Last Word: Farewell, Readers and Friends!

Four years ago this summer I retired and passed the torch to my beloved employees Vanessa, Rita, and Justin.

I continued writing the OHG newsletter and blog, though, to help them out and because I enjoyed it so much. But now that I have three young grandsons to play with plus a garden that calls to me every morning when I should be writing, I’ve decided that this post will be my last.

We launched the newsletter in September 2002 as a way to spread our love of historic bulbs and gardens and to help our readers learn how to grow bulbs better. In the 242 issues we’ve published since then, most of which we’ve posted here at our blog, I hope we’ve also made you laugh, given you something to think about now and then, and helped you feel more a part of that vast fellowship of gardeners that spans the globe and transcends time.

What’s next? Vanessa, Rita, and Justin are trying to figure that out right now, so stay tuned and keep your fingers crossed.

As for me, thanks for reading! I couldn’t have done it without you, and I’ll truly miss you.


From Maud to Lady Darwin –
The Woman Behind the Classic Iris

To enjoy the lovely little iris known as ‘Mrs. George Darwin’ you don’t have to know anything about the woman it’s named for – but you might like it even more if you do.

“Martha ‘Maud’ du Puy was born in Pennsylvania on July 27, 1861,” writes Mike Unser in the Historic Iris Preservation Society’s fall 2018 Roots. “Although the family was not particularly wealthy, her father was descended from French aristocracy and became a well-known doctor….

“One of five daughters, Maud was said to be a bright child and grew to be a local socialite, well regarded by friends and family. She was always receptive to new experiences, and in 1883 she eagerly accepted an invitation from her Aunt Cara to visit her in England.”

There she met the astronomer George Darwin. “George was one of several sons of the famous English naturalist Charles Darwin and … a professor at Cambridge. Though he was 15 years her senior, George was smitten by the witty and charming young American woman right from the start. Maud, however, was not so easily swayed by this small, nervous gentleman and initially rebuffed any ideas that she should consider him as a suitor.

“It was in the course of traveling England and Europe with her beloved aunt that she came to know George better, as he often joined them in various locales to show them around…. He was smart and witty, kind and generous, and as time went on she came to see all his good qualities. He was obviously very taken with her, so [even though she’d said no to other suitors] when he proposed, she accepted, much to the delight of her Aunt Cara.

“She and George went on to raise four children … and they lived a happy life together. She later became Lady Darwin when her husband was knighted in 1905.

“It was during the years at Cambridge that she made the acquaintance of Sir Michael Foster and became the namesake of one of his beautiful irises, along with her sister-in-law, Ida, the wife of George’s brother Horace [see ‘Mrs. Horace Darwin’]. Maud lived a long life, passing away at the age of 85 in February 1947.”

‘Mrs. George Darwin’ is one of a dozen heirloom iris we’re offering this spring, but seven are already sold out (sorry!) so if you want any of them, please order soon!


“My Favorite Lily” –
A Tough, Rose-Tinted Beauty to Plant this Spring

Chuck Robinson’s favorite lily, Lilium speciosum var. rubrum, has “survived wonderfully … for more than ten years” in his zone-6 garden in Kansas City, Missouri.

But that’s just one reason he loves it, he writes in the June 2020 Quarterly Bulletin of the North American Lily Society. Another is that “it blooms late, in mid- to late July and even into August, extending the lily bloom season for us and providing a much-appreciated spot of color during the heat of summer.”

Also L. speciosum is known for its virus resistance,” Chuck adds, “as noted by lily breeder Judith Freeman in discussing her Hall of Fame lily ‘Anastasia’ which has some L. speciosum ancestry.” It’s also thought to be in the DNA of Leslie Woodriff’s ‘Stargazer’. It certainly is an ancestor of Woodriff’s famous ‘Black Beauty’” (which we ship in the fall.)

The most famous L. speciosum cultivar is ‘Uchida’ [which we ship in April]. It is named for Hirotaka Uchida of Japan, who grew and exported bulbs before World War II…. Uchida particularly liked L. speciosum rubrum and selected and cultivated the best forms.

“With Japan’s attack on China and the start of World War II, flower fields in Japan were discouraged in favor of food production. Uchida and his son safeguarded a small cache of L. speciosum clones, however. After the war, when lily bulb exports resumed, the Uchidas exported 60 bulbs to the West.”

The tough, rose-tinted beauty the Uchidas had nurtured for so long “won a gold medal in 1963 at the Internationalle Gartenbau Ausstellung garden exposition in Hamburg, Germany” and before long had become one of the world’s most popular lilies – one that you could enjoy in your garden this summer by ordering now!


219 Dahlias from 1929: “Are They All Lost?”

We aren’t the only ones sending heirloom treasures through the mail. Sometimes our customers send them to us.

“While trolling the aisles of a local antique store,” Janine Seitz wrote us early this year, “I found this nifty old seed catalog. The cover caught my eye as I had recently sent you my first dahlia order.”

Thanks, Janine! The cover caught our eyes, too. From the late 1800s well into the 20th century, the John Lewis Childs Seed Company was one of the largest mail-order nurseries in the country, and its catalogs were richly illustrated.

Janine enclosed copies of the catalog’s ten pages of dahlias, too. “So many!” she wrote. “Are they all lost? I felt a little melancholy while reading these pages, thinking that they’ve vanished from the face of the earth. I’m fervently hoping there are old dahlias still thriving in some forgotten corner, but it made me doubly-glad to know Old House Gardens is doing what it can to save the ones we do have.”

Although 99% of the 219 dahlias offered in the catalog are now extinct – including ‘Daddy Butler’, ‘Kaleidoscope’, ‘Ivoire’, ‘Pink Madonna’, ‘Rookwood’, ‘John Wanamaker’, ‘Amun Ra’, ‘Le Grande Manitou’, ‘Geisha’, ‘Millionaire’, ‘Colossal Peace’, ‘Sequoia Gigantea’, and ‘Miss Minnie Vosburg’ – the good news is that two survive, and we offer them both.

‘Jersey’s Beauty’ – “Next to ‘Sunkiss’ [the dahlia on the cover], the most popular and biggest selling dahlia in America. This pure rose-pink beauty is a wonderful thing. Huge size (8 to 10 inches). Each $1.00, postpaid.”

‘Mrs. I. De ver Warner’ – “A deep mauve-pink. One of the very best dahlias grown. Flowers very large, averaging 8 to 10 inches across. Excellent for cut flowers, Each $.75, postpaid.”

These two rare survivors also top the list of the catalog’s 16 best-sellers of 1928 (after ‘Sunkiss’), with ‘Jersey’s Beauty’ in the number-one spot having “outsold all others listed below by a trifle better than three to one.”

Although today nobody will ever be able to grow 217 of the dahlias in Janine’s catalog, there are still two you can – by ordering them now for April delivery – and we hope you will. (Oops! ‘Jersey’s Beauty’ just sold out, but if you click the “alert” link in its description, we’ll email you as soon as we get more.)


Pandemic Comfort:
Antique Nursery Catalog Jigsaw Puzzles

Feeling stressed? Bored? Sick of the pandemic? Maybe a jigsaw puzzle would help.

Sales of these comforting, old-school pleasures have been booming ever since the pandemic began, and a while ago my sister and sister-in-law sent me one that seems custom-made for our newsletter readers.

As you can see, it’s a collage of antique nursery catalog covers, many of which feature bulb flowers. In fact, you may recognize a couple we’ve used for our own catalogs!

Puzzle-maker Eurographics also offers three other similar puzzles featuring roses, vegetables, and fruits. All are based on images from the Smithsonian Institution’s collection of some 10,000 seed and nursery catalogs, they’re eco-friendly, and – according to my puzzle-loving sister-in-law – they’re top-quality puzzles.

You can order them from the Eurographics store at Amazon or find them elsewhere online for a wide range of prices. They seem to be in short supply, though, so if you want one, don’t delay!


The Lost History of Jute Twine

Have you ever wondered how jute twine came into our gardens – and when?

According to George Drower in A History of Gardening in 50 Objects, that humble garden essential was unknown in the West until 1828 when Englishman George Acland established the world’s first jute-twine factory in Scotland.

“Acland realized the commercial potential of jute when he saw it being used by Oriya gardeners employed in the botanical gardens of the East India Company. They called it jhut, a term from which the modern name seems to have derived,” Drower writes.

“At this time, jute was still virtually unknown outside India where its fibers had been used for centuries to make twine, cord, and coarse fibers. It grew best in a hot, moist atmosphere in areas with considerable rainfall, and most was produced in India’s Bengal province.” There jute stalks were “gathered into bundles and immersed in stagnant pools or streams to undergo the process known as retting, which loosened the fibers and separated them from the stem. To speed up this process, the operator would stand in the pool and beat and shake the stems,” after which the fibers were dried in the sun.

Although jute wasn’t as strong as hemp, flax, and other fibers used for making twine, it was “hard-wearing and tear-resistant, and had the advantage of being much cheaper” – making it, Acland realized, “the ideal material for garden jobs.”

“Acland went to Scotland to raise capital ... and to find a location for a factory. He opted for Dundee, which at that period was an important textile center based around flax and hemp.” Although he founded his business in 1828, he struggled for years to adapt existing machinery to process the jute which is “far more woody and brittle than either flax or hemp.”

“Manufacturing began in 1832, yet business was initially slow.” Then in 1838 “the Dutch government placed a large order for jute bags to [transport] coffee beans from West Africa” and before long Acland’s new industry was booming.

“While Dundee was developing into an international center for the manufacture of garden twine, it was suggested to Acland that he should send the machinery to Bengal because the jute could be more economically spun there.” Yes, it certainly could be, but opening the first mill in Calcutta in 1854 proved to be “the first step in Dundee’s decline and eventual collapse as a jute products center” – which is why today my big ball of jute twine, and probably yours, is labeled “Made in India.”


Mind-Boggling: A History of Plants in 50 Fossils

13-million-year-old maple leaf; the varied browns may reflect autumn coloring

My wife says I have too many books, and she’s probably right, so I tried to resist buying this one. For weeks. But I’ve been gardening since I was seven, and one of my favorite things to do in grade school was sitting with my friends on the side of an abandoned gravel road searching for what we first called “Indian beads” but soon learned were actually prehistoric crinoid stems. So eventually I bought the book, and I’m glad I did.

bark of a scale tree from about 300 million years ago; a grass-like leaf grew from the tip of each scale

If you think fossils are just dusty and dull, be prepared to have your eyes opened. The fossils in this book, each pictured in a dramatic full-page photo, are subtle, but they’re often strikingly beautiful, too. Some have a metallic gleam (such as the tiny fruits and seeds of tropical plants unearthed near London), ghostly color (soft purple, rose, and ochre on a 380-million-year-old tree trunk from the Catskills), or graphic patterns that reminded me of both Victorian wallpaper and modern art.

fern leaf from 170 million years ago; at times ferns have been the most abundant plants on earth

The text is eye-opening, too. Maybe you know that roughly 1.2 billion years ago the first plants emerged by incorporating photosynthesizing bacteria into their own cells; or that the earliest fossil flowers, so tiny that they can only be seen with a microscope, bloomed more than 100 million years ago; or that a helicopter pilot surveying the treeless Canadian Arctic in 1985 happened upon the perfectly preserved stumps of a 45-million-year-old forest – but I didn’t. The book is full of a dizzying array of information like that which left me muttering “Oh wow!’ and “Amazing!” over and over again.

Although it’s written for a general audience, it’s not an easy read. The print is small, the paragraphs long, and despite the author’s skill with words I really had to concentrate to make my way through the many unfamiliar scientific terms and concepts. It was worth it, though, and if I haven’t already scared you off I hope you’ll give it a try. Thanks to A History of Plants in 50 Fossils I now have a much greater appreciation not only of plants but of life on earth.


Will Daffodil Shows Welcome Nameless Historics?

Even if it lost its name, ‘Princeps’ would still be a treasure.

In 1989 when a few friends and I proposed adding a section for historic daffodils to all ADS shows, people said it would never happen. But it did, and since then historic daffodils have become a very popular part of those shows.

Now the chair of the ADS Historic Daffodils Committee has suggested expanding the section to include nameless daffodils – the kind that grow by the millions in backyards, old cemeteries, and abandoned sites all across the country

Writing in the June 2020 Daffodil Journal, Ian Tyler explains that recently at a show he was asked to identify three nameless historics. One he could, one matched a labeled flower in the show, but the third remained unknown.

“My mind started looking for an answer to this situation as fewer and fewer people now remember these old flowers,” he writes. “We need to expand the exposure of historic flowers to a greater audience, as the more people see them the better the chance will be of jogging a fading, faded memory!

“My idea is to allow un-named Historics to be entered into an Unknown Historic class ..., thus allowing a larger public/audience to see them and more exhibitors to show them.

“Judges assigned to Historics would be expected to give special attention to the Unknown class but would invite all judges and all viewers with experience to feel free to comment. The Unknown class would not be about winning ribbons but about getting information on the blooms…. Naming, of course, would not always be possible, but at least the flowers would be seen….

“To my mind this would be a win-win situation for Historic daffodils. Currently, if no one can identify them, these beautiful flowers [can’t be exhibited]. They need to be seen by as many people as possible, not hidden in buckets in the back room never to be seen again at a show! Something to think about – or better still, take some action!”

As you might expect, we totally agree. Let's make it happen, Ian!


400 Years of Enjoying Daffodils at

from The Ladies Flower Garden of Ornamental Bulbous Plants by Mrs. Loudon, 1841

The online library of the American Daffodil Society just keeps getting bigger and better.

“If you haven’t checked out,” our friend Mary Lou Gripshover writes in the September 2020 issue of Daffodil Journal, “give it a look.” In it you’ll find every issue of the Journal from 1964-2014, ADS newsletters dating back to 1954, and a whole lot more.

“Interested in daffodil history?” she asks. “Then you might enjoy reading through writings of Peter Barr or W. Baylor Hartland from the 1880s. Or something a bit more recent? How about looking into the American Daffodil Yearbooks published from 1935-1938 by the American Horticultural Society? E-books are a recent addition, but check out Yellow Fever: A Prospect of the History and Culture of Daffodils by Dr. David Willis. In these days of self-isolation, this book should keep you happily occupied for some time.”

In the site’s navigation bar you’ll find tabs for Catalogs (from the late 1800s right up to this fall), Historic Publications (from the 1636 edition of Gerard’s Herbal to our OHG daffodil newsletter archives!), Articles and Notes, Diseases and Pests, Science, People, and more. In fact, there’s so much there that it can be a bit overwhelming, but if you think of it as a real library and start by opening just one title that sounds interesting, I bet you’ll be glad you did.


David Austin: Finding the Future in Antique Roses

'Graham Thomas' rose

In its December 2019 issue, The English Garden explored how one man’s love of heirlooms grew into a worldwide phenomenon.

“The first David Austin English roses were launched [in 1969] – and the rose-growing world would never be the same. Fifty years later, after the launch of more than 240 cultivars, David Austin and his English roses are household names . . . .

“Yet in the 1960s, Austin was regarded as something of a maverick. The rose industry then was in thrall to hybrid teas and floribundas – they sold in their millions. The established breeders and growers of the time couldn’t understand why Austin was spending his time producing roses that looked ‘old-fashioned’, but he had hit on something. . . .

“Austin had always loved plants, but it was when his sister gave him a copy of E.A. Bunyard’s Old Garden Roses for his 21st birthday that he fell in love with roses and started to grow them – as a hobby at first. Mainly these were old roses . . . , many with wonderful scent and all with a superb, once-yearly flowering display.

“Growing a few hybrid teas alongside them . . . he recognized they had attributes the old roses lacked. . . . That was when he realized there could be a market for an entirely new rose: one that combined the beauty and fragrance [and toughness!] of the old roses with the more varied colors and repeat flowering of modern varieties. It was the start of a lifelong passion and a breeding project that would go on to transform the rose industry.”

Austin introduced his first rose in 1961, and “in those early years, most nurseries refused to stock his roses. By 1969 when he coined the term English roses . . . he had to supply them to the public himself, packaging the plants on his kitchen table. Competition with other rose nurseries was tough, and it took time for his new style of roses to catch on.

“The breakthrough came in 1983, when Austin exhibited the three roses he was launching that year at the Chelsea Flower Show.” As the nursery’s Michael Marriott explains, “In particular ‘Graham Thomas’ [pictured here] struck a chord with the public. . . . Before that Austin had been a tiny nurseryman in the depths of Shropshire . . . but when ‘Graham Thomas’ was introduced people read about it and came flocking. The other rose growers couldn’t believe it really, this upstart grower who had suddenly got a whole load of attention for this ‘funny’ old rose they thought no one would want.”

the magnificent Lion Garden at the David Austin Roses nursery

‘Graham Thomas’ is still an enormously popular rose, Austin’s 1986 ‘Gertrude Jekyll’ has twice been voted the UK’s favorite rose, and right up until his death in 2018 at the age of 92, Austin continued to create “new old-fashioned” roses that are beautiful, fragrant, and tough. His incredible success also inspired other breeders to re-imagine what roses could be, leading to the multitude of easy-care “landscape roses” that brighten so many places today where roses would have once been unthinkable.

Not bad for one guy who saw something worth saving in flowers that most other people thought were just old.


