purple flowers.
Clothe a rustic arbor in morning glories, moonflowers, sweet peas, and scarlet runner bean vines, and accent it with a colorful annual border of cosmos, double-flowered Impatiens, Nicotiana, corn poppies, petunias, and marigolds. If you have limited space, several of these can be planted in containers. The heirloom nasturtium ‘Empress of India,’ for instance, is gorgeous in a hanging basket, with cascading orange-red spurred flowers. Signet marigolds (Tagetes tenuifolia) will fit into the landscape almost anywhere, and they’ll produce mounds of orange and yellow flowers until frost.
Hostas, introduced from the Far East before the end of the 19th century, are perfect in filtered shade with moist, cool soil. Group them for contrast of foliage — broad and glossy, undulating, narrow or variegated — and intersperse bleeding heart for color. Most hostas sport attractive, sometimes fragrant, flowers. In sunnier areas, plant spectacular wild goldband lilies and Japanese lilies among shrubbery, especially rhododendrons, which also enjoy heavily mulched, rich, humusy soil.
Plant hybrid roses on a sunny bank, and edge them generously with fuzzy mats of lamb’s ears interplanted with sweet alyssum for a border that will take care of itself all season. ‘Jackmanii’ clematis is a hardy perennial vine that puts on a good show all summer, or you could set sweet autumn clematis to cover the side of a shed. While ‘Jackmanii’ clematis’s flowers are scentless, sweet autumn clematis’s small, white blossoms release an intense, delightful fragrance.
Old-Fashioned Garden Plants
Perennials (Hardy to Zone 3 or 4, except where noted)
Bleeding heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis), moonflower (Ipomoea alba, Zone 10), nicotiana (Nicotiana alata, Zone 10), petunia (Petunia x. hybrida, Zone 10); Daffodils: ‘Angel’s Tears’ (Narcissus triandrus albus), ‘Hoop Petticoat’ (N. bulbocodium, Zone 6), ‘Pheasant’s Eye’ (N. poeticus var. recurvus); Hostas: Hosta ventricosa, H. fortunei var. hyacinthina, H. plantaginea, ‘August’ (H. sieboldiana); Lilies: goldband lily (Lilium auratum), Japanese lily (L. speciosum)
Impatiens balsamina, cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus), marigolds (Tagetes patula and T. tenuifolia), nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus), scarlet runner bean and white runner bean (Phaseolus coccineus and P. coccineus v. alba), corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas), sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus), sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima)
Bourbon roses: ‘Louise Odier’ (Zone 6), ‘Mme. Isaac Pereire’ (Zone 6); Hybrid perpetual roses: ‘Baronne Prévost’ (Zone 5), ‘Frau Karl Druschki’ (Zone 5); Rugosa roses: ‘Blanc Double de Coubert’ (Zone 3 or 4), ‘Roseraie de l’Hay’ (Zone 3 or 4)
Vines (Hardy to Zone 3 or 4)
Clematis: anemone clematis (Clematis montana rubens), ‘Elsa Spath’ (C. x jackmanii), ‘Lord Neville,’ ‘Nelly Moser,’ sweet autumn clematis (C. terniflora)
A Garden of Native Flowers
The period from the 18th century through the early- to mid-19th century was characterized by a slow but growing awareness of our native plant treasures. Cultivators such as John Bartram — farmer, plant collector, and curious gardener extraordinaire — established nurseries offering native plants for sale. Bartram introduced mountain laurel and the Catawba rhododendron. In the early 19th century, Bernard McMahon introduced some of the plants discovered during the 1803 Lewis and Clark Expedition, such as golden and clove currants. Thomas Jefferson grew many of these native shrubs at his home in Monticello.
While native plants are quite specific in their growth requirements, all are easy to grow once their conditions have been met. They’re especially recommended for low-maintenance gardens that complement and blend in with their natural surroundings. Most native plants also create an attractive habitat for birds and butterflies.
For a garden in partial shade with moist, humusy soil, choose among several nearly evergreen rhododendrons and deciduous azaleas. Plant Virginia bluebells, scarlet bee balm, and bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia and D. formosa) beneath and around them, with maidenhair ferns for all-season green foliage.
