During the last few years, garden antiques-urns, statues, even paving material-have been hotter than the center of the compost heap. People pay extra for authentic rust, and unscrupulous individuals have even ransacked cemeteries for the weatherbeaten cherubs and urns that collectors crave.
Fortunately, most people can’t afford to pay amounts in the four or five figures for a century old lead urn-even if it did come from an English country estate. This does not mean that they cannot have garden antiques. Living antiques in the form of heirloom bulbs and seeds are getting easier to come by every day. Some are a bit more expensive than their johnny-come-lately cousins, others may actually be cheaper.
Right now it is too late to indulge in heirloom seeds, although it is a good time to get your name on the catalog vendors’ mailing lists. Now is the time to think about the daffodils, tulips, daylilies and peonies that you want for next spring. There are plenty of old varieties out there waiting for you.
If you are looking for something really old, try the little ‘Guinea Hen Flower’ or ‘Checkered Lily’ (Fritillaria meleagris), a small plant with pendant, tulip-like blossoms that seem to be marked with a checkerboard pattern. It is a true heirloom, documented since at least 1572. The ‘Double Campernelle’ daffodil, yellow and fragrant with rose-like blossoms, also harkens back to the era of Queen Elizabeth I of England. Compliment it with an unusual short daffodil, ‘Hoop Petticoats’ (Narcissus bulbocodium bulbocodium). As the name suggests, this cultivar has cups that look like old-fashioned hoopskirts, and thin, almost insignificant petals. It has been on the scene since at least 1629, nine years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.
If you take precautions against pernicious varmints that eat bulbs (plant deep, surround with fine gravel or use bulb “cages”), then you can invest comfortably in the ‘Zomerschoon’ tulip, the only surviving example of the kind of “broken” tulip that was worth a fortune during the 1600’s. ‘Zomerschoon’ is cream with red flames and feathers, and dates back to 1620.
By the 1700’s “Tulip Mania” had already come and gone in Europe, and tulips were a “must have” in home gardens. The “Duc Van Thol” tulips go back to that time. They are short, 5-8-inches tall, and come in bright shades of rose, scarlet, violet and yellow. Intersperse brilliantly colored clumps of them with clumps of the white daffodil ‘Avalanche’, which is also sometimes known as ‘Seventeen Sisters’. This daffodil, in cultivation since at least 1700 or before, has 15-20 fragrant flowers per stem. For early interest, every garden should also have a large number of double snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis ‘Flore Pleno’). These are more showy than the single snowdrops, but just as graceful. They have been delighting gardeners since at least 1731.
A grand Victorian garden, especially a late Victorian garden, had to have peonies. You can still purchase a great Victorian cultivar,’Festiva Maxima’, almost anywhere. This big white peony with crimson streaks has been popular ever since its introduction in 1851. The one in my home garden increases happily every year, and I expect that if subsequent generations of gardeners cooperate, it could go on for another century or so. Pair ‘Festiva Maxima’ with the violet-pink ‘Duchess de Orleans’ that dates back to 1846.
When I lived in a house that was built in 1926, I had fun filling the garden with early twentieth century cultivars. Among my favorite daffodils from the “Roaring Twenties” is ‘Erlicheer’, featuring a cluster of fragrant yellow and white blossoms on each stem. One of the best daylilies ever, ‘Hyperion’, dates from 1926. It is tall, with wonderfully fragrant yellow blooms. New hybrids come and go, but I don’t think that they make daylilies like ‘Hyperion’ much any more. You can also still buy peonies that were introduced during the ’20’s. ‘Lady Kate’ is a pink, straight-stemmed variety from 1924, and ‘Nippon Beauty’ is a red single type with lovely yellow petaloids in the center.
Once you have caught “heirloom fever”, the disease will only grow worse. Feed the fever by seeking out vendors that specialize in heirlooms, and identify them as such in their catalogs. Some of the best merchants are Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, 4763 Heath Trail, Gloucester, VA 23061, tel. 804/693-3966, or online at brentandbeckysbulbs.com; Old House Gardens (send $2.00 for catalog), 536 W. Third Street, Ann Arbor, MI 48103, tel. 734/995-1486 or online at oldhousegardens.com; and Gilbert H. Wild and Son, Sarcoxie, MO 64862, tel. 888/449-4537.
There is still time to collect and plant some garden antiques for next spring. They are among the best investments. After all, heirloom plants are probably the only antiques that don’t have to be insured or dusted and look better when their feet are covered with dirt.