Lose Yourself in
Dazzling Iowa Gardens of the Past

This is a beautiful book, and fascinating – even if you don’t live in Iowa.

Hundreds of antique images fill its 320 pages, including engravings, photos, postcards, garden plans, pages from books and magazines, and catalog art. Most are good-sized, too – 64 fill an entire page or more – which means you can see a lot of details that would otherwise be lost. Immersing yourself in them is an enormous pleasure, and author Beth Cody deserves our thanks for the hundreds of hours she spent tracking them down so we could enjoy them by just turning the page. (See more at

Although many of the gardens she documents are lavish affairs, Cody has also made a point of including the gardens of people who weren’t rich. “Often,” she writes, “it was photos of proud gardeners in their modest flower gardens in small towns and on turn-of-the-century farms that were the most touching to me,” and it’s those images – which are so rarely published – that I often found most interesting.

Iowa Gardens also has plenty of text. For some readers – especially those with an interest in Iowa history – that’s a good thing, but for others it may be a bit daunting. Cody says her main goal was “simply to rescue earlier gardens from obscurity,” and she’s certainly done that well. But I would have preferred fewer details about individual gardens and more about what they show of how Iowa gardens in general – in their layout, fencing, ornament, plants, purpose, and so on – have changed.

Front yard with cannas protected by a chicken-wire fence
at a cattle ranch near Iowa City in 1910.

That’s not the book Cody set out to write, though, and it’s a minor quibble in any case. In her preface she says that “Iowa is always completely absent from landscape history books,” as if “Iowans have no history of gardening for beauty.” With this dazzling book Cody has set the record straight and enriched our understanding of American garden history. Thank you, Beth, and bravo!


Gorgeous Reading:
Everything for the Garden

This is a weird book – but I like it! And you might, too, especially if you enjoy the antique illustrations in our print catalogs.

That’s because Everything for the Garden is essentially a picture book for adults who like gardens and history. Although it includes five essays by noted scholars, none is longer than three pages, and together with the preface, index, and so on, only 27 of its 145 pages are filled with text. The rest are packed with a dizzying abundance of glorious, full-color, antique images drawn from books, magazines, catalogs, and other ephemera in the collections of Historic New England.

The book’s title was once the tagline on the catalogs of mail-order nurseryman Peter Henderson, so it’s only fitting that the book’s longest chapter is devoted to catalogs. In it you’ll find sumptuous images of flowers, fruit, and vegetables (one shows a huge potato being hauled home from “the Insect Fair” on a wagon drawn by ladybugs), as well as hand tools, lawn mowers, hoses (America’s first hose-making machine, I learned, came from England in 1865), and garden furniture. Substantial captions provide context throughout the book, including one at the end of this chapter that notes that heirloom varieties “now have great appeal.”

The book’s four other chapters cover garden books and magazines; garden structures and furnishings such as pergolas, fountains, birdhouses, and flower pots; portraits of older gardens, including five that survive today under the care of Historic New England; and “Social Revolution and the Garden Club.” In all of them the illustrations are gorgeous, diverse, and fascinating.

Although it’s not a traditional “beach read,” Everything for the Garden does offer a summery, entertaining escape into another world – even if you don’t read a single word of it.


New Stamps Feature
(Mostly Historic) American Gardens

I collected stamps all through grade school, and I still think they’re cool. Of course that means I’m a nerd, but I’m pretty sure that even gardeners who aren’t nerds will like the new American Gardens stamps.

The set of 20 forever stamps features ten magnificent gardens from across the country, most of which have a long history.

Eight are former estates that are now public gardens – Maclay Gardens (Florida), Biltmore, Dumbarton Oaks, The Huntington, Stan Hywet (Ohio), and Winterthur. The others are notable botanic gardens – the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (founded in 1910), Chicago Botanic Garden, Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, and Norfolk Botanical Garden.

You can see the stamps here (and learn more about the gardens) or order them here.


Passion for Peonies: Wide-Ranging and Fascinating

I’m a huge fan of this brand-new book – and not just because I wrote a chapter for it.

Although peonies are relatively simple flowers, easy to like and grow, Passion for Peonies offers readers a complex portrait of them that includes past and present, art and science, Asia, the Midwest, hybridizers, fragrance, conservation efforts, and more. A rich array of historic and modern illustrations adds to its considerable appeal.

At the heart of the book is the Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden of the University of Michigan which is both the country’s largest collection of historic peonies and a beloved local institution. A glorious two-page shot of the Garden in full bloom, overflowing with visitors, opens the book, and a short history of its nearly 100 years follows.

From there the book ranges widely. There are chapters on Midwestern breeders such as the ground-breaking Silvia Saunders, and Midwestern peony gardens old and new such as the vast, butterfly-shaped garden of Henry Ford’s wife Clara. There are excerpts from several historic works about peonies, a history of peonies in early American gardens by Monticello’s Peggy Cornett, and fascinating chapters about fragrant peonies, modern hybridizing, peonies in Asian art, and even investigations into the genomic diversity of garden peonies.

My chapter explores why historic flowers are worth saving and what’s being done today to preserve them. “Be sure to include information about Old House Gardens’ work,” editor Bob Grese told me, so I did.

Bob and his co-editor David Michener deserve a ton of credit for envisioning this book, writing several of the most interesting chapters, and bringing the whole thing to fruition. I don’t know how you guys did it, but bravo!

You can order the book here, and browse our heirloom peonies here (including newly added ‘Frances Willard’, ‘Philomele’, and – one of my all-time favorites – ‘Madame Ducel’).


Stay Home ... and Read a Good Garden Book

Small comforts are more important than ever these days – FaceTime with a loved one, an hour in the garden, scoring a few rolls of real toilet paper.

Books are high on my list of pandemic essentials, too, offering a welcome short-term escape into other worlds. Here are two recent gems you might enjoy.

Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life – Despite living most of her life in self-imposed lockdown, Emily Dickinson still managed to create extraordinary poetry. In this revised, expanded, and much more richly illustrated version of her 2004 Emily Dickinson’s Gardens, our good friend Marta McDowell traces the poet’s life in tandem with a year in her garden, from the first signs of spring to the hyacinths she loved forcing into winter bloom.

As Anne Marie Van Nest wrote recently in The American Gardener, “Each layer of Dickinson’s life is revealed with connections made to her beloved plants and gardens through her many poems which are reprinted throughout the book.” McDowell also includes “a visitor’s guide to Dickinson’s garden in Amherst as well as copious details about her favorite plants so that readers can recreate their own poet’s garden….

“Filled with a mixture of contemporary and historic photos depicting Dickinson’s garden and plants as well as family photos, the book also includes color botanical illustrations from three female New England artists whose lives overlapped with Emily Dickinson’s – a fitting addition.”

The Liberty Hyde Bailey Gardener’s Companion – Born on a small farm in Michigan, Liberty Hyde Bailey went on to become, as Nancy Rose writes in The American Gardener, a celebrated “botanist, professor, gardener, and one of the leading forces” in horticulture from the late 1800s well into the 20th century.

Bailey also “wrote voluminously” – including more than 70 books – and in this compendium “editors John A. Stempien and John Lindstrom have brought together some of Bailey’s most accessible and inspirational pieces to create an excellent introduction ... to his work.”

It’s “eminently readable, and the topics are timeless,” Rose says – and I definitely agree. Bailey “seems amazingly prescient,” for example, “in his thoughts on ‘modern’ subjects like the need for environmental conservation and acknowledging the mental health benefits of nature and gardening….

“This book will be relished by gardeners, both novice and experienced, who will smile and nod knowingly at Bailey’s descriptions of the smell of newly-turned soil, the miracle of watching a seed sprout, or the feeling of pure contentment” – and comfort – “that a garden can bring.”


Breaking News from the AP:
Grandmother’s Gardens and Heirloom Flowers

“Salzer’s ‘Old-Fashion’ Flower Garden
Seed Mixture,” Salzer catalog, 1910

“Even before the coronavirus crisis sparked renewed interest in vegetable gardens,” writes our good friend Dean Fosdick in his April 28 column for the Associated Press, there was “a movement toward more traditional gardening aesthetics,” including grandmother’s gardens and heirloom flowers.

“Grandmother’s gardens” were the informal, mixed flower gardens that arose in the late 1800s as a reaction against Victorian carpet bedding. Today, says Leonard Perry of the University of Vermont, most people are so busy they “strive for simpler gardens,” but as some gardeners “add more flowers for pollinators, or combine flowers with edible herbs and vegetables, they are beginning to recreate gardens” that hearken back to this old-fashioned garden style.

“4 Grand Peonies,” John Lewis Childs catalog, 1919

Old-fashioned plants were an essential part of grandmother’s gardens, too. As Dean quotes me saying, “Slowly but surely, gardeners turned away from the brightly colored exotic annuals of the Victorian era in favor of flowers that had a long history in gardens, especially perennials such as peonies and iris, self-sowing annuals such as larkspur and poppies, and bulbs that would return and multiply year after year such as daffodils and snowdrops.”

When Dean asked me to explain the appeal of these gardens and plants today, I told him that grandmother’s gardens “emphasized an appreciation for plants as plants, not just blobs of color,” and they offered “a connection with the real world, which I think is an important part of gardening for many of us today. Hardscaping and backyard kitchens do little to connect us with nature, but working with plants does – which is something I learned from my grandmother.”


Now Online: A Paradise of Historic Iris Catalogs

If you enjoy paging through the latest garden catalogs and daydreaming about all the plants you’d like to add to your garden, how about trying it with catalogs that are 50, 100, or even 200 years old?

Thanks to several dedicated members of the Historic Iris Preservation Society, catalogs in the HIPS archives are being scanned and posted online along with others from the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

The oldest catalog in the Hager-DuBose Memorial Library is the 1807 list of the pioneering American botanists John and William Bartram. Although irises are only a small part of its offerings, it includes several North American native iris as well as “exotic” varieties such as Florentina and Germanica. (Although we won’t offer these two again until next year, 11 other fabulous old iris are available now for delivery next month.)

The library’s oldest iris-only catalog is the 1915 catalog of Dean Iris Gardens and it also includes several of the earliest catalogs of Bertrand Farr such as the one from 1910 pictured here. Farr was America’s first important iris breeder and the person who did more than anyone else to popularize iris (and daylilies) in the US.

Scores of other iris catalogs follow, all organized by date, and many are richly illustrated. It’s a garden-daydreamers paradise. Enjoy!


Fragrant and LONG-Loved:
Tuberoses from 1530 to 1893

double ‘Pearl’, 1870

“Everyone who has a garden, or a taste for flowers, knows the tuberose,” wrote C.L. Allen in his 1893 Bulbs and Tuberous-Rooted Plants.

“Its history, however, may not be known,” he continued. “The earliest account we have of [it] is in L’Ecluse’s History of Plants, from which we learn it was brought from the Indies by Father Theophilus Minuti, a Christian missionary, about the year 1530….”

“In Parkinson’s quaint old book, The Garden of Pleasant Flowers, published in 1629, we find the following description of it ...: ‘Hyacinthus Indicus major tuberosa radice, the greater Indian knobbed hyacinth.... The tops of the stalks are garnished with many fair, large, white flowers ... composed of six leaves [petals] lying spread open as the flowers of the white daffodil ... and of a very sweet scent, or rather strong and heady.’

“The double flowering variety was a seedling raised by Mons. Le Cour, of Leyden, in Holland, who for many years would not, under any circumstances, part with a root of it … in order to be the only possessor of so valuable a plant and which he considered the finest flower in the world.”

Other than that, Allen says, the tuberose has changed little and “the only change worthy a varietal name was a ‘sport’ discovered by John Henderson, of Flushing, N.Y., growing in his field, about 1870.” This was a double “of dwarf habit, and much larger flowers [which] he at once named the ‘Pearl’.”

Perhaps surprisingly, although “the cultivation of the tuberose bulb was for many years confined principally to the Italian nurseries, for the past twenty-five years they have been largely grown in the United States,” Allen says, and “the markets of the world are largely supplied with American-grown bulbs.” (Today a handful of American farmers still grow tuberoses. Our ‘Mexican Single’ bulbs, for example, come to us from an Illinois family farm where they've been grown for almost a century now.)

“For field culture, prepare the ground as if for a crop of potatoes,” he advises, and plant the bulbs “just below the soil surface; if covered too deep they are not as likely to flower.”

In greenhouses, “tuberoses can be had in bloom, with a little care, nearly the whole year,” but Allen cautions against “the too common practice of filling up every vacant place in the greenhouse with tuberoses” – an indication, I suspect, of their great popularity.

As for the home gardener, he explains that “the tuberose is a gross feeder, and succeeds best in a light loam, but will grow in any soil, providing it is moist and rich. Rich it must be, without regard to other conditions. Its complete requisites are heat, water, and manure. If these are proportionate, it matters not how much there may be, the plants will consume it, and by their growth show its importance.”

Today tuberoses are still as blissfully fragrant and easy to grow as they’ve ever been – and you can order our big, sure-to-bloom bulbs now for delivery in April.


Just in Time for Valentine’s Day:
A Wildflower Love Charm

Dutchman’s breeches is a delightful little North American wildflower – and maybe something more.

In an article titled “Menominee Love Charms” posted at the website of Macalaster College’s Ordway Field Station in Minnesota, Michaela Koller writes, “The main plant [the Menominee used for love charms] is Dicentra cucullaria, more commonly known as Dutchman’s breeches. The Menominee called this plant ‘a’nimau kapotise’sa’ which is translated into: ‘the one that looks like little pants, with his hands in his pockets’” – which is remarkably like the English name for it.

“The Menominee believed that Dutchman’s breeches could be used in two ways by a man to attain the love of his desire,” Koller continues. “The first way was … by throwing a piece of the plant at her. The second way … was by chewing a piece of this plant, so that the scent would be released…. In order to insure the girl smelled this plant, the man would circle around her, until she would ‘follow him wherever he goes.’”

Learn more here or just order your own little charmers now for delivery at planting time this fall.


2624-Year-Old Bald Cypress
Discovered in North Carolina Swamp

Now that’s an historic plant!

According to scientists from the University of Arkansas, a bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) growing in North Carolina is 2624 years old, making it the oldest living thing east of the Rocky Mountains and one of the oldest trees in the world.

And it isn’t alone. “There are hundreds of 1,000-year-old trees throughout the Black River swamp forest,” says scientist David Stahle who used core samples and radiocarbon to date the cypresses. “We think there are older trees out there still.”

Awe-inspiring in their own right, these ancient trees also offer a precipitation record in their tree rings that Stahle calls “amazingly accurate and detailed.” Along with modern droughts, the rings document “the severe multi-year droughts of 1587-1589 associated with the disappearance of the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island, and the drought of 1606-1612 concurrent with the hardships suffered during the early years of the Jamestown Colony.”

To read more or watch a short video about these remarkable heirlooms, visit


Kids Love Eating Purslane, Too

Last month’s article about delicious, historic purslane apparently struck a chord with many of you, including Letty Savage of Sewickley, Pennsylvania, who emailed us to say:

“Loved the article on purslane. We run a kids’ garden club during the summer at our local Fern Hollow Nature Center. Each meeting features a snack, preferably something we have harvested from the garden. One week there were no vegetables ready to harvest so we picked purslane. We made a casserole using an old recipe from Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus and the kids just loved it. They also liked it raw. It makes a great snack to forage while weeding.”

In case you’d like to try that casserole, here’s the recipe from Gibbons’ classic 1962 book:

purslane thriving in my garden

“Boil the tips ten minutes, drain, and chop fine. Stir one beaten egg into the purslane, then stir in as many dry bread crumbs as the mixture will dampen. Season to taste with salt and pepper, then bake in a moderate oven until the top is nicely browned.”

And here’s another of Gibbons’ purslane recipes, which sounds even tastier to me:

“Cut several slices of bacon in small pieces and fry them in a large skillet. When the bacon is done, dump in about one quart of the tender tips of purslane. Stir until evenly coated with the bacon drippings, then cover and let it cook 6 or 7 minutes. Season with salt and a little vinegar.”

Mmm-mmm, purslane!


Eat Your Weeds – Delicious, Historic Purslane

purslane thriving in my garden

Purslane is the weed of the moment in my garden right now. I swear if I look away for just a day or two, areas that were perfectly weeded are covered with big sprawling mats of it.

With its flat, succulent leaves, purslane is part of the Portulaca genus which also includes the heirloom annual moss rose. Its seeds germinate best when soil temperatures reach 90 degrees, which explains why I’m seeing so much of it right now. And it does grow quickly, producing seeds just three weeks after it sprouts – which can remain viable for up to 40 years! Plus any pieces that get missed while you’re weeding can root and grow into new plants, so I’m sure I’m going to be battling purslane in my garden forever.

But here’s the good news – purslane is both tasty and nutritious, and it has a deep history.

“The moisture-rich leaves are cucumber-crisp, and have a tart, almost lemony tang with a peppery kick,” writes Laura Vozzella in the Baltimore Sun, and it’s frequently compared to watercress and spinach (though to my taste buds it’s milder than all of the above). It’s also rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, magnesium, and even melatonin.

"wild purslane" in Gerard's Herbal, 1597

“Fresh young plants” are best, writes Sandra Mason of the University of Illinois Extension, “especially young leaves and tender stem tips.” She recommends eating it “in salads or on sandwiches instead of lettuce or pickles. Next time order a ham and purslane on rye,” and adds that purslane “can also be cooked as a potherb, steamed, stir-fried, or pureed.”