Shrubs that will grow almost anywhere, resisting both drought and damp conditions, include the flowering golden and clove currants (Ribes aureum and R. odoratum, respectively), mountain laurel, and highbush cranberry, which produces creamy-white flower clusters in early summer and bright-red berries and foliage in fall. Plant mountain laurel in full sun for masses of cup-shaped white flowers in late spring or early summer; its handsome glossy leaves remain green all season and will provide a background for such sun-loving plants as American columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), butterfly weed, black-eyed Susan, spotted bee balm (Monarda punctata), and bright orange-red leopard lily (Lilium pardalinum).
A sunny rock garden could include low-growing moss phlox, which carries little blue flowers over drought-resistant, needle-like green foliage, spilling over and between the rocks; rhodora, a diminutive rhododendron with rose-colored flowers and attractive foliage; and crested iris, which becomes a mass of violet and gold just 3 to 4 inches high in spring. All of these could be followed by colorful drummond phlox for a long bloom season.
In damp, sunny areas, plant wild blue flag and European yellow flag. Native elderberry is adaptable to damp as well as dry soil, and its thinly branched form won’t block out the sun. At its feet, encourage a colony of the magnificent Turk’s cap lily (Lilium superbum), which is bright orange and heavily spotted. “A plant of so much beauty,” Thomas Jefferson declared, “will be a valuable addition to our flower gardens.”
American virgin’s bower is a woody, twining vine that likes damp conditions and can be trained over an arbor, where it will produce masses of small white flowers in spring, followed by unusual, fluffy fruits in fall. You can establish a ground cover at its feet with two 18th-century introductions: azure-blue lungwort (Pulmonaria angustifolia) and variegated goutweed (Aegopodium podograria ‘Variegatum’). If you also let old-fashioned bouncing bet (Saponaria officinalis) grow in a wide mat as it likes to do, its pink flowers will perfume the air in the early evening. Forget-me-nots (Myosotis scorpioides) should be added to any garden with moist soil, either in sun or shade. Virginia creeper is a clinging vine that can be trained up the side of a building or grown over an arbor, where its side shoots will trail downward gracefully, becoming dramatic when the foliage turns scarlet in autumn.
American Native Plants
Perennials (Hardy to Zone 3 or 4, except where noted)
American columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), bee balm (Monarda didyma), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), blue flag (Iris versicolor and I. virginica, Zone 7), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), crested iris (Iris cristata), spotted bee balm (Monarda punctata, Zone 6), leopard lily (Lilium pardalinum), lupine (Lupinus polyphyllus), maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum), moss phlox (Phlox subulata), Turk’s cap lily (Lilium superbum, Zone 5), bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia and D. formosa); Vines: American virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana), Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)
Indian blanket (Gaillardia pulchella), drummond phlox (Phlox drummondii), satin flower (Clarkia amoena)
Shrubs (Hardy to Zone 3 or 4, except where noted)
Catawba and rosebay rhododendron (Rhododendron ‘Catawbiense Album’ and R. maximum), clove and golden currants (Ribes odoratum and R. aureum), elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), flame azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum, Zone 5), highbush cranberry (Viburnum trilobum), mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), Oregon holly grape (Mahonia aquifolium, Zone 5), pinkshell and swamp azalea (Rhododendron vaseyi and R. viscosum), redflower currant (Ribes sanguineum, Zone 6)
The Eclectic Garden
This is the place to put it all together — cottage garden herbs, wildflowers, European ornamentals, imports from the Far East, and hybrids, such as ‘New Dawn,’ the 1930 climbing rose that puts forth clusters of blush-pink flowers all summer. The eclectic garden is also the place to explore the diverse world of heirloom gladiolus, daffodils, irises, and lilies, all of which are considered heirlooms if introduced more than 30 years ago. These have endured because of their superior adaptability, their beauty, and an undefinable essence that elevates them to the status of legend. For example, many enthusiasts rhapsodize over ‘Picardy,’ a 1931 gladiolus with soft-pink blooms that has vanished from the marketplace. Some heirloom gardeners feel as strongly about preserving ‘Amigo,’ a 1938 bearded iris with extraordinary pansy coloring and generous form, as others feel about preserving 18th-century ‘Laced Pinks.’ There’s room in the eclectic garden for the simple, unadorned beauty of the wild cowslip (Primula veris) and Jan de Graaf’s 1947 ‘Enchantment’ lily, an introduction that set the standard for hybrid lilies: reliable, free-flowering, and disease-resistant.
