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

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

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; Old House Gardens
(send $2.00 for catalog), 536 W. Third Street, Ann Arbor, MI 48103, tel.
734/995-1486 or online at; 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.

Yellow Rose

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