According to Wikipedia, “archaeobotanical finds … are common at many prehistoric sites” in the eastern Mediterranean, and by the Roman era purslane’s “healing properties were thought so reliable that Pliny the Elder advised wearing the plant as an amulet to expel all evil.”

In his great Herbal of 1597, Englishman John Gerard described two forms, “garden purslane” and the similar but smaller “wild purslane” which “cometh up of his own accord in allies of gardens and vineyards.” (Sound familiar?) It was “much used in salads, with oil, salt, and vinegar,” he said, and he listed over a dozen herbal uses for it, from provoking appetite and soothing toothaches to treating hemorrhoids and “killing worms in small children.”

I could go on and on – who knew a weed could be so interesting? – but I’ll just recommend a couple of excellent articles if you want to explore further: the Baltimore Sun’s “Purslane: A Weed Worth Eating” and “What to Do With Purslane” at

Happy weeding – and eating!


Tulips, Dahlias, and
the Refugee Silk Weavers of England

Three hundred years ago what is now the “arty cool” East London neighborhood of Spitalfields was a tiny village and the center of England’s booming silk industry.

one of the tulips the weavers could have grown in their gardens, ‘Absalon’, from 1780

According to an 1840 article in the Manchester Guardian, Spitalfields got its start in 1685 when, fleeing religious persecution, “at least 50,000 refugees, most of them weavers and other craftsmen, arrived from France and threw themselves upon the charity of the English nation.” Known as the Huguenots, these refugees were soon “very flourishing” and by 1713 the silk trade they established “had attained such importance that upwards of 300,000 persons were maintained by it.”

By the time the article was written in 1840, Spitalfields was “in a greatly fallen-off condition”, but it still retained “a remnant of the love of gardening among the weavers.” A six-acre plot whad been divided into 170 small gardens, all bounded by picket fences, and “in almost every garden is a neat summerhouse, where the weaver and his family may enjoy themselves on Sundays and holidays, and where they usually dine and take tea.” (Doesn’t that sound lovely?)

Although some weavers grew “cabbages, lettuces, and peas,” most had “a far loftier ambition” – flowers. “Many had tulip beds, in which the proprietors not a little gloried, and over which they had screens which protected them from the sun and from the storm” – to keep the blooms in prize-winning shape for the tulip shows – “and it was expected that the show of dahlias for that season would not fail to bring glory to Spitalfields.”

Although, alas, all of the dahlias from that era are now extinct, you can still grow some of the very same tulips that were popular in 1840 such as ‘Absalon’, ‘Keizerskroon’, and ‘Zomerschoon’ – and you don’t have to be a silk weaver to enjoy them.

(You might also enjoy the book this article is drawn from, Notes from the Garden: A Collection of the Best Garden Writing from the Guardian, 2010, edited by Ruth Petrie.)


“Old Flames” –
Gardens Illustrated Showcases Broken Tulips

Interest in the exquisite flowers known as broken tulips continues to grow.

The British magazine Gardens Illustrated, for example, recently published a gorgeously illustrated article about them and their acolytes in the 184-year-old Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society.

Broken tulips – or English florists’ tulips, as the British varieties are called – are richly feathered or flamed in red, purple, or mahogany. These are the tulips that sold for mind-boggling sums during Tulipomania in the 1620s.

“There was a time,” writes Anna Pavord (who you may know from her monumental Bulb, The Tulip, and other books), “when almost every town of importance in the north of England had its own tulip society.” Today only the Wakefield group survives, nurturing its rare beauties and exhibiting them in competitive shows as they have every spring since 1835.

exhibitor grooms three forms of
‘James Wild’ – breeder, flame, and feather

The shows are no longer held in pubs as they once were, but the flowers are still displayed in beer bottles. This is as it should be, Pavord says, because “nothing could better set off these gorgeously complex, finely textured blooms than the utilitarian containers of plain brown glass.”

Although the Society was once an all-male bastion, today it includes many women who “regularly win top prizes,” including WNETS secretary Teresa Clements who is enthusiastically helping to lead the Society into the future. “These are tulips that just demand your attention,” she says. “They have an incredible quality. Each is a living antique. They are irresistible.”

As a long-time WNETS member, I whole-heartedly agree! Learn more about these incredible tulips and – if you want to see for yourself how exciting they can be – check out this complete list of the ones we’re currently offering.


Garden Gate’s Top Picks –
Summer-Blooming Heirloom Bulbs

While leafing through the August issue of Garden Gate magazine I was happily surprised to see this full-page photo of my favorite small-flowered glad, ‘Starface’. It’s one of seven summer-blooming classics featured in “Top Picks: Heirloom Summer Bulbs.”

“You know a plant is well-loved, timeless, and a good addition to any garden,” writes author Chloe Deike, “when it has been zealously passed on and preserved from generation to generation.” And summer-blooming bulbs are great, she adds, for their “vivid presence, splash of color, and sudden appearance when other plants are starting to whimper and fade.”

Deike describes ‘Starface’ as a “dainty little beauty” whose “ornately patterned petals” have been “stopping gardeners in their tracks since 1960.” Other summer bulbs she praises include:

‘Star of the East’ crocosmia – With its “stouter stems” and “much larger flowers,” this 107-year-old crocosmia “won all kinds of garden awards when it was introduced” and “still has reason to be the star of your garden today.”

‘African Queen’ lily – “Voluminous and voluptuous, this apricot-colored beauty from 1958 sings out like a Broadway diva.”

red spider lily – With its “long, ‘spider-leg’ stamens that curve upward from a cluster of star-shaped flowers,” this dramatic perennial “definitely makes a tropical statement in the late summer garden.”

milk and wine crinum – A “classic pass-along plant in Southern gardens,” milk-and-wine lily “grows happily and blooms off and on throughout the summer without much fuss,” even when it’s grown in pots in zones where it’s not hardy.

‘Café au Lait’ dahlia – Like ‘Starface’, this 1967 beauty also rates a full-page photo in Deike’s article. Its “enormous plush blooms” and “creamy, champagne tone,” she says, make it “one of the trendiest flowers for brides” and a “wonderfully celebratory cut flower.”

More than just pretty faces, “heirloom plants are rooted in story,” Deike writes, “embellished by a history that connects you to the past and spurs you toward the future.” And since so many are disappearing from mainstream sources, “growing heirlooms can make you an important link in the chain that keeps these plants thriving.”

You can join that happy chain by adding any of these treasures to your garden. ‘African Queen’ and red spider lily are available now for delivery this fall, and the other four will be available again soon for delivery next spring. For an email alert then, simply click the link in each bulb’s description.


What’s That Iris? Get ID Help from Experts Online

Like many gardeners, you may have some beloved plants in your garden that have lost their names. Calling them “Great-Grandma’s rose” or “that daffodil we found in the woods” doesn’t make them any less wonderful, but sometimes you may wish you knew their real name.

If it’s an iris you’re wondering about, you can now ask the Historic Iris Preservation Society about it. On the HIPS homepage, you’ll find a green box that says “Need help with iris ID? Click here.” Do that and you’ll be taken to their ID Central.

Don’t be daunted by the long introduction and instructions for filling out the application. All you need to know is that it’s hard to identify nameless iris – roughly 70,000 have been introduced, many look a lot alike, and colors often vary depending on climate and soils – and that “I don’t know” is an acceptable answer to any of the questions.

Do read the “Photo Request” section which explains how and when to take the three required close-ups of your nameless iris. Then enter its height, bloom size, fragrance, and so on, upload your photos, and send it.

If you’d prefer, you can mail in your application and photos. Either way, you’ll get a response from the HIPS experts, and – although identifying an iris is always a longshot – there’s at least a chance that your nameless iris will no longer be nameless.

Good luck!


Get Outside and Celebrate Preservation Month!

May is Preservation Month and a wonderful time to explore historic gardens and landscapes near you.

If you don’t know where those are, The Cultural Landscape Foundation can help. “Cultural landscapes” are historic places ranging from gardens and parks to farmland and ethnographic landscapes. Enter your zip code at and you’ll get a list of some of the most important ones within 100 miles of your home.

Another great resource is the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Though traditionally focused on buildings, the Trust has a new motto, “This Place Matters,” and a broadened vision that includes landscapes. For 45 landscape-related articles from its excellent Preservation magazine – including ones about Brooklyn’s 175-year-old Green-Wood Cemetery, historic orchards in California, and “What Type of Historic Landscape Fits You?” – check out “Landscape Stories.”

Of course you could also just go for a walk in any old neighborhood and look for how the plants, constructed features, and the way things are arranged outdoors differ from what you see in newer neighborhoods. The past is out there, all around us – and Preservation Month is a great time to enjoy it!


Dahlias and Cannas for Prince Albert

Dahlias and cannas were both wildly popular in the Victorian era, so it’s no surprise that two of our favorites grow today at Osborne House, the lavish country home of Queen Victoria and her garden-loving husband Prince Albert.

In 1845, according to an August 2017 article in The English Garden, “Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, then both in their twenties, bought an estate on the Isle of Wight as a seaside retreat for their growing family.” After building a grand new house, Albert redesigned the grounds, and today, thanks to extensive restoration by English Heritage, they once again reflect his vision.

“Rather endearingly, Albert is reputed to have directed work on the Osborne landscape by semaphore from the Pavilion flag tower. Victoria seems to have been less enthusiastic, complaining in her diary of the time he spent planting and pruning. In 1848, at the height of the planting operations, she spent a record 123 days on the estate so as to see as much of him as possible.”

Today “the intricate design of the parterres which was lost when the terraces were grassed over has been recreated.” ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ dahlia stars there in a dramatically dark composition with bronze-leaved castor beans, red salvia, and red-and-bronze-leaved begonias.

The lovely ‘Ehemanii’ canna with its dangling bells of deep rose-pink is also featured at Osborne House where a long row of it flowers exuberantly in the former kitchen garden.

Even if you don’t have 200-acre estate, you can garden with a touch of royal style by planting ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ this spring (and save 20%!) or by signing up for an email alert when ‘Ehemanii’ — which sold out last month in a mere three days — is available again. Cheerio!


Great Companions
to Plant with Your Iris this Spring

The right companion can make any plant look better. For bearded iris, here are a few suggestions from two of America’s greatest garden writers.

iris & companions in Wilder’s 1918 Color in My Garden

For June borders that are “a joy indeed,” Louise Beebe Wilder in her 1916 My Garden recommends intermingling iris with “tall blue and white lupines, lemon lilies [Hemerocallis lilioasphodelus], foxgloves, and peach-leaved campanulas, with a background of Persian lilacs and such free-growing roses as ‘Stanwell’s Perpetual’, ‘Madame Plantier’, and the yellow briers – ‘Harisoni’ and the Persian – and edged with double white pinks and Nepeta mussini [catmint].”

John Wister in his 1930 The Iris recommends some of the same plants and adds to the list: “Good garden combinations can be made with a background of Spirea ‘Van Houttei’, Philadelphus coronarius [mock orange], and kerria with lavender iris [such as ‘Pallida Dalmatica’] and salmon pink Oriental poppies.

“Pink iris [such as ‘Caprice’] and ‘Queen of May’ go equally well with this. Gypsophila [baby’s-breath] statice, clove pinks, Nepeta mussini [catmint], Anchusa [Italian bugloss], and lupines are but a few of the many plants that gardeners have used successfully with various irises.”

With their smaller flowers and rugged constitutions, heirloom iris often combine more harmoniously in gardens than modern cultivars do. We’re shipping a dozen of the best for planting in April, and now is the time to order!


BMOC – Big Yellow Mystery
Daffodil Thrives in Zone 8b/9a Louisiana

“These big yellow daffodils have multiplied and bloomed prolifically for us here,” wrote our good customer Carlos Doolittle, landscape manager at Southeastern Louisiana University, “and I’m hoping you can help me learn their true identity.”

Mrs. Blaylock’s mystery daffodil

The photos he attached showed a Division 2 or large-cup daffodil with petals a shade lighter than the cup, and he said they usually started blooming in early February.

Since very few “big yellow daffodils” do well in climates that are as hot and wet as it is at Southeastern – which is 45 miles northwest of New Orleans, right on the border of zone 8b and 9a – I was intrigued.

“About a decade ago,” Carlos wrote, “an elderly lady, Mrs. Vertalie Blaylock, of Loranger, Louisiana, shared daffodils with my grandmother. They multiplied rapidly, and I transplanted some to my home and eventually to campus. Everywhere I have planted them, they have multiplied rapidly.”

Since literally thousands of big yellow daffodils have been introduced over the years, at first I worried that identifying this one would be a hopeless task. But after Carlos sent me measurements of its petals, cup, and foliage, and then described its scent as “light, honey-like,” I began to feel more optimistic.

I asked him to send his photos and information to a couple of friends who know a lot more about Southern daffodils than I do, Sara Van Beck of Georgia (and formerly Florida) and Greg Grant of Texas. Happily, we all came to the same conclusion: Mrs. Blaylock’s mystery daffodil is probably ‘Carlton’.

Southeastern’s magnificent Friendship Oak is another heirloom that’s thriving under Carlos’s care.

“That’s what it looks like to me,” Greg said, adding that ‘Carlton’ is “the most dependable yellow daffodil” where he lives in north-east Texas.

Sara agreed, and in her book Daffodils in Florida, she says ‘Carlton’ “should be the backbone of any daffodil bed” in the Deep South, partly because it’s “the most resistant (of the large yellows) to basal rot” which can wreak havoc on daffodils in hot, wet soils.

Carlos was happy to finally have a name for Mrs. Blaylock’s daffodil, especially since he’s planning “to eventually have masses of daffodils as a signature of our campus landscapes.” Daffodils, he says, are the perfect choice because “not only do their bright yellow blooms bring cheer during the dreary days of winter, but our campus colors here at Southeastern are green and gold.”


Watch New Ryan Gainey Film
in Atlanta Feb. 27 – or the Trailer Now

Fans of Ryan Gainey, the revered Southern garden designer and heirloom-plants lover, have been giving two thumbs up to The Well-Placed Weed: The Bountiful Life of Ryan Gainey.

The 2018 documentary interweaves shots of Gainey’s romantic, heirloom-filled garden with excerpts gleaned from a series of interviews that ended just a month before Gainey died in a house fire in 2016.

As Atlanta’s Cherokee Garden Library noted recently, this film is the first to “examine the complexities” of Gainey’s life. “He was a contradictory character, both off-putting and tender, self-absorbed and generous, artificial and authentic.” His home garden which was his masterpiece was, “as he often said, a ‘garden of remembrance’ where his old friends and family lived on in the overlapping blooms of heirloom plants.”

You can watch a 90-second trailer of the film, or a four-minute excerpt (accompanied by an excellent article), or buy the DVD, or – best of all – you can watch it at a special screening followed by a Q&A with the filmmakers on Wednesday, Feb. 27, at the Atlanta History Center.


Out with the Old?
Is Sustainability a Threat to Historic Gardens?

Like many young people, Joshua Sparkes is full of new ideas. But he also has a deep appreciation for the past, which is a good thing since he’s the new head gardener at England’s 900-year-old Forde Abbey.

Originally built as a monastery, the Abbey has been a private home since the mid-1500s. Sparkes arrived there recently after five years in the Royal Air Force followed by hort school and four years at one of the world’s most famous gardens, Sissinghurst.

Interviewed in last month’s Gardens Illustrated, Sparkes was asked what he thought was the “biggest challenge facing gardeners today.”

“I worry about the future of historic gardens,” he said, “as the trend moves towards ‘sustainable’ and ‘ecological’ gardening, which seems only to include one esthetic. Sustainability needs to be considered in a sympathetic way that maintains the unique character of a garden, retaining its history without branding certain practices and designs as wrong. We can manage all gardens in a sustainable way, whatever their style.”

Amen! Like native plants, sustainability is critically important, but it can’t be the only priority in our gardens. Balance is essential in all aspects of our lives, and extremism – even in the service of worthy goals – often leads to more problems than it solves.

Learn more about Forde Abbey (and see a great photo of it with thousands of crocus blooming in the lawn), its magnificent gardens, and Sparkes’ plan for gardening more sustainably with tulips.


Van Gogh’s Tuberoses

Van Gogh was a flower-lover, to judge by the many paintings he made of them.

His sunflowers, of course, have become iconic, and his magnificent Irises sold in 1987 for a record-breaking $54 million. But there are scores of his lesser-known flower paintings in museums around the world.

Leafing through a Van Gogh book the other day, I came upon this painting titled Vase of Carnations and Other Flowers. Taking a closer look, I noticed that the starry white flowers at the top are tuberoses! In fact, to my eye they’re such a dramatic and important part of the painting that it might better be called Vase of Tuberoses and Other Flowers.

Van Gogh painted it in 1886, shortly after moving from the Netherlands to Paris where he soon began painting with the brighter colors and bolder brushwork of the Impressionists. At that time tuberoses were so popular that a Boston writer said “everyone who has a garden knows the tuberose” – and their fragrance today is just as wonderful as it was then.

You can view this painting in person at the Kreeger Museum in Washington, DC, and you can enjoy the same flowers that inspired Van Gogh by ordering your own tuberoses now for planting this spring.


Farewell to Paul Cates, Hero of Heirloom Glads

The world of heirloom flowers lost one of its greatest champions recently with the death of our friend Paul Cates.

‘Bibi’, ‘Starface’, ‘Lucky Star’, ‘Dauntless’, ‘Blue Smoke’ – these are just a few of the dozens of great old glads that Paul rescued and then grew for us, treasures that probably would have been lost forever if not for him.


But glads were only one small part of his amazingly full life. Born in the Maine farmhouse where he died 93 years later, Paul was a lifelong Quaker, jailed just out of college as a conscientious objector, and sent to Germany to do relief work. Returning there in 1958 for a PhD, he was pressed into service smuggling medications into East Berlin where he met his wife Elisabeth. By the time she managed to escape the country in 1969, their first son was already two years old.


Back in Maine, Paul went to work as a traveling pastor, taught German and Russian in Quaker schools, and raised cut-flowers to sell to local florists – with glads quickly becoming the most popular. In his spare time he wrote plays that drew sold-out audiences to the local grange hall, served as president of the Maine Gladiolus Society, and at the age of 79 he ran and lost a hard-fought campaign for the Maine House of Representatives.

There’s more – which you can read here – but you get the picture. Paul was an inspiring guy who lived his life joyfully making a difference. We feel lucky to have known him, we’re grateful for the difference he made in our lives, and our hearts are with Elisabeth and the entire Cates family in their loss.

‘Lucky Star’
‘Blue Smoke’

How Old is That Lawn Mower? Part 1

my new old mower; note the ribbed wheels and barely visible traces of gold paint

My neighbor Mark was cleaning out his garage when an old lawn mower caught my eye.

“That’s cool,” I said. “Do you want it?” he asked and – me being a fan of all things garden-historic – of course I said yes.

But how old was it? With its cast-iron wheels and smooth wooden hand-grips, I figured it dated to maybe the 1930s or ’40s, but I soon found out that I had a lot to learn about mowers.

The first lawn mower was invented in 1830 by Englishman Edwin Budding who was inspired by a machine that trimmed the nap off cloth. Before that, most lawns were cut with scythes – if they were cut at all – which was time-consuming and expensive.

Budding’s mower was a hit. “It promises to be one of the greatest boons that science has conferred on gardeners in our time,” wrote the era’s leading horticulturist, John Claudius Loudon, adding that wealthier land-owners could now “indulge in a garden luxury which, if they had to procure it by manual labor, would probably long remain beyond their reach.”

Budding’s mower, with large roller in back, single side wheel, and grass-catcher tray in front

The first mower to reach the US arrived in 1850, imported by a wealthy garden-lover for his Hudson River estate. Five years later his enterprising mechanic was building and selling the first American-made mowers.

“Side-wheel” mowers like mine were patented in Philadelphia in 1869, and the design has changed little since then. Unlike earlier mowers which used a roller in back to turn a large wheel on one side which then spun the cutting blades, these simpler new mowers used a pair of smaller wheels set on the sides to power the blades.

Since side-wheel mowers were lighter and had fewer moving parts that could go wrong, they soon became the most popular style. By the 1890s, they were being produced by scores of small factories throughout New England and the Midwest.

1889 trade card with carpet bedding and a side-wheel mower much like mine (and a horse-drawn version in back) at the Philadelphia site of the 1876 Centennial Exposition

A paper label glued to the handle of my mower reads “Van Camp Hardware & Iron Company, Indianapolis,” so at first I figured that’s who made it. Then I discovered a patent date cast into one of the wheels – Sept. 12, 1899 – and traces of red and gold paint on the wheels and iron arms.

Those clues led me to the former Lawn Mower Capital of America and helped me learn a lot more about my mower’s history – which I’ll share with you in a future newsletter.


Garden Like the Queen

“Duel du Roy” at Sandringham

An old friend of ours has been hanging out with Queen Elizabeth.

“Hey, that looks like ‘Deuil du Roi Albert’,” I said to myself while paging through the October 2017 issue of The English Garden – and sure enough it was, growing at Sandringham, the Queen’s 20,000-acre estate in the Norfolk countryside.

Sandringham, I learned, has been the private home of four generations of British monarchs. It’s where – as fans of the TV show The Crown may recall – Elizabeth’s father loved to hunt and where the royal family spends most Christmases.

Sandringham’s gardens are “peppered with tender exotics and a vibrant display of late summer dahlias” in a “distinctively Edwardian approach” that hearkens back to the first decade of the 20th century when Victorian flamboyance was giving way to the more naturalistic style of the Arts and Crafts movement.

“The same dahlias have been grown at Sandringham for 30 years,” the article explains, “but the names they are known by come from their original labels, which can suffer from ‘gardeners’ spelling’ and slightly idiosyncratic ideas about naming.” That’s certainly true of ‘Deuil du Roi Albert’ – “Mourning for King Albert” – which at Sandringham goes by the much livelier name of ‘Duel du Roy’.

Whatever you call it, ‘Deuil/Duel’ is truly a dahlia fit for a queen, and – although our stock this year is limited – you can order yours now for April delivery.


The Best Water for Your Garden – in 1686

Water is an essential part of life – especially the life of gardeners. If you spent too much time this past summer dragging the hose around like we did, this excerpt from John Evelyn’s 1686 Directions for the Gardener at Says Court is for you.

“The best water,” Evelyn wrote, “is from rivers and running streams [rather than from a well or spring] so it be not too lean and cold.

“That which is always standing or shaded corrupts and is not good, but the water of ponds, and wherein cattle soil, is excellent, [and] rain water has no fellow.

“If water be too thin and poor, enrich it with the dung of sheep or pigeons by hanging a basket full of it into the water and letting it steep. Cow dung is also profitable. [However] water over-dunged brings a black smut on orange leaves, etc.

“If you be necessitated to use cold raw spring water, let it stand a while in the sun, and therefore keep always ready an infusing tub or vessel. Four gallons of heated water qualifies 20 gallons to milk-warm.”

Who knew water could be so complicated, eh? But as you may have already discovered – and Evelyn’s gardener probably wanted to tell him – you don’t have to do everything perfectly to have a wonderful garden. Hopefully yours made it through the summer just fine, even if you didn’t water it with milk-warm, dung-enriched river water.


The Heirloom Daffodil Orchard at
England’s Felley Priory

Featured on the cover of Gardens Illustrated, Felley Priory’s Daffodil Orchard is the “crowning glory” of its “renowned gardens” – and filled with nothing but heirlooms.

1. ‘Carbineer’, 2. ‘Kilworth’, 3. ‘Bath’s Flame’, 4. ‘W.P. Milner’, 5. ‘Fortune’, 6. ‘Hospodar’

The Priory has been in the Chaworth-Musters family since 1822, but most of the daffodils were planted in the 1940s. Since then, many of their names had been lost, so the Priory asked three experts – including our friend Ron Scamp – to help identify them.

Among those they recognized were ‘Beersheba’, ‘Mrs. R.O. Backhouse’, ‘Trevithian’, ‘Van Sion’, and ‘W.P. Milner’, but many others “were deemed to be natural hybrids . . . or old cultivars whose names have been lost.”

Nameless or not, the Priory’s daffodils were so impressive that the experts “were spotted standing under an old pear tree, dabbing their eyes with their handkerchiefs, overwhelmed by the magnitude and beauty of the display.”

7. ‘Van Sion’, 8. ‘Beersheba’, 9. ‘Croesus’, 10. ‘Lucifer’, 11. ‘Mrs. Backhouse’, 12. ‘Sulphur Phoenix’

The article also includes photos of “12 Great Cultivars for Naturalizing.” We offer eight of them: ‘Bath’s Flame’, ‘Beersheba’ (“attracts the notice of all by its glittering whiteness,” said the great E.A. Bowles), ‘Croesus’, ‘Lucifer’, ‘Mrs. R.O. Backhouse’ (named by breeder Robert Backhouse in memory of his wife), ‘Sulphur Phoenix’ (“double flowers of bright lemon and pale cream with good weather resistance”), ‘Van Sion’, and ‘W.P. Milner’ (named by breeder Henry Backhouse for his brother-in-law).

Even if – alas! – you don’t have an old orchard, you can start your own magnificent display of long-lived heirloom daffodils by ordering now for October delivery.


“Easy, Inexpensive, and Intoxicating” Regal Lily

“There are few plants as rewarding and foolproof” as bulbs, Dan Cooper wrote recently at his Frustrated Gardener blog. Most are “bold, colorful, long-flowering, and best of all inexpensive, giving gardeners plenty of bang for their buck. In short, they are one of the plant world’s best investments.”

Regal lilies are one of Dan’s favorite summer-flowering bulbs.

“Here’s a bulb with class, elegance and history,” he writes. “No wonder it was named Lilium regale, the regal lily. It was introduced to England from China in 1903 by Ernest Henry Wilson and quickly became a favorite of Gertrude Jekyll, who used it prolifically in her garden designs at a time when it would have been quite a novelty.

“Jekyll would frequently plant large clumps of Lilium regale in strategic spots, creating height and drama at pivotal points in her schemes. In addition to stature, the lilies also contributed intoxicating scent and blushing white flowers that stood out well against dark foliage. . . .”

“There is no flower so exquisite as Lilium regale at dusk on a warm June evening, glowing in the gloaming and sharing its intoxicating perfume,” Dan writes in closing. “Plant plenty, and then plant some more.

We couldn’t agree with him more! To enjoy these intoxicating beauties in your own garden, order now for delivery at planting time this fall.


Our Immigrant Gardens

from Asia

With the national debate on immigration raging, and Independence Day just past, we’ve been thinking a lot lately about the plants in our gardens that have come from other countries.

From tulips and peonies to dahlias and iris, our gardens are filled with immigrants. And although it’s possible to have a garden of only native plants, and some immigrant plants have turned out to be thugs, I think gardeners of all persuasions would agree that our lives have been enriched by 99% of the once-foreign flowers that have made themselves at home here.

So here’s a list of where most of the bulbs we offer came from originally. As you may notice, some are listed in more than one area because, to Nature, it’s all one world.

from Mexico

Mexico and South America – dahlias, tuberoses, rain lilies, oxblood lily.

Africa – gladiolus, freesia, crocosmia.

China, Japan, and Korea – most peonies and daylilies, tiger lily, Formosa lily, gold-band lily, red spider lily, pink surprise lily.

Asia from Turkey and Syria to Afghanistan and Mongolia – tulips, hyacinths, crocus, bearded iris, regal lily, Madonna lily, Byzantine glads, Elwes snowdrop, Turkish glory-of-the-snow, Allium sphaerocephalum, sowbread cyclamen, sternbergia, Siberian squill (which, despite its name, is not from Siberia).

from Europe

Europe – daffodils, bearded iris, crocus, martagon lilies, Madonna lily, Byzantine glads, lemon daylily, traditional snowdrops, snowflakes (Leucojum), Spanish bluebells, winter aconite, snake’s-head fritillary, Grecian windflower, Allium sphaerocephalum, sowbread cyclamen, sternbergia.

North America –trillium, jack-in-the-pulpit, Dutchman’s breeches, Lilium superbum.


Propagating Hyacinths in 1896 and Today

Daffodils, tulips, and most other bulbs multiply naturally underground by producing offsets or daughter bulbs. Roman hyacinths do, too, but – after centuries of breeding – traditional garden hyacinths multiply so slowly on their own that bulb growers long ago developed ways to speed up the process.

The techniques described below by Liberty Hyde Bailey in his 1896 Nursery Manual would have been familiar to bulb-growers a century earlier and are still standard practice in the Netherlands today.

Bailey starts by explaining that “bulbels are often produced by an injury to the bulb. Growth of stem and leaves is more or less checked and the energy is directed to the formation of minute bulbs.” It’s the bulb’s natural reaction to injury that growers take advantage of in multiplying hyacinths.

“The favorite method is to make two or three deep transverse cuts into the base of the bulb [image 1]. The strongest bulbs should be chosen, and the operation is performed in spring or early summer, when the bulb is taken up.”

In another method, “the bulbs are hollowed out from the underside for half or more of their depth [image 2]. This operation is sometimes performed later in the season than the other, and precaution should be exercised that the bulbs do not become too moist, else they will rot. . . .

“The mutilated bulbs are stored during summer, and are planted in fall or spring. The wounded bulbs produce very little foliage, but at the end of the first season the bulbels will have formed. The bulbels are then separated and planted by themselves in prepared beds.

“Several years are required for the bulbels to mature into flowering bulbs. Some of the strongest ones may produce flowering bulbs in three years, but some of them, especially those obtained from the hollowed bulbs, will not mature short of six years.”

Could you do this at home? Of course – and now’s the time for it. If you do, please share your story (and photos) with us. Good luck, and have fun!


Irises and Art: Two Cedric Morris Exhibits
and Skyrocketing Prices

Appreciation continues to grow for artist and iris breeder Cedric Morris whose peachy-pink ‘Edward of Windsor’ sold out early for us this past spring.

In London, two exhibits of Morris’s work are drawing crowds. His landscape paintings are featured at the Philip Mould Gallery in “Cedric Morris: Beyond the Garden Wall,” while his flower paintings are showcased at the Garden Museum in “Cedric Morris: Artist Plantsman.” Celebrating Morris’s creativity as an iris breeder, The Garden Museum exhibit was accompanied in season by a display of his iris organized by the celebrated garden designer Dan Pearson.

‘Edward of Windsor’

Prices for Morris’s paintings are skyrocketing – up 1,500% since 2014 according to a recent article in the London Telegraph. Last fall a couple of his landscapes from David Bowie’s personal art collection sold for over $65,000 each, but that’s small change compared to the prices being fetched by his flower paintings “which have raced ahead, like tulip mania.” The record was set last August by July Flowers and Wood Warblers (pictured above) which a London gallery bought for $223,000 – and which is now being offered for just under $400,000.

Although Morris’s paintings may be beyond the reach of most of us, his ‘Edward of Windsor’ iris is much more affordable. For an email alert when it’s for sale again July 1 (along with the rest of our spring-planted bulbs), simply click the link now in our description of it online.


Elizabeth Lawrence on
Preserving Plants at Home – Together

Elizabeth Lawrence in her garden

“I belong to that great fraternity whose members garden for love,” the eminent Southern garden writer Elizabeth Lawrence wrote in 1981. “They are called Brothers of the Spade” – a term first used in the 1700s by the great British plant collector Peter Collinson.

“Some own estates, some are directors of botanic gardens, and some have only small back yards,” Lawrence continued, but all are “amateurs in the true sense of the word – they garden for love.” (The Latin root of amateur is amare, to love.)

Together these garden lovers “keep in cultivation many a valuable plant that would otherwise be lost. Among them they preserve a reservoir of plants that could never be collected in any one place, even an institution, for the preservation of plants depends upon individual efforts, and it is only in private gardens, in lonely farm yards, and around deserted houses that certain plants no longer in the trade are found.”

Are you gardening for love? Are you nurturing plants in your garden that have all but disappeared everywhere else? If so, you’re one of us, and we’re proud to be gardening alongside you in the immortal Fellowship of the Spade!


Art from the Garden: Manet’s Peonies

As the buds on our peonies here in Ann Arbor swell with promise, I’ve been thinking about the great French artist Edouard Manet, whose ground-breaking works helped to launch Impressionism and changed art as we know it forever.

In 1864-65, just after he exhibited his best-known work, the scandalous Luncheon on the Grass, Manet made several paintings of peonies, including Peonies in a Vase on a Stand, pictured here. According to a 1983 exhibition catalog published by the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais in Paris, these works “painted at the peak of his artistic vitality are allegories of vanity . . . [and] the transience of beauty,” as were many of the magnificent Dutch flower paintings of the 1600s.

“Van Gogh was much struck by this painting,” the catalog continues, “and mentions it at a time when he was himself working on a flower series: ‘Do you remember that one day we saw a very extraordinary Manet at the Hôtel Drouot, some huge pink peonies with their green leaves against a light background? As free in the open air and as much a flower as anything could be, and yet painted in a perfectly solid impasto.’”

Unfortunately, although Van Gogh described the peonies as pink, they look white today because the pigments Manet used have deteriorated over time – a problem which has also afflicted several of Van Gogh’s works including Vase with Pink Roses, now at the National Gallery in Washington, DC.

At the time Manet painted this image, peonies were held “in high esteem, recently introduced into Europe and still considered an item of luxury,” which would have made the painting especially appealing to Manet’s “elegant clientele.” More importantly, though, “Manet simply liked peonies. He grew them in his garden at Gennevilliers, and their exuberance . . . was in perfect harmony with his generous and sensuous brushwork.”

See more of Manet’s peony paintings at Google Images – and then garden like the master himself by ordering your own peonies now for delivery this fall!


When Fort Myers was
the Gladiolus Capital of the World

Once upon a time, sunny Fort Myers, Florida, was not just a popular vacation destination, it was also the gladiolus-growing capital of the world, with local farms shipping some 500 million stems a year to florists throughout the US and overseas.

It all started in 1935 when two successive winter freezes in central Florida drove gladiolus growers further south to the Iona area just outside of Fort Myers. Within a decade, 30 growers were cultivating some 2500 acres of glads there.


Gladiolus at the time were hugely popular. Not only were they showy and easy to grow but their long vase life made them the perfect cut-flower. Every year gladiolus societies across the country displayed thousands of spikes in shows that drew tens of thousands of visitors. (See a 1921 glad show here.)

Harvesting the Fort Myers glads started in November and continued into June. According to one grower’s son, “The glads were cut before they bloomed, so a visit to the gladiolus farm was a view of acres and acres of green stalks with workers walking through the fields and cutting stalks with buds soon to bloom. The goal was for the stalks to bloom in the hands of the florist.”

Bundled and packed in hampers, the glads were shipped by air and then delivered by a patchwork of local truckers, all in an era before UPS and FedEx. Sometimes they traveled in the climate-controlled trucks of Purolater Courier whose main business was delivering celluloid film reels – which could burst into flames if they got too warm – to movie theaters.

Even in the Fort Myers area, growers sometimes needed to protect their crops from frost. At first they burned old tires to create heat and a protective blanket of smoke. (Don’t try that at home!) Later they turned to oil-fired heaters along with crop dusters to circulate the air over the fields.

Nothing lasts forever, though, and by the 1970s most glads sold in the US were being flown in from overseas where both land and labor were cheaper. One by one the Fort Myers growers sold their fields to developers, and by 1980 the area’s reign as the gladiolus capital of the world was just a memory.

To learn more, read the recent article in the Fort Myers News-Press.

To make your yard the gladiolus capital of your neighborhood, order now for spring-planting!


Searching for the
Lost Daffodils of Reverend Engleheart

You may not know it, but if you love ‘Beersheba’, ‘Lucifer’, or ‘White Lady’, you’re a fan of the Reverend George Engleheart.

One of the greatest daffodil breeders of all time, Engleheart introduced some 700 named varieties starting in 1889. Although most of these have been lost over the years, a brand new National Collection in England is hoping to find and preserve as many as they can.

Engleheart was the vicar of a small country church when he first started breeding daffodils in the 1880s. Once a minor garden flower, daffodils at the time were on the rise, championed as perennial, graceful, and old-fashioned – heirloom, that is! – in contrast to the new, brightly colored exotics that filled Victorian carpet beds.

Engleheart was so devoted to his daffodils that it’s said parishioners would sometimes find a note tacked to the church door reading, “No service today, working with daffodils.” His place in daffodil history was assured in 1898 when he sold three bulbs of his vividly orange-cupped ‘Will Scarlett’ for the equivalent today of over $12,000.

The new National Collection holds just 34 of Engleheart’s 700 daffodils, with another four located but not yet in their hands. To help them find more, the Collection’s Anne Tweddle asked us to spread the word about their project, so that’s what we’re doing.

Of the 34 they grow, we’re offering six for delivery this fall – ‘Bath’s Flame’, ‘Beersheba’, ‘Cassandra’, ‘Firebrand’, ‘Lucifer’, and ‘White Lady’ – and in the past we’ve offered six others that we’ll offer again once our stocks increase – ‘Albatross’, ‘Argent’, ‘Brilliancy’, ‘Horace’, ‘Seagull’, and ‘Will Scarlett’.

For more about Engleheart and the Collection, including a full list of their cultivars and photos of most, go to For a complete list of his 700 introductions, enter Engleheart in the Hybridizer box at And if you know where the Collection can find any they don’t already have, Anne would be very happy to hear from you at


Flower Pot Diversity in 1859

pot with feet,
Journal of Horticulture, 1868

The past is full of a rich diversity of plants – and flower pots.

In his 1859 Manual of Practical Gardening, George Glenny wrote that “there is nothing half so good as the old-fashioned pots.” These looked just like the clay pots we use today except their rims were narrow. They were offered in 23 different sizes, starting with two-inch “thumbs” and increasing inch-by-inch all the way up to pots 24 inches across – a range you’re unlikely to find today at even the biggest big-box store.

Glenny describes other more unusual pots, too.

“Some pots have been made with feet to stand in saucers to keep the bottom drain-hole out of the water that runs through. . . .

pot with hollow sides,
Gardener’s Magazine, 1843

“Others have been made with hollow sides to be filled with water, that the sun may not burn the young fibers [roots] next the side.

“Some are made with gutters all round the top rim, that a glass shade may cover the plant; and the edge being in this gutter filled with water [which] excludes the air, these are admirably adapted for fern-growing in dwelling-houses, each being, so far as the plants are concerned, a small Wardian case [terrarium].”

Maybe most unusual was the verbena pot. Verbenas, introduced from South America in the 1820s, were wildly popular, and British potteries responded by developing a special pot to display their sprawling growth.

verbena pot, Florist, Fruitist, and
Garden Miscellany, 1858

“The body of the [verbena] pot is like another,” Glenny wrote, “but the upper part, occupying one-third of the whole height, they turn outwards and form a broad dish, giving us a surface, twelve or fourteen inches in diameter, on which we can spread and peg down the plant to cover the whole.

"It has been usual to grow them in large pots, and have a round wire about two inches above the pot, and so tie the plant down upon it to cover it. These [verbena] pots will doubtless become popular for that purpose. They are light, compared with a fourteen-inch pot, and yet possess all the advantages of one that size; and we must admit that the appearance is greatly before [i.e., better than] a platform of wire-work.”


A Fabulous Facebook Page for Historic Iris

If you’re a fan of heirloom iris, and you’re on Facebook, we think you’ll enjoy the Facebook page of the Historic Iris Preservation Society.

Along with antique images and lots of modern photos of old varieties, the page also includes helpful tips and occasional links to other online resources.

It already has over 3000 followers, including us, and you could be next! Check it out at

And bravo, HIPS!


Eudora Welty on
Gardening, Creativity, and Where the Wonder Is

That’s not just any woman weeding her garden in this 1940s photograph – that’s the iconic Southern writer Eudora Welty.

Welty was a lifelong gardener, and in a conversation shortly before her death in 2001, she talked about gardening, her work as a writer, and finding wonder:

“I think that people have lost the working garden. We used to get down on our hands and knees. The absolute contact between hand and the earth, the intimacy of it, that is the instinct of a gardener. People like to classify, categorize, and that takes away from creativity. I think the artist – in every sense of the word – learns from what’s individual; that’s where the wonder expresses itself.”


When ‘White Aster’ Really Looked Like an Aster

‘White Aster’ today

In 1879 a customer wrote to nurseryman James Vick, editor of the popular Vick’s Illustrated Monthly, praising a white dahlia that was “the prettiest thing I ever saw” with flowers that “didn’t look much like dahlias, but more like asters.”

Vick explained that “this class of dahlias is called Pompon or Bouquet,” and added that “there are two very good white sorts, White Aster and Little Snowball.”

But do the neatly rounded flowers of ‘White Aster’ really look like asters?

China aster in 1872 Vick’s catalog

Not compared to the perennial asters that are commonly grown in gardens today, but back in 1879 the most popular asters – by far – were the annual bedding plants known as China asters, Callistephus chinensis. Vick devoted an entire page of his 1872 catalog to images of them, including ‘Imbrique Pompon’, which is pictured here. Although it’s a highly idealized image, I hope you’ll agree that it looks something like a pompon dahlia – and some modern China asters do, too.

‘White Aster’ and friends
in 1878 Vick’s Illustrated Monthly

But originally ‘White Aster’ looked even more like an aster because its petals were notched at the tip, making them look narrower, more numerous, and, well, more aster-like. You can see what I mean in this magnificent chromolithograph which was published full-page in Vick’s Monthly in 1878. Although none of the dahlias in the image are labeled, I’m virtually certain that’s ‘White Aster’.

Dahlia genetics are complex and unstable, though, and apparently sometime during ‘White Aster’s long history its DNA reverted to producing normal, rounded petals. (Something similar seems to be happening with ‘Old Gold’, whose petals are sometimes notched and sometimes not.) The change must have occurred sometime after 1956 because the de Jager catalog that year describes ‘White Aster’ as having “lovely laciniated flowers.” Although nowadays “laciniated” refers to the fringe-like petals of dahlias such as ‘Tsuki Yori no Shisha’, its dictionary definition is simply “cut into narrow lobes; slashed; jagged.”

‘White Aster’ in
1956 de Jager catalog

Of course it could be that today’s ‘White Aster’ is simply an impostor substituted for the real thing sometime between 1956 and when we first acquired it 50 years later from one of Germany’s oldest and most respected dahlia nurseries – but, at least for now, I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt and believe that it’s the real thing minus the notching.

Could the notching reappear someday? Yes! So please keep your eyes peeled and if you ever find a notched bloom on your ‘White Aster’, contact us ASAP. With a little luck we might be able to root a cutting and eventually re-introduce the original, more aster-like ‘White Aster’.

(Thanks to garden historian Thomas Mickey who inspired this article and shared the amazing chromolithograph with us. Read his blog post “Victorian Dahlia ‘White Aster’ Still Shines” and more at American


The Reason for Flowers:
Another Great Winter Read

“I am reading an amazing book about flowers,” one of my favorite former employees texted me recently. “It would be great for the newsletter. It is so delightful! I love all of the info on the history of flowers in different civilizations (rituals, architecture, etc.) and learning about the various pollinators.”

As it turned out, I’d bought the book a couple of years ago but set it aside after just a few pages. Brienne’s enthusiasm spurred me to give it another try, though, and I discovered that she was right – The Reason for Flowers: Their History, Culture, Biology, and How They Change Our Lives is a fascinating book.

Here’s my advice, though: skip the first 80-page section about “Sexuality and Origins,” which I found slow going. (The author is an expert on pollination ecology and evolutionary biology so he has a LOT to say about these topics.) Start instead with one of the other sections:

“Growing, Breeding, and Selling,” in which I learned that there’s evidence Neanderthals buried their dead with flowers,

“Foods, Flavors, and Scents,” which includes an ancient Egyptian perfume recipe that starts with 2000 Madonna lily flowers,

“Flowers in the Service of Science and Medicine,” which introduced me to the theory of biophilia, and

“Flowers in Literature, Art, and Myth,” which includes Ezra Pound’s evocative, two-line poem “In a Station of the Metro”: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd: / Petals on a wet, black bough.”

Once you’ve enjoyed these faster-paced sections, all of which are rich with surprising information you won’t find in most garden books, I think you’ll want to go back and read the first section. I know I did. (Thanks, Brienne!)


Who’s That Growing in My Garden?
David Howard, the Man Behind the Dahlia

With its dark foliage and apricot-orange flowers, ‘David Howard’ is one of our most popular heirloom dahlias.

But who was David Howard?

Back in the late 1950s he was just a British teenager who had always loved plants. Instead of raising hell he was raising dahlias from seed, and – according to a 2004 article in The Telegraph – “one of these, a seedling from Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’, was taken up by a visiting nurseryman, who named it ‘David Howard’.” Introduced in 1960, it became “an instant hit with gardeners and it remains one of the best dark-leaved dahlias around” – so good that it’s won the prestigious RHS Award of Garden Merit.

Howard went on to launch his own nursery in 1969 with £50 in the bank and a half-acre of rented land. In time it grew to be as successful as his namesake dahlia, and today Howard Nurseries Ltd. - which Howard runs with his daughter Christine, pictured here - is one of England’s largest wholesale perennial growers, annually producing over two million plants of some 1500 varieties at their farm in the beautiful Suffolk countryside.

Although Howard has always championed the best of the new, “it’s not just new varieties that attract his eye,” according to The Telegraph. “One firm favorite is a long-established bearded iris called ‘Rajah’ [introduced in 1942], which has rich burgundy falls shot with gold and butter-yellow upper petals.” Howard introduced it to leading garden designers “who have since used it to great effect in several show gardens. Its appeal has filtered down to garden centers” and it’s now a popular iris throughout the UK.

We don’t offer ‘Rajah’ – yet – but you can order ‘David Howard’ right now for planting this spring. Who knows, it may inspire you or a teenager you love to do what David Howard did and follow your garden dreams.


The First Concrete Sidewalks
(And How Old are Yours?)

What was snow shoveling like before sidewalks were made of concrete – and when people walked everywhere? Were wooden walks slipperier, or harder to shovel? And what about dirt walks?

1905 bronze sidewalk marker,
Bloomington, Illinois
1907 concrete stamp, “laid by Jas. Wigginton,” Glencoe, Illinois
“Granitoid Flagging” marker, Westmoreland Place, St. Louis
1909 concrete stamp with street names, Ypsilanti, Michigan

These are some of the questions I got to thinking about after reading Albert Baxter’s History of the City of Grand Rapids published in 1891.

The earliest sidewalks, Baxter writes, were “usually voluntarily laid,” as needed, by property owners. “Generally they were only such as were absolutely necessary to keep the feet of pedestrians out of the mud, often not more than two or three feet wide, of planks laid lengthwise rather loosely on sleepers.” Eventually the city replaced these with walks made of “two-inch pine or hemlock plank, in general laid crosswise on stringers and well spiked down.” Widths ranged from four to eighteen feet, with “those in the residence districts averaging six feet.”

Although there were a few “handsome and solid walks of dressed stone,” Baxter notes that “the stone for these is brought mostly from other states,” which no doubt made it quite expensive. In fact, the city hall had stone sidewalks on only three of its sides.

Baxter ends by mentioning recent “experiments” with “walks of artificial stone or concrete made of cement, sand, and gravel. These are molded in blocks to suit the locality, usually of lengths corresponding with the width of the walk, and six or eight inches in thickness. The molding is done on the spot, and when dry and hardened they are apparently as solid as granite rock This walk is handsome and gives promise of being durable and permanent as stone, judging from the short trial it has had here of only two or three years.”

So how old are your concrete sidewalks? In my neighborhood the oldest date-stamped slabs date from the 1920s, but the oldest I’ve ever seen date from the first decade of the 1900s, including those pictured here.

We’d love to see the oldest sidewalks you’ve found. Email us a photo or two and we may publish them in a future article. Happy searching – and shoveling!


Three Great New Books:
Peonies, Bugs, & Pioneer Gardening

Three Great Books for Giving and Getting –

Peony: The Best Varieties for Your Garden – This book is so new that Amazon isn’t even shipping it until later this month, but I got a copy Monday and couldn’t wait to tell you about it.

It’s definitely “a stunner,” as co-author David Michener of the University of Michigan Peony Garden told me, with page after page of glorious photos, many by co-author Carol Adelman of Oregon’s Adelman Peony Gardens. After chapters on peony history and origins, peony types, gardening with peonies, and peonies as cut flowers, most of the book is devoted to mouth-watering close-ups and short descriptions of nearly 200 peonies.

Although I wish there were more heirlooms in it, David and Carol have put together a line-up that’s impressively diverse. Most are herbaceous peonies, but there are plenty of intersectional and tree peonies, too, all dating from 1824 to 2015, and the incredible range of colors and forms is sure to have you ooo-ing and ahhh-ing. The book’s price is impressive, too – just $19 at Amazon. So what are you waiting for?

Three Great Books for Giving and Getting –

The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Frontier Landscapes that Inspired the Little House Books – Before she was a famous author, Marta McDowell was a customer of ours. (That's her in the photo below, visiting OHG this past September.) I loved her first book, Emily Dickinson’s Gardens, published in 2004, and since then she’s written three other gems: Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life, All the Presidents’ Gardens, and now this one.

Three Great Books for Giving and Getting –
Marta (right) at OHG with Vanessa (center) and Arlene

You don’t have to be a fan of the Little House on the Prairie books or TV series to enjoy it. The illustrations – antique images, original artwork from the books, and historic and modern photos – drew me in immediately, and Marta’s writing reads more like a conversation with a friend than a dissertation. The Wilders homesteaded in a half dozen states, from New York to South Dakota, and their story is more about growing food than flowers, as well as the untamed natural world they lived in.

At the end are chapters on “Visiting Wilder Gardens” and “Growing a Wilder Garden” today, and then just before the index there’s my favorite photo: a snapshot from 1962 of Marta’s family standing in her great-aunt’s backyard – “the flower garden that I imprinted on” – next to a big beautiful swath of tiger lilies.

Three Great Books for Giving and Getting –

Garden Insects of North America, second edition – I got a copy of this book for my birthday recently, and it’s even better than I expected. First of all it’s BIG: 704 pages, weighing a hefty five pounds. It’s so well bound, though, that it opens flat for easy reading, and the cover seems so durable that I won’t hesitate to take it with me into the garden.

Then there are the photos: 3300 of them, all in full color, and helpfully organized into chapters such as “Insects That Chew on Leaves and Needles.” I admit my first reaction to them was “gross!” Most bugs, after all, aren’t as photogenic as the caterpillar on the cover, and it’s daunting to see page after page of damaged plants. But before long I was discovering insects I’d seen before but didn’t know what they were – such as the tiny, mosaic-patterned ailanthus webworm moth – and I realized this book is going to be both useful and fun.

Superstar garden blogger Margaret Roach recently called it “a must for every gardening household,” and I couldn’t agree more. One caution, though: be sure to get the brand-new second edition which is bigger and better than the 2004 original.


Iris by an Artist:
The Living Masterpieces of Cedric Morris

Iris by an Artist: The Living Masterpieces of Cedric Morris &ndahs;

Is it too early to think about spring planting?

Not if you want to snag a rhizome or two of ‘Edward of Windsor’, one of the most intriguing iris we’ve ever offered. Some call it soft pink, others pale orange, but either way it’s a light, dreamy pastel color with a surprisingly bright tangerine beard.

Unusual colors are one of the hallmarks of iris bred by British artist Cedric Morris (1889-1982) whose paintings hang today in museums around the world. Morris painted in what has been called “a distinctive and often rather primitive post-Impressionist style,” and for more than 40 years students flocked to the art school he conducted at his home, Benton End, in the English countryside.

Morris developed extensive gardens there, said to be inspired by Monet’s at Giverny, and in the early 1940s he began breeding iris. He eventually registered 45 of the best with the American Iris Society, often with names such as ‘Benton Rubeo’ (named for his pet macaw) and ‘Benton Cordelia’ (winner of the British Dykes Medal in 1955).

Unfortunately almost all of these had disappeared from commerce by the time Sissinghurst’s head gardener Sarah Cook discovered a long-lost label for ‘Benton Nigel’ in the gardens there. After taking early retirement in 2004, Sarah launched a quest to rediscover all of Morris’s iris, and today she’s nurturing some 25 of them as holder of Plant Heritage’s National Collection of Cedric Morris Iris.

Learn more about Morris and his iris here (although please note that the photo labeled ‘Edward of Windsor’ is NOT that iris), view dozens of his paintings here (you may need to be patient as the images load), and if you like what you see, why not order now to enjoy a bit of his incredible floral art in your own backyard!


Was Your Street Paved with Wooden Bricks?

Was Your Street Paved with Wooden Bricks? –

Workers repaving a street in Grand Rapids, Michigan, this past August were surprised by what they found buried under the layers of old asphalt – wooden paving bricks from over a century ago, many of which were still in perfect shape.

In his 1891 History of the City of Grand Rapids, Albert Baxter explains that “a change in Grand Rapids pavements from cobblestone to wood was made in 1874. The first wood pavements were made of blocks cut from four-inch pine planks set on end upon a gravel bed, . . . making a wood roadway six inches in depth.” Unfortunately the pine decayed after five or six years, so “the next advance was in the use of cedar blocks.” Cedar is naturally rot-resistant, and “the cedar block has proved much the more durable, and is the popular pavement to this day.”

Was Your Street Paved with Wooden Bricks? –

I learned a lot more about the evolution of the city’s streets in Baxter’s book – and the early history of paving in your city was probably similar to it.

“Naturally the first wagon roads to the village,” he writes, followed “paths which the Indians had trod and were correspondingly crooked.” In 1835 the first right-angled streets were laid out and cleared but otherwise unimproved except for “little plank or log bridges across streams and mud holes.”

Further improvements “involved a vast amount of labor and expense.” Although Grand Rapids isn’t especially hilly, some high spots were cut down by as much as 40 feet and the resulting fill dirt used to raise low-lying streets by up to 15 feet – all without the help of mechanized equipment.

The next advance was paving, with Canal Street “macadamized” in 1847. This relatively new process involved layers of crushed stone that, with use, would bind into a solid surface. Unfortunately the mud under Canal Street proved to be too much for the macadam which was soon riddled with “mire holes.”

Was Your Street Paved with Wooden Bricks? –

Next the city tried a few sections of wooden plank road, a “passably good pavement,” before turning to cobblestone in 1856. “Cobble stone well laid on a solid even bed is a good pavement, indefinitely durable,” Baxter writes, but it is “very noisy and hard upon the horses’ feet.”

“During the war period,” he continues, “not much progress was made in paving,” but starting in 1866 some streets were paved with “round stone” – which, as best as I can figure, consisted of smooth, uncrushed stones. (If you know more, please let me know.)

Wooden blocks came next, and “after this little if any stone pavement was laid except along street borders and gutters” – although Baxter does mention recent “experiments” with a brand-new paving material for sidewalks known as “artificial stone or concrete.”

If you’ve read this far, you might enjoy the entire Chapter 50 of Baxter’s History, “Village Roads and City Streets.” As you can probably tell, I found it fascinating.


Mozart’s Starling: Seeing Nature with New Eyes

The past is full of surprises, and so is Nature.

Did you know, for example, that Mozart had a pet starling that he loved so much that he held an elaborate funeral for it when it died? Seattle author Lyanda Lynn Haupt turns this historical tidbit into a fascinating book that’s part biography, part nature study, and part detective novel, as well as a heart-warming memoir of Haupt’s life with her own pet starling, Carmen.

<i>Mozart’s Starling</i>: Seeing Nature with New Eyes –

Although starlings today are one of the most reviled birds in North America, outcompeting native birds and destroying some $800 million worth of crops, in Mozart’s time they were often sold as pets. One day as he was walking down the street, Mozart was surprised to hear a starling whistling a phrase from his brand-new piano concerto. Delighted, he brought the bird home where it soon became, in the words of one reviewer, “his companion, distraction, consolation, and muse.”

Starlings, it turns out, are bright, inquisitive, playful, highly sociable, and extraordinary mimics – much like Mozart himself. They are closely related to mynas, and their songs, which have always sounded like random squawking to me, are actually bits of mimicked sounds they weave together into complex, individual compositions.

Haupt’s pet Carmen mimicked everything from the beeping of the family microwave to phrases such as “Hello, honey.” She also turned “my household and my brain completely upside down,” Haupt writes, leading her on a pilgrimage far beyond anything she had envisioned. Their surprisingly intimate relationship gives the book its emotional heart and reminded me of books I once loved such as Rascal and The Yearling.

Mozart’s Starling is both entertaining and inspiring, and you’ll learn a lot from it about birds, Mozart, creativity, animal intelligence, and what we all have in common with wild creatures – including those you may have once scorned as nothing more than pests.


‘Little Beeswing’ Stars
at Hampton Court Flower Show

‘Little Beeswing’ Stars at Hampton Court Flower Show –

No, that’s not a typo in the title above. We recently learned that the dahlia we’ve always known as ‘Little Beeswings’ – with an “s” at the end – is actually ‘Little Beeswing’ – without the “s.”

Whatever you call it, this cheery little pompon dahlia has been a favorite of our customers ever since we first offered it in 2003. And this past July it was a hit at the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show where it was part of a display by Plant Heritage, the world’s leading non-profit devoted to preserving garden plants.

As Lucy Pitman explains at the Plant Heritage blog, “‘Little Beeswing’ has been offered in the Plant Exchange for several years by a National Collection Holder in Cambridgeshire, he having obtained his original plants from Scott Kunst of Old House Gardens in Michigan. Because this bright Dahlia was flowering so beautifully in perfect time for the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show, it became the star of the show in the Plant Guardian display.”

The National Collection Holder she mentions is our good friend Alan Shipp, the Noah of hyacinths, who’s been growing ‘Little Beeswing’ ever since we sent it to him years ago. When Lucy asked Alan about its history, he sent her to us, and after several hours of research in the OHG library and online, here’s what we think we know.

‘Little B’ at Hampton Court

‘Little Beeswing’ (the earliest spelling of its name) was introduced in 1909 (not 1886 or 1938, as some sources indicate) by Keynes, Williams, and Co. (not J.K Alexander), a celebrated nursery in Salisbury, England (not Australia) that introduced dahlias from at least 1863 to 1938. It apparently made its way to the US shortly thereafter (not in 1938 as Lucy believed when she wrote her blog) because by 1916 it was noted as “new” in a list of “best dahlias” published by the New York Agricultural Experiment Station, and in 1917 it was mentioned in the Bulletin of the Dahlia Society of California.

Learn more at Lucy’s blog post, or simply order ‘Little Beeswing’ now for spring planting. If it can shine at the Hampton Court Flower Show, just think what it can do in your garden!


Century-Old Sequoia Moved in Boise

How do you move a tree that’s 98 feet-tall and weighs 800,000 pounds?

Very carefully.

That’s exactly what happened in Boise this past summer when Idaho’s largest and most historic giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron gigantean) – a gift from naturalist John Muir in 1912 – was moved a couple of blocks to make way for a hospital expansion.

Giant sequoias are the world’s largest trees, growing up to 300 feet tall with trunks over 25 feet in diameter, and they can live a very long time. The oldest one documented by ring count was 3500 years old, so the 115-year-old Boise tree, as one of the moving crew pointed out, is “still a young tree.”

Century-Old Sequoia Moved in Boise –

Unfortunately Boise’s summer was brutally hot and dry this year, and giant sequoias are native to very humid regions where, according to Wikipedia, they “supplement water from the soil with fog taken up through air roots, at heights to where the root water cannot be pulled.”

Nevertheless, the Texas firm that moved the tree gives it a 95% chance for survival, and Boise’s City Forester Brian Jorgenson (who I had the pleasure of meeting this past summer at my sister’s wedding) says he’s “cautiously hopeful.” Jorgenson checks on the tree daily, monitoring four soil-moisture testing stations and a hose running up its trunk that sprays water on the upper branches to humidify them.

Almost three years ago, the same Texas firm moved a 250-year-old oak tree here in Ann Arbor (see “Save the Oak!” and “One Year After”) and it’s still alive and well. Here’s hoping the Boise sequoia will thrive as well – and outlive us all.

Learn more and watch at and


Protect Yourself from Garden Thieves

A long-time customer – who asked to remain anonymous – emailed us this sad report after reading our article “The Queen of Garden Antiques” in last month’s newsletter:

“While collecting garden antiques is a wonderful adventure, there is a sad downside. Our garden was burgled last summer with more than 20 garden ornaments taken, many of them antiques.

Protect Yourself from Garden Thieves –

“Someone had obviously cased the garden and knew what to take. They even went into my greenhouse and potting shed in search of portable items.

“Alas, I had a photograph of only one of the stolen pieces, taken for a garden tour brochure. Lesson learned. Everything will now be photographed and kept in a file along with all of the receipts, which I do have safely stored.

“Since then I have had a welder bolt some of my smaller urns in place, and though I refuse to consider security cameras, I have hung up signs up that say ‘Smile, you are on camera.’ We keep our six antique iron gates locked, along with the greenhouse and potting shed, and I am like a little old lady walking around with my ring of keys. Not a pleasant way to have to live.

“Forty-plus years of collecting, gone. And I will not be able to – or even want to – start replacing many of these lost treasures. They took a pair of cast-iron tulip urns, for example, that I loved. I saw a similar pair (pictured) offered recently for $4200. Mine were a bit smaller, but when I bought them years ago I probably spent less than $100 each.”

My condolences, friend! And here’s hoping that your heartbreaking story will be a wake-up call for the rest of us.


Alexander Hamilton: Bulb Gardener

Alexander Hamilton: Bulb Gardener –

At a Sotheby’s auction earlier this year, hundreds of Alexander Hamilton’s papers were sold for just over $2.5 million. The 77 lots offered included “outstanding examples of his political writings, love letters to his future wife, and Hamilton’s appointment as aide-de-camp to General George Washington,” according to an excellent article in the Southern Garden History Society’s Magnolia.

The auction lot I wanted sold for $40,000, double its pre-sale estimate. In it were two pages of notes and a sketch that Hamilton drew for the gardener at Hamilton Grange, his beloved estate in upper Manhattan.

Although Hamilton directs his gardener to plant potatoes, get raspberry plants from a neighbor, and repair fences, many of his notes deal with ornamental plants, including American natives. “A few dogwood trees, not large, scattered along the margin of the grove would be very pleasant,” he writes, and “wild roses around the outside of the flower garden with [mountain] laurel at foot.”

Best of all is his plan for an impressively large bed of flower bulbs. “I should be glad if space could be prepared in the center of the flower garden for planting a few tulips, lilies, hyacinths, and [blank],” he writes. “The space should be a circle of which the diameter is eighteen feet: and there should be nine (9) of each sort of flowers.”

Hamilton’s sketch shows twelve clusters of flowers arranged around the outside of the circle. At the 12:00 position are lilies (probably Madonna lilies which had long been the most popular), then tulips, a cluster that’s not labeled, hyacinths, another unlabeled cluster, lilies, tulips, lilies, hyacinths, unlabeled, hyacinths, and tulips.

Alexander Hamilton: Bulb Gardener –
Hamilton Grange, Manhattan

The unlabeled bulbs are especially intriguing. (What historian doesn’t want to know more about the past?) My best guess is that Hamilton had a specific bulb in mind but didn’t know or couldn’t remember its name – otherwise why not just fill those spots with more of the other bulbs? And what did he intend for the center, and for later when the tulips, hyacinths, and early-summer-blooming Madonna lilies were done?

Although we may never know the answers to those burning questions, we do know this: Alexander Hamilton – immigrant, self-made man, revolutionary leader, financial mastermind, and Founding Father – was a gardener and bulb-lover just like us.


Winston-Salem to Host
Conference on Restoring Southern Gardens

Winston-Salem to Host Conference on Restoring Southern Gardens – www.OldHouseGardens

“Gardening in a Golden Age” is the theme of this year’s Conference on Restoring Southern Landscapes and Gardens scheduled for September 21-23 at garden-rich and always fascinating Old Salem.

Focusing on the early 20th century, the conference kicks off with the hand-colored “magic lantern” slides of photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston in “Picturing the American Garden, 1900-1930.” Other lectures and tours will explore Ellen Biddle Shipman’s work in Winston-Salem, African-American landscape architect David Williston, garden writing and art in the early 1900s, and more.

The conference will be rich in the camaraderie of kindred spirits, too – which I remember well from the last one I attended. To learn more or register, visit


The Queen of Garden Antiques

The Queen of Garden Antiques –

Garden antiques are increasingly popular – and I’m not just talking about “shabby chic” garage sale finds.

No one knows this better than Barbara Israel, the country’s leading source for high-end garden antiques. With customers ranging from Yoko Ono to the Smithsonian Institution, Israel currently offers such choice items as a terra-cotta Art Moderne greyhound for $3500, a Victorian fern-patterned cast-iron bench for $8500, and – at the top of my wish list – a 15-foot-tall copper-roofed garden pavilion for $55,000.

Israel has been selling garden antiques for over 30 years from her home in Westchester County, NY. There, as Therese Ciesinski writes in the winter 2017 issue of Garden Design, her lush gardens are filled with “a frozen menagerie of more than 200 maidens, warriors, animals, fountains and birdbaths, urns and obelisks, gates, finials, and follies. They are a reminder that strolling one's garden to contemplate nature, history, and art is still a worthwhile pastime.”

The Queen of Garden Antiques –

Israel has written two fascinating and highly regarded books: the ground-breaking Antique Garden Ornament: Two Centuries of American Taste (1999) and the very helpful Guide to Buying Antique Garden Ornament (2012).

Her quarterly newsletter “Focal Points” is also excellent, with articles on “different types of garden ornament, specific makers, design suggestions, conservation,” and remarkable gardens, or for something lighter you can follow her on Facebook.

To browse her current inventory – which is much more than what’s pictured at her website – go to Even if you can only dream of spending thousands of dollars on garden antiques, I think you’ll find it richly rewarding.


Guardian Gardens: Crowd-Sourcing Preservation

Guardian Gardens: Crowd-Sourcing Preservation –

Last year the Historic Iris Preservation Society (HIPS) launched an exciting grassroots effort to save the world’s rarest iris – and they’re hoping you’ll help.

The Guardian Gardens network is a far-flung group of iris enthusiasts who’ve agreed to grow and share varieties that are most at risk of extinction. The goal is to have five different gardeners growing each of these rare iris so that even if one or two lose theirs it won’t be lost forever.

You don’t have to be an expert to help, says Doug Paschall, the program’s coordinator. If you have experience growing iris and a sunny spot that’s big enough for four or five rhizomes of a few varieties, he’d love to hear from you.

“We have irises waiting to be adopted,” Doug adds, and mid-summer is the ideal time for planting them. To learn more, check out the Guardian Gardens FAQ at the HIPS website.

And here’s a thought: wouldn’t it be great if other plant societies sponsored preservation efforts like this? In fact, if you feel inspired to launch a Guardian Gardens project for daffodils or dahlias or daylilies or glads or peonies – all of which have active national societies devoted to them – please let us know and we’ll help spread the word about it here. Working together, we can not only “Save the Iris” but “Save the Other Flowers, Too!”


Regal Lilies Blooming in the Wilds of China

Regal Lilies Blooming in the Wilds of China –

Regal lilies will be blooming here soon, and every year when their fragrance fills the air I’m reminded of a scene described by E.H. “Chinese” Wilson, the great plant explorer who first brought them to America.

Of the 2000 plants Wilson collected in his eight trips to Asia, the regal lily was his favorite – although an avalanche broke his leg while he was collecting it and he walked the rest of his life with what he called his “lily limp.” In his 1917 book, Aristocrats of the Garden, he writes:

“Journey in thought with me for a moment or two, westward . . . to Shanghai, gateway of far Cathay; onward and westward up the mighty Yangtsze River for 1800 miles, then northward up its tributary the Min some 250 miles to the confines of mysterious Tibet; to that little-known hinterland which separates China proper from the hierarchy of Lhassa; to a wild and mountainous country . . . where mighty empires meet.

“There in narrow, semi-arid valleys, down which torrents thunder, and encompassed by mountains composed of mud-shales and granites whose peaks are clothed with snow eternal, the regal lily has her home. In summer the heat is terrific, in winter the cold is intense, and at all seasons these valleys are subject to sudden and violent wind-storms against which neither man nor beast can make headway.

“There in June, by the wayside, in rock-crevice by the torrent’s edge and high up on the mountainside and precipice, this lily in full bloom greets the weary wayfarer. Not in twos and threes but in hundreds, in thousands, aye, in tens of thousands. Its slender stems . . . , flexible and tense as steel, overtop the coarse grasses and scrub and are crowned with . . . large funnel-shaped flowers, each more or less wine-colored without, pure white and lustrous on the face, clear canary-yellow within the tube and each stamen filament tipped with a golden anther.

“The air in the cool of the morning and in the evening is laden with delicious perfume exhaled from every blossom. For a brief season this lily transforms a lonely, semi-desert region into a veritable fairyland.”

Thanks to Wilson's heroic efforts, it’s easy enjoy a bit of this grand fairyland in your own backyard. Simply order now for fall delivery!


June 20-21:
Midwestern Garden History Symposium

Coming Soon: Midwestern Garden History Symposium –

Our good customer Marta McDowell, author of All the President’s Gardens, will be the keynote speaker at the third Midwestern Garden History and Design Preservation Symposium on June 20-21 in Akron.

After two years at Hale Farm and Village, the symposium is moving this year to the Akron Art Museum with its spectacular, gravity-defying 2007 addition. Lectures such as “Garden History Resources at the Smithsonian,” “Everyday Documentation,” and “Restoring Mrs. Harding’s Rose Garden,” will be complemented by tours of local historic landscapes including the incomparable Stan Hywet estate (pictured here) with its Warren Manning birch allée and perennial garden by Ellen Biddle Shipman.

For more information or to register, contact Kathie Vandervere at


OHG Has Moved to the Country!

OHG Has Moved to the Country! – www.Old

The last two days of May here were filled with excitement and dust as we packed up and moved to our new home at this historic farmstead just three miles away.

After 24 years of working out of Scott and Jane’s old house and barn near downtown Ann Arbor, OHG is now headquartered in this even older house at the Washtenaw Food Hub. Located just north of town, the Hub supports small farmers by distributing their crops to local grocery stores, restaurants, and institutions as well as providing workspace for slow-food businesses such as Locavorious and The Brinery.

Although most people don’t eat our bulbs, the Hub’s owners – whose Tantre Farm is one of the state’s oldest certified organic farms – see our mission as a good fit for theirs, and we’re excited to be a part of the Hub community. Maybe best of all, moving to the Hub will allow us to consolidate our five Ann Arbor micro-farms into one location right outside our office door.

While Vanessa and the crew were settling in at the new place, Scott celebrated his first day of retirement by not shaving, eating pancakes for breakfast, buying a couple of new plants, and – since he’s only 80% retired – working on this newsletter. Life is good!


Meet Alan Shipp, the Hyacinth Master

Meet Alan Shipp, the Hyacinth Master –

With a collection of 243 hyacinth varieties dating back as far as the 1700s, our good friend Alan Shipp is an inspiring example of what one person can do to save our incredibly rich garden heritage.

Although we’ve been the sole US source for Alan’s hyacinths for many years, and we’re proud to call him a friend, we learned a lot we never knew about him in an engaging post at the British blog Spitalfields Life. Alan is a great story-teller with a jolly sense of humor, and the blog’s author captures him well.

Alan talks about how his family farm got its start when his grandfather won a pony in a raffle, how he learned how to propagate hyacinths from a slug, and how the “extinct” 1767 double white-with-red-eyes ‘Gloria Mundi’ was rediscovered in a tiny village in Romania.

Read it all, and enjoy photos of Alan’s hyacinth fields in bloom, at

(As soon as we learn what varieties Alan will have available for us this fall, we’ll announce it here in our blog.)


New and Improved:
The “Bible” for Restoring Historic Gardens

Like most people, I never thought about plants and gardens having a history – until almost 40 years ago when I bought my first old house and walked out into the tiny yard eager to make it my own.

New and Improved: The “Bible” for Restoring Historic Gardens -

There behind the overgrown privet hedge, I discovered a few barely surviving plants, including a white, single-flowered peony. Suddenly I realized it wasn’t just my yard. Someone else had loved it before me. But who, and when? Was the peony ten years old, or 50, or 100? And what about the hedge?

Looking for answers proved frustrating at first. This was back in the dark ages – before Google. But finally I discovered this book by Rudy and Joy Favretti – or rather the original, 1978 edition of it – and I was no longer wandering in the wilderness.

I’ve been using and recommending it ever since, and as I say on the back cover of this updated and expanded third edition, “Bravo! A new edition of this indispensable work has been long overdue. It’s the original guide to researching and restoring American home landscapes, by the dean of American landscape preservation. For decades, savvy home-owners and museum sites have turned to it for guidance – and now, with its many updates and additions, it’s better than ever.”

Although the core of it is unchanged, Rudy and Joy have added illustrations and updated information throughout. Best of all are the additional examples from their long careers, including a page on the archaeological excavation that revealed the long-vanished, mid-1600s garden at Bacon’s Castle in Virginia.

If there’s an old yard you care about, Landscapes and Gardens for Historic Buildings is the book for you. It may not change your life the way it did mine, but it will certainly help you see any yard – and the wider landscape all around us – with new eyes.


Coming Soon: The New OHG

A new day is dawning at Old House Gardens!

By the time we send our next newsletter, OHG will have a new owner – the incredible Vanessa Elms, our current VP for Bulbs – and a new home.

Coming Soon: OHG 2.0 –

Although we can’t announce our new location yet, OHG isn’t moving far – just outside of town a bit where we can consolidate our five micro-farms and grow even more old bulbs for you.

I say “we” because I’ll be sticking around one day a week to help out, mostly by writing our newsletter/blog, hunting for more great bulbs to offer, and serving as OHG’s expert emeritus and ambassador for heirlooms.

As for my endless hours of new free time, I don’t know what I’m going to do – and I like that. At first I plan to just take it easy, sleep more, garden more, and spend more time with my wife Jane, our dog Toby, and these two little angels, our first grandkids, 8-month-old Benjamin John and one-month-old Nolan James.

To all of you who sent me happy retirement wishes this past year, thank you! You warmed my heart and made this big step easier. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished together over the past 24 years, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for Old House Gardens.


History in Bloom: Presby Memorial Iris Garden

History in Bloom: Presby Memorial Iris Garden –

One of the world’s greatest collections of historic iris is celebrating its 90th anniversary this month, and you’re invited to the party!

Established in Montclair, New Jersey, in 1927, the Presby Memorial Iris Garden today includes nearly 14,000 iris plants of 1500 varieties. Every year from mid-May through the first week in June, over 100,000 flowers bloom there in a dazzling display that’s come to be called “the rainbow on the hill.”

To celebrate the big anniversary, on weekend afternoons this May volunteers will be serving cookies and lemonade on the porch of the Garden’s historic Walther House. Iris dug from Presby’s vast collection will also be for sale on weekends starting this Friday from 10:00-3:00.

If you visit, please share a photo or two on our Facebook page – and even though admission is free, we hope you’ll donate generously to support the important work Presby is doing to preserve great old iris for all of us.


Brighten Your Summer with “House-Pot Lilies”

Brighten Your Summer with “House-Pot Lilies” –

We recently learned an old name for pink rain lilies from Russell Studebaker, Tulsa garden writer and a great friend of ours.

Russell saw a pot of them in full bloom at a garden club meeting. “The owner had gotten them long ago from her family in Missouri, but she never knew their actual name,” he wrote us.

“They called them ‘house pot lilies’ because they were always grown in an old pot that no longer served for cooking – probably enamelware, agateware, or graniteware that had developed a hole. Can’t you just imagine how nice those little pink flowers would look blooming in a blue enamelware pot?”

Rain lilies bloom when rain drenches their roots, so it makes sense that they’d thrive metal pots – although ours bloom just fine in regular terra cotta, as you can see here.


Misspellings Can Be Fun: Turboroses

Misspellings Can Be Fun: Turboroses –

If you’re not sure how to spell tuberose, you’re in good company. Misspellings – or alternative spellings? – have been common for hundreds of years.

In 1664, for example, the great John Evelyn in his Kalendarium Hortense spelled it tuber-rose – which makes a certain sense because it grows from a tuber (actually a rhizome, but whatever) and smells as wonderful as a rose.

Many of the misspellings entered into our website’s search-box are mundane ones such as tube rose, tuberosas, tuberrosa, tuperose, toberose, and tuberus.

Others are more entertaining, though, such as tubarose (with really big flowers?), tiberose (a Roman form?), tubrose (best in containers?), tuberoe (less expensive than tubecaviar?), and my favorite, turborose, which perfectly expresses the flower’s high-powered fragrance.


American Gardener Honors Us
for Making a Difference

American Gardener Honors Us for Making a Difference –"/>

From Christmas tree ornaments to one of my favorite childhood books, Julia Polentes tells the OHG story in the March-April issue of the American Horticultural Society’s American Gardener. As an avid reader ever since I joined the Society in 1989, it’s a special pleasure to be profiled in “AHS Members Making a Difference.”

Julia starts with me comparing heirloom bulbs to the ornaments on our family Christmas tree which are “pretty to other people, but there’s a deeper beauty for us” because they have “so much more personal meaning.” She talks about my “epiphany” when I realized that historic plants can be found all around us if you know what you’re looking for, and my efforts since 1993 to preserve “the best bulbs of the past in order to enrich gardens today.”

Now that I’m retiring, Julia notes that I’m appreciating more than ever “the far-flung, world-wide village of people who have helped turn this dream into a reality.” As in Stone Soup, one of my favorite books as a kid, what we’ve accomplished together is “way bigger and better than what any of us could have done alone.”

For more, you can check out the entire article at our website.


Learn (and Have Fun!) at the
2017 Mount Vernon Garden Symposium

Learn (and Have Fun) at the 2017 Mount Vernon Symposium –

For a good time, call Dean Norton – Director of Horticulture at Mount Vernon and the organizer of this year’s symposium on “Gardening, Landscape, and Design in the Age of Washington.”

Three years ago I lectured for Dean at the first Mount Vernon symposium, and it was more fun than just about any other conference I’ve ever attended. Sure I learned a lot, and it was great hanging out with so many fellow enthusiasts, and the Mount Vernon grounds are incredible.

But what really sticks in my memory was an elegant after-hours reception on the piazza and grand lawn high above the Potomac where Dean fired off his home-made PVC potato cannon to show us how the Washingtons celebrated special occasions – although they, of course, used a real cannon.

Learn (and Have Fun) at the 2017 Mount Vernon Symposium –

This year’s symposium is set for June 2-4 with a wide array of presentations including Restoration Agriculture, Creating Central Park, Ceramic Vases and Floral Ornament, Jefferson and Wine, Slavery at Mount Vernon, and The Garden of the Future.

Our good customer Joe Gromacki will also be there talking about his Kelton House Farm, an early-1700s New England farmhouse moved and rebuilt in Wisconsin, which Joe has furnished with colonial antiques and surrounded with heirloom plants, including thousands of our bulbs.

To learn more and register, go to the 2017 Symposium page at It’s sure to sell out, though, so don’t delay. I’ll hope to see you there!


Save the Cobblestones,
Granite Curbs, Oyster Shell Paths, and More!

Save the Cobblestones, Granite Curbs, Oyster Shell Paths, and More! –
patterned brick sidewalk, Columbus, Ohio

Although streets, sidewalks, and paths are important landscape features – imagine your city or favorite park without them – they’re often overlooked as historic resources, and paved over or ripped up without a second thought.

A new website,, hopes to change that by opening our eyes to the rich tapestry that’s hiding in plain sight beneath our feet. From colonial cobblestones to mid-century modern hexagons, paving has changed dramatically through the years, often with a fascinating regional diversity.

Save the Cobblestones, Granite Curbs, Oyster Shell Paths, and More! –
Minneapolis, MN

In Philadelphia, for example, a few old streets are paved with iron-slag bricks that look like dark blue ceramic. In the Midwest, wood blocks were once widely used, “with some cities like Detroit utilizing them for most of their paved streets by 1899,” writes’s creator, Robin Williams of Savannah College of Art and Design. “Yet nationwide only a handful of streets preserve this material, including Wooden Alley in Chicago – a rare example of a street that has attained historic designation and protection.”

See photos and learn more at “Neglected Heritage Beneath Our Feet” and

Then keep your head down – and if you see something interesting, Robin would love to hear from you at


‘Jersey’s Beauty’ and
the Millionaire Gardeners of Sewickley

‘Jersey’s Beauty’ and the Millionaire Gardeners of Sewickley –

(Here’s a fascinating story by our good customer Letitia Savage. Thank you, Letty, for sharing it with us!)

By the 1920s Pittsburgh’s industrial millionaires had flocked to Sewickley, Pennsylvania, to summer in country houses along the bluffs of the Ohio River. While the estates had ranks of professional gardeners, the owners were often actively involved, particularly when it came to competitive gardening.

Mrs. B. F. Jones, Jr. was typical of these serious amateur gardeners. The wife of a steel industry magnate, she lived at Fairacres, a 100-room Louis XVI mansion surrounded by acres of gardens. There, with the help of her gardener R. M. Fletcher, she grew thousands of dahlias.

In Sewickley the gardening year culminated in September with the annual Dahlia Show. As the Sewickley Herald reported in 1926, “There is hardly another flower which makes such a glorious showing when exhibited in mass.... Those who have never seen a dahlia show have indeed a thrill yet to live for.”

The three-day event included almost 50 competitive classes for dahlias – including many for vases of 12 to 25 blooms of a variety. Photos of the show in the society pages of the Pittsburgh press are still breathtaking. Dahlias in vases tower over the heads of the small girls admiring them, and some arrangements are even taller than their mothers.

In 1926, the star of the show was ‘Jersey’s Beauty’. The Herald featured it in a full color photo on the front page of it’s September 25 edition and noted, “If you are familiar with dahlias, you will be interested in ‘Jersey Beauty,’ in some ways the finest dahlia developed in recent years.” Introduced just three years earlier, it originally sold for $25 a tuber – a trifle for Mrs. Jones but the equivalant, according to the ADS’s Martin Kral, of “fifty gallons of milk, or a man’s new suit, or one of those modern home appliances, a vacuum cleaner.”

‘Jersey’s Beauty’ and the Millionaire Gardeners of Sewickley –

Although it’s not 100% clear whether it was Mrs. Jones’s ‘Jersey’s Beauty’ that stole the show in 1926, local reports say the Herald’s cover-girl dahlia was raised at Fairacres, and an oil painting of that flower once hung in splendor there, perhaps alongside her Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington.

Twenty years after her death in 1941, Mrs. Jones’ opulent summer home was razed. Her painting of ‘Jersey’s Beauty’ survives, though, preserved by the Sewickley Valley Historical Society, along with a stack of small cards tied with a faded blue ribbon. Although they don’t include dates or variety names, each card documents one of the many flower-show awards that Mrs. Jones won, poignant souvenirs of her prize-winning roses, chrysanthemums, and, above all, her glorious dahlias.

(‘Jersey’s Beauty’ went on to become one of the most popular dahlias of the 20th century. Although it’s almost sold out, if you order it now you can enjoy it just as Mrs. Jones once did – and it won’t cost you anywhere near as much as a vacuum cleaner!)

‘Jersey’s Beauty’ and the Millionaire Gardeners of Sewickley –
‘Jersey’s Beauty’ and the Millionaire Gardeners of Sewickley –

News from 1902: The First Collarette Dahlias

News from 1902: The First Collarette Dahlias –
‘President Viger’

While researching our ‘Fashion Monger’ dahlia – a Garden Gate “must have” plant for 2017 – we discovered this tidbit in the Oct. 2, 1902, Journal of Horticulture, Cottage Gardener, and Home Farmer:

“A new type of dahlia has come into existence. It has been named the collaret form and first was brought to notice by Messrs. H. Cannell and Sons [of] Swanley, Kent. . . .

“This new class possesses . . . a series of stalked appendices of a collaret form producing a great ornamental effect. The engraving gives a good idea of its nature. The colors are somewhat limited at present but in the course of another season or so the variation of tints will be very much increased . . . .

“The original plants have already been awarded Gold Medals and Certificates at various important exhibitions. ‘President Viger’ is the best-known. . . . As there may be a future for this race, it is probable that many growers will obtain plants to form a beginning with them.”

There was indeed “a future for this race,” and scores of collarets – or collarettes, as they’re usually spelled in the US – are available today. ‘President Viger’ is extinct, alas, but we offer two of the oldest – ‘Clair de Lune’ (1946) and ‘Fashion Monger’ (1955) – and you can order them now for delivery in April!


“Supremely Beautiful” ‘Ophir’ Daylily

Ten years ago in a pioneering article for Horticulture magazine, Betty Gatewood sang the praises of heirloom daylilies.

“These plants, once treasured by gardeners for their elegance of form, are mostly unknown today,” she wrote. “But they are distinguished by one great quality: they retain the classic lily shape that has largely been bred out of modern daylilies. They are supremely beautiful. For this alone they are worth seeking out.”

Betty’s number one example was the lovely ‘Ophir’. One of the very first American-bred daylilies, ‘Ophir’ has “trumpet-shaped flowers (rather like a golden Easter lily) of unmatchable shape,” she wrote. “It is also a robust grower, tall (about four feet), slightly fragrant, and very floriferous. Blooming . . . for almost a month, it is far too fine a plant to be forgotten.”

We completely agree – and though this “supremely beautiful” daylily is sure to sell out soon, you can still order it now for April delivery. If you listen carefully you can probably hear Betty saying, “You won’t regret it.”


Paradise Lost:
Winston-Salem’s Municipal Iris Garden

Paradise Lost: Winston-Salem’s Municipal Iris Garden –

Does your city have a municipal iris garden? Does any city?

That’s why I was so surprised when this postcard arrived in the mail recently.

It’s a modern reproduction of a 1949 postcard showing the “Municipal Iris Gardens, Winston-Salem, NC.” On the back it reads: “The Municipal Iris Garden contains 20,000 plants, of 525 varieties. The blossoms range from pure white to deep purple, gold, and dark red, and are at their best during May. Weeping willows and rustic bridges add to the beauty of the rolling parkway.”

20,000 plants – of 525 varieties! I had to know more, so I contacted the folks who sent the card – which announces the 2017 Conference on Restoring Southern Landscapes and Gardens– and here’s what I learned.

“The development of the gardens to their present state of beauty is a typical Cinderella story,” the Twin City Sentinel reported in 1938, “with many local iris growers acting as fairy godmothers.”

It all started in the early 1920s when a new neighborhood was laid out which included a four-acre “gully-way” that was left untouched “since there seemed no other purpose it could serve.”

Although today we’d probably consider it a valuable natural area, times were different then and in 1931 a doctor who lived nearby urged the city to beautify it with iris donated from his own extensive gardens. Iris were enormously popular at that time, and before long other neighbors joined the campaign and the Municipal Iris Garden was born.

The city parks department cleared the land, planted weeping willow trees, built stone and rustic-work bridges over the stream, and laid out gracefully curving beds. By 1938 the Twin City Sentinel reported that “Winston-Salem’s iris attract visitors from all parts of the state. From an unattractive gully the city parks department has transformed Runnymede Parkway into one of the most popular parks in the city.”

But that was then. By the early 1950s the iris had been replaced with lower-maintenance azaleas, and today even those are gone. The stone bridges still stand, though, bearing silent witness to the park’s glory days – and who knows what the next chapter might be for this Cinderella gully-way?

For additional images, visit

For your own little iris paradise, see the heirloom iris we’re shipping this spring.

And many thanks to Camilla Wilcox, Kay Bergey, and Martha Hartley for sharing this remarkable story with me!


What Good is a Historic Daylily?

And why should we have historic daylily gardens?

In an excellent article for the American Hemerocallis Society, Linda Sue Barnes offers several answers to those two questions, most of which also apply to the even bigger questions: What good is any historic flower? And why should we grow them today?

What Good is a Historic Daylily? –
‘Poinsettia’, 1953

1. “Many historic daylilies have beautiful flowers. Many ... are stars or trumpets, and ... the simplicity of those flowers can provide a break from all the ruffles, fancy edges, and patterns of the modern daylily.”

2. “Many historic daylilies have spectacular garden habit,” such as ‘Autumn Minaret’ (1951) which “can easily reach 6 feet with as many as 80 blooms on a scape.”

3. “Logically enough, most of the early cultivars that are still in gardens today multiply well and are very hardy.”

4. “Historic daylilies ... extend the garden season.” In her North Carolina garden, Linda Sue has historic varieties blooming from early April – “a month before more modern cultivars begin” – well into September.

5. “Historic daylilies ... win flower shows.” Linda Sue says four 1950s classics have “won Best in Show in our region in the last few years” and “many more have won Best in Section.”

lemon lily, 1570

6. “Historic daylilies .... can, even today, be good parents.” Breeders such as Brian Mahieu are using them to create new daylilies with “vigor, clear colors, a lot of unusual forms, and fragrance.”

For photos of 16 historic daylilies and Linda Sue’s reasons for having historic daylily gardens, see the entire article at our website. There you’ll also find a link to the AHS website where 20 historic daylily gardens, each with 50-100 historic varieties, are listed by region.

To see just how good historic daylilies can be, why not grow a few yourself? We’re offering 14 for April delivery including fragrant lemon lily, spring-blooming ‘Gold Dust’, and 4-6 foot tall ‘Challenger’ – all of which Linda Sue would tell you are great garden plants.


Five Timeless Iris:
High Praise from the First President of the AIS

5 Timeless Iris: High Praise from the First President of the AIS –
‘Queen of May’

The great horticulturist John Wister helped found the American Iris Society in 1920 and served as its first president for fourteen years.

At that time, iris were exceedingly popular and scores of exciting new varieties were being introduced every year. Yet in his small book The Iris published in 1930, Wister wrote that “the more of the new things I see, the more I am convinced of the worthiness of some of our oldest varieties” – such as these:

‘Pallida Dalmatica’ (1597) – “There is nothing . . . in the whole range of iris that is finer than the true ‘Pallida Dalmatica’,” Wister wrote, adding that planting it with lemon lily (Hemerocallis lilioasphodelus) is “one of the most famous” garden combinations with iris.

Germanica (by 1500) – “The purple flag of our grandmothers’ garden . . . should never be omitted for . . . it makes a striking garden picture.”

‘Flavescens’ (1813) – Among pale yellow iris “there is nothing to surpass the variety ‘Flavescens’, well known in every old garden in this country.”

‘Queen of May’ (1859) – “On the pink side of the lavenders, the old ‘Queen of May’ is . . . still one of the best.” It is “lovely,” he added, “with white and pink lupines and pink Dianthus.”

‘Mrs. Horace Darwin’ (1888) – Although “rather dwarf,” this white iris is “wonderfully free blooming. It is unexcelled for massing and should be used in every garden in quantities.”

Of course you don’t have to be an expert to enjoy these timeless treasures. Just order yours now for April delivery!


600 Years of Flowers:
Bunny Mellon’s Art at the NYBG

If you’re lucky enough to be anywhere near New York City this winter, treat yourself to the New York Botanical Garden’s small but impressive exhibit of botanical art from the vast collection of the late Bunny Mellon.

Some 80 works from the 16,000 Mellon collected are on display, ranging from a hand-painted book illustration from 1350 to a lively 1958 lithograph by Picasso.

As you may remember from previous posts here, Mellon redesigned the White House Rose Garden for President Kennedy, filling it in spring with masses of tulips. The Dutch Tulipomania in the 1630s was a special interest of hers, and several works in the NYBG exhibit feature tulips, including one that could very well be ‘Zomerschoon’.

“Redoute to Warhol: The Botanical Art of Bunny Mellon” runs through February 12, and even if you can’t get there in person you can enjoy several of its highlights online.


New Garden Books for Giving and Getting

Although the cold, short days of winter aren’t the best for gardening, they’re perfect for garden reading – and books make great holiday gifts. Here are five new ones I’m hoping to enjoy before spring returns.

New Garden Books for Giving and Getting –

Rescuing Eden: Preserving America’s Historic Gardens, by Curtice Taylor and Caroline Seebohm: “Most gardens do not survive their creators, being sold off, dug out, or, if not utterly destroyed, then so drastically changed as to be sadly unrecognizable. The 28 remarkable properties in this book” – ranging from Middleton Place plantation to the gardens of Alcatraz – “are happy exceptions to that rule. . . . Some are still in the process of renovation, and others will never be fully restored, but all offer rare glimpses into this country's horticultural history.” (reviewed by Adam Levine in Country Gardens)

New Garden Books for Giving and Getting –

Garden Flora: The Natural and Cultural History of the Plants in Your Garden, by Noel Kingsbury: “This must be the most beautiful book of the publishing season, with an oversize format rich in botanical art and historic and contemporary photos. Every page is stunning, a revelation in art and text of flora’s long and curious history. Kingsbury’s writing is a lively backstory to what we grow in our gardens” – including most of the bulbs we offer – and “it’s also right up to the minute with insight on current plant breeding and a poignant look at the plants we’ve lost.” (reviewed by Val Easton in the Seattle Times)

Garden Books for Giving and Getting –

The Botanical Treasury, by Christopher Mills: “The excitement of discovering a new plant is almost tangible in this lavish collection of plant histories. A delightful compendium of 40 plants from around the world, The Botanical Treasury tells the story of each one through a fascinating mix of botanical illustrations, letters sent to Kew from plant hunters, and reprinted extracts from botanical periodicals. . . . The book also includes forty reproduced prints of featured plants which can be framed – the icing on the cake of this tremendous and fascinating collection.” (reviewed in The English Garden)

New Garden Books for Giving and Getting –

A Garden for the President: A History of the White House Grounds, by Jonathan Pliska: “The White House grounds are the oldest continually maintained ornamental landscape in the United States. Handsomely illustrated with historical images and newly commissioned photography, A Garden for the President explores not only the relationship between the White House and its landscape but also the evolution of its design; the public and private uses . . . ; and the cultivation of the grounds with a focus on the specimen trees, vegetable and ornamental gardens, and conservatories. (reviewed by the White House Historical Association)

Garden Books for Giving and Getting –

Bliss Irises: Family and Flowers, The Journey to a National Collection, by Anne Milner: “Anne Milner blends personal history with gardening in this beautifully illustrated book. Her story starts with the discovery that her grandfather's cousin was . . . Arthur J. Bliss, who introduced 'Dominion', a ground-breaking purple iris that made him world famous. . . . The book’s second half focuses on the [more than 175 iris Bliss introduced], with detailed information about the plants, accompanied by photographs, watercolors, and line drawings.” (reviewed in Plant Heritage)


Looking Back:
A Clickable History of Old House Gardens

Looking Back: A Clickable History of Old House Gardens –

As you can see in this snapshot, I’ve been fascinated with flowers for a long time (and don't you love my checked shorts?).

My dad helped me plant my first garden when I was seven, and although I soon learned that weeding is an endless chore, I was thrilled when I harvested my first radishes and I’ve been gardening ever since.

Eventually my love of plants led me to launch Old House Gardens, and now that I’m retiring in May we printed a short history of OHG on page 48 of our catalog.

Even better is the clickable version we posted online recently, with links to the “welcome” letter from our first catalog, our dramatic 1996 debut in Garden Design, a short video of me planting bulbs with Martha Stewart, and more.

I hope you’ll enjoy it – and then please help my crew (aka the new owners) continue the Old House Gardens story!


Decorate Your Walls
with Mural-Sized Botanical Images

Cover Your Walls with Mural-Sized Botanical Images –

Imagine an entire wall in your home or office covered with a huge image of a Dutch flower painting from the 1700s, or a bulb catalog cover from the 1800s.

For less than you might expect, a British company called Surface View offers custom-sized murals of thousands of images ranging from antique maps and vintage comic books to abstract patterns and modern photography. Any good wallpaper hanger can install them for you, and shipping for most orders is free.

Among the 600-plus botanical images they offer you’ll find 18th-century paintings of broken tulips, Victorian chromolithographs of daffodils, floral wallpaper by William Morris, close-up photos of ‘Snowbunting’ and ‘Rip van Winkle’, and antique catalog covers such as the one here of ‘Pallida Dalmatica’ iris.

That image as well as several of our other favorites are part of a recently added New York Botanical Garden collection that you won’t want to miss.

Even if you don’t end up ordering any, it’s fun browsing through the wonderland of images. Enjoy!


Revamped SGHS Website
Offers Historic Plant and Garden Riches

Revamped Website Offers Historic Plant and Garden Riches

You don’t have to be a Southerner to appreciate the Southern Garden History Society, and a recent makeover has made its website better than ever.

The site is now filled with photos and antique images, and it’s user-friendly on all devices. Back issues of its excellent journal Magnolia are now searchable, and there’s an events calendar, dozens of book reviews, and links to historic sites and organizations.

Maybe best of all is the “Plant Lists” section, a fully searchable PDF of 50 Southern plant lists spanning two centuries, from a 1734 list of plants in the correspondence of John Custis of Williamsburg to a 1922-41 list of plants Beatrix Farrand specified for Dumbarton Oaks (including winter aconite, trillium, and lemon lily).

One of my favorite lists is a 1786 newspaper advertisement for Philadelphia’s “Peter Crouwells and Co., Gardeners and Florists” announcing that “they have for sale here” – in Alexandria, Virginia – “an extensive variety of the most rare bulbous flowers, roots and seed,” including 600 hyacinths, 400 tulips, 40 double narcissus, and 26 jonquils. “Those ladies and gentlemen who want any of the above articles,” the ad continues, “will please to apply immediately at his lodgings at Mr. John Gretter’s, King Street, as he intends to set off for Baltimore in a few days.”

Even if you can’t make it to King Street in time, there’s still a lot to enjoy at


Bulb Therapy, Cultivating Place, and Us

Talking about Dinosaurs, First Gardens, and “Bulb Therapy”

If you love Old House Gardens – or heirlooms, or even just bulbs – here’s a recent blog-post and a radio interview that I hope you’ll enjoy:

Pull Up a Chair is the very personal and poetic blog of our good customer Barbara Mahany who launched it after nearly 30 years of writing for the Chicago Tribune. In “Bulb Therapy” she talks of “the healing balms of the trowel” and bulbs that “will rise and reach for the light” whispering “‘here’s your reward for believing’ or ‘here’s what you get when you hold onto hope.”

Barbara also has some kind words about us and our heirlooms, which she calls “the breathtakingest bulbs on the planet.” Read it all at .

Cultivating Place is the public radio program of our long-time customer Jennifer Jewell of northern California. Every week since February, Jennifer has been exploring the central role gardening plays in human culture, much like art, music, and literature.

On the first day of fall we had a great time talking about my childhood love of dinosaurs, our first gardens, why I launched OHG, great bulbs saved and lost, and more. It’s a very pleasant half-hour (if I do say so myself), and you can listen to it now at .


Looking Back: “Don’t Be Afraid of Hyacinths”

Looking Back: “Don’t Be Afraid of Hyacinths” –

As we celebrate my last year here at OHG, we’re going to be recycling a few nuggets from the past such as this sidebar from our 1995 catalog:

Hyacinths are the most endangered of historic garden bulbs, in part because too many gardeners still stereotype them as “formal” and “stiff.” May I suggest looking at them as “quaint” instead? As the great Philadelphia plantsman John C. Wister wrote in his classic Bulbs for Home Gardens of 1930:

“Few flowers have suffered more unjustly at the hands of the American gardening public – unjustly because they have been banned from countless gardens for no fault of their own, but on account of the revulsion of taste against the circles, half-moons, crescents, stars, and other atrocities that were cut in lawns in bygone days and filled with hyacinths.

“Big or little, white, pink, blue, or yellow, the hyacinth is a lovely flower when used with discretion or restraint. To condemn it for the bad company it kept generations ago is . . . narrow-minded . . . .

“Don’t be afraid of hyacinths. Try them and see how many different garden positions suit them. . . . But don’t be without this early and delightfully fragrant flower.”


Thanks and Comfort for “Saint Heirloom”

Thanks and Comfort for “Saint Heirloom” –
‘Mrs. Backhouse’ daffodil

Thanks to all of you who’ve emailed, called, or added a note to your order wishing me a happy retirement and thanking me for sharing our special bulbs with you. You’ve brought tears to my eyes and comfort to my heart.

Our long-time friend and supporter Betsy Ginsburg went above and beyond in a post at her wonderful blog The Gardener’s Apprentice. She titles it “Saint Heirloom” – although my staff and family will tell you I am far from a saint. Even if you can’t enjoy it as much as I do, Betsy is a great writer and always well worth reading.

Don’t miss the paragraph that starts “I heard about Old House Gardens early on” in which Betsy talks about the “inspiration and solace” she’s found in “the ivory petals of the elegant ‘Beersheba’ daffodil or the tender apricot trumpets” of her “favorite, ‘Mrs. Backhouse’,” and how in the face of tragedy our heirlooms have helped by reminding her of “eternal things – beauty, love, endurance and the endless cycle of the seasons.”

Read it all here, and if you like it, type “bulb” or “history” in Betsy’s search box to find other jewel-like posts to enjoy.


Forcing Crocus on Pebbles like Paperwhites

Forcing Crocus on Pebbles like Paperwhites –

Here’s a cool idea I stumbled upon recently in a 1957 book called Bulb Growing for Everyone.

I’d seen images like this one in catalogs from the late 1800s and early 1900s, but since all sorts of implausible things are pictured in catalogs old and new, I never gave it much thought. But the well-known Dutch bulb-grower Johan Frederik Christiaan Dix explains how it’s done:

“The receptacles in which we place [crocus] must not be so deep as those required for other bulbs, and they require far more attention insofar that a more gradual transition from a dark, cool place to a light, heated room is necessary.

“They should not be taken out into the light until the noses are fully two inches long and . . . they must on no account be brought into a hot temperature, otherwise the bulbs will shrivel up. So keep them cool until the buds rise from among the leaves. This is the moment to bring them into the room or onto a warm windowsill.

Forcing Crocus on Pebbles like Paperwhites –
‘Vanguard’ crocus

“Most crocuses cannot be expected to flower before the end of January. . . . There is one exception, however, the crocus ‘Vanguard’ which begins to flower as early as New Year’s Day, and even at Christmas.”

We plan to give it a try – with ‘Vanguard’, of course. We’ll start the bulbs as soon as possible because they need months to root and grow, and we’ll store them in the refrigerator to make sure they stay below 48° but above freezing. If you try it, too, please let us know how it goes!

If you’d rather force something easier – from fragrant hyacinths