In full sun, plant early settlers’ flowers and herbs, such as musk mallow, bellflower, sweet William, Jerusalem cross, dame’s rocket, sweet cicely, sage, and the indispensable Oriental poppy, fortified by mountain bluet to help prop up its sprawling stems. Also add Russell Hybrid lupines in every shade you can get, tall spires of foxglove, and daisy-like golden marguerite, which has contrasting gray-green foliage. Among these, sow tall white Nicotiana and cosmos, dark-blue bachelor’s buttons, and annual poppies and calendula. To this generous all-season border, add bearded irises (all sizes and colors), vintage large-flowered gladiolus (grouped together near the middle of the border, where just their blooms will be exposed) and an heirloom lily or two. The fragrant regal lily, with large white trumpets, is a good substitute for the Madonna lily. Other Oriental and Asiatic lilies will provide heady scent and rich color in an array of flower shapes, sizes, and heights.
Hardy wild gladiolus can be grown with sweet flag, which has fragrant lavender-blue flowers and striped foliage. Plant ‘Little Witch,’ a 1929 cyclamineus daffodil with yellow flared-back petals, and ‘Louisa,’ a lovely hosta with narrow, white-edged leaves and white flowers, in a rock garden. In partial shade, plant the first pink-apricot trumpeted daffodil, ‘Mrs. R.O. Backhouse,’ with Virginia bluebells. Add Siberian iris to naturalize with ancient and native yellow and blue flag in damp areas.
Roses are easily the stars of the eclectic garden, in hedges, arbors, shrubbery, and even containers. Investigate the middle-aged classics, such as ‘Buff Beauty,’ a 1939 hybrid musk shrub with a strong fragrance and an equable disposition, which produces gold-cream flowers all summer long, even in drought conditions. The ever-blooming polyantha ‘The Fairy’ makes a low hedge or container plant with masses of light-pink double blossoms that last all summer. For a bushy hedge, grow ‘Betty Prior,’ which has bright, single-petaled pink blooms all summer and is spectacular when massed. Tie ‘Blaze’ to a post for full vertical bloom, or train it along a fence or over an arbor, where it will provide a fitting entrance to your eclectic garden.
Eclectic Garden Plants
Perennials (Hardy to Zone 3 or 4, except where noted)
Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), golden marguerite (Anthemis tinctoria), Hosta ‘Louisa,’ sweet iris (Iris pallida), regal lily (Lilium regale), Russell Hybrid lupines (Lupinus x hybrida), mountain bluet (Centaurea montana), Oriental poppy (Papaver orientale); Daffodils: ‘Beersheba,’ ‘Little Witch,’ ‘Mrs. R.O. Backhouse,’ ‘Silver Chimes’ (Zone 6), ‘Thalia;’ Gladiolus: Gladiolus x colvillei albus (Zone 7), G. communis subsp. byzantinus (Zone 7); Hybrid gladiolus: ‘Dawn Glow,’ ‘Glacier,’ ‘Peter Pears;’ Bearded iris: ‘Amigo,’ ‘Black Forest,’ ‘Blue Denim,’ ‘Honorabile,’ ‘Wabash;’ Siberian iris (Iris sibirica): ‘Eric the Red,’ ‘Helen Astor,’ ‘White Swirl’
Roses (Hardy to Zone 5, except where noted)
‘Betty Prior,’ ‘Blaze,’ ‘Buff Beauty,’ ‘Crimson Glory,’ ‘Paul’s Scarlet Climber,’ ‘The Fairy’ (Zone 4), ‘Therese Bugnet’ (Zone 4)
Build a Quiggly Fence
Build a three-rail fence by driving treated 6-foot posts 18 inches into the ground at 6-foot intervals along the length of the desired fence. Nail rails of treated wood or peeled hardwood saplings across the posts at 18 inches, 36 inches, and 54 inches.
Weave young, unpeeled, fresh-cut saplings, no larger than 2 inches in diameter, vertically through the rails. Space the saplings an inch or two apart, and alternate weaving them behind the front rail, in front of the middle, and behind the bottom, then the opposite. Trim the fence to a uniform height, or leave the saplings intact for a more natural effect.
Some of the plants mentioned in this article, including Virginia creeper, can have invasive tendencies depending on your growing Zone and the plant’s growth habits. Always research new plants before adding them to your garden.