While many of us are familiar with the movement to grow more heritage food plants to preserve genetic diversity and discover better taste, fewer people seem to be interested in preserving heritage flowers. Many heritage flowering plants are annuals and our gardening tastes have shifted to perennial plants. What annual plants we do grow are usually restricted to some flashy new varieties of familiar bedding plants like impatiens, petunias and marigolds.
There are two types of heritage flowers, heritage species that are seldom grown any more and old varieties or cultivars of plants that are now represented in our gardens by newer, “better” cultivars. It’s true that in some cases newer hybrids are easier to grow and more disease resistant, but just like heritage tomatoes we miss some of the benefits that older varieties of plants can provide if we stop growing them.
This year why not set aside some space to grow some charming old fashioned flowers? Many make good cutting flowers, some make good dried arrangements and many are more attractive and more rewarding to bees and other pollinators than their newer counterparts. This article is going to list some older cultivars, (varieties) that you can still find on line or in catalogs. If you are of a certain age you may remember some of these garden flowers and get a chuckle knowing they are now considered “old” varieties.
Sweet Peas (annual) used to be the rage and gardeners grew hundreds of cultivars. They are seldom grown today. They can be planted in early spring, when you plant regular garden peas, right in the garden. The scent and colors of old varieties are wonderful. Look for “Spencer” hybrids, Cupani and Old Spice mix.
Bachelors Button’s have gray-green leaves and small tufts of pretty flowers, mostly in blue shades but with occasional pink, red and white colors. They are annuals but re-seed freely. A “Boy” series sold back in the day actually had true breeding colors, such as Blue Boy, Black Boy, (now politically incorrect) and Red Boy. Polka Dots is another cultivar name.
Hollyhocks (perennial or bi-annual) are still grown by some gardeners. Try these older cultivars Chaters Double, Watchman, and Indian Spring. China Asters are annual asters that are great for cutting, bloom earlier and longer than perennial asters and have large flowers. An old variety, Giants of California, is still good. Heliotrope is still offered in garden centers. Many of the new varieties are not scented. But if you want good old fashioned blue heliotrope with that amazing scent, look for the variety Marine.
Four O’ Clocks (annual) open their tubular flowers in the late afternoon and the flowers are often multicolored. Marvel of Peru is the old cultivar name. The modern nicotiana varieties ( annual, or tender perennials) do have their place but try one of these old favorites for something different; Only the Lonely ( N.sylvestris), Louisiana Pirogue, Langsdorf, Aztec Sweet, or Delaware Indian Sacred.
Morning Glories are great for covering fences and trellises. New varieties are on the market now but these old ones are still beautiful. Try these varieties; Heavenly Blue, Grandpa Ott, Flying Saucers and Scarlett O’Hara. While Morning Glories are annuals they often reseed- and cross breed and you’ll have them forever.
Calendula or pot marigolds are edible flowers that bloom best in early spring and then again in the fall. They were used to color butter and the petals are fed to chickens to produce deep yellow yolks. Pacific Beauty and Radio are good older varieties. Nasturtiums are another edible flower that all old gardens used to contain. Tall Trailing was a sprawling mixture often grown in porch boxes. Alaska has white variegated leaves. Fiesta is another old variety. Both calendula and nasturtiums are annuals.
Marigolds have many older cultivars. Cracker Jack marigolds are tall, with large, flamboyant flowers. An old smaller variety of marigold is the Signet series. Cosmos has ferny leaves and daisy-like flowers. The old varieties Bright Lights, Seashell and Sensation make colorful tall bedding plants and are good for cutting.
Zinnias (annual) used to be very popular. Popular old cultivars are State Fair, Cut and Come Again, and California Giants. All are still available. Snapdragons were an old favorite for bedding in mass. Some are actually short lived perennials. The Rocket hybrids were all the rage.
Other nostalgic flowering plants
If you like to dry flowers then try strawflowers, statice, Bells of Ireland, Love Lies Bleeding, Kiss me Over the Garden Gate, and other amaranths, Canterbury Bells, lunaria, and Chinese Lanterns. Some are annuals, some are perennials.
These plants don’t have many variety names but are interesting older flowering plants perfect for cottage gardens and a bit of nostalgia. Maybe you remember some of them; Stocks, pyrethrum ( Painted Daisies), Candytuft, Scarlet Flax, Feverfew, Digitalis, Sweet William, Ipomopsis ( Standing Cypress), Bush Balsam ( Touch Me Not) Tassel Flower (Emilia javanica), Flanders or Corn poppy, larkspur, portulaca ( Moss Rose).
Heritage flowers can be blended into your current flower borders or combined into special cottage gardens. They are excellent additions to the gardens of older homes built from the 40’s to the 60’s when many of these plants would have been popular. Many of the plants listed in this article will need to be started from seed as they are not varieties you’ll find in the local garden center. Many will re-seed themselves once established in the garden.
As gardeners we should make an effort to see that older varieties of flowers are preserved just as we try to preserve older varieties of food plants. If an interest in older cultivars of flowers is revised then we will again see them offered in garden centers just as we are seeing older varieties of tomatoes and peppers being sold everywhere.
Here are some additional articles you may want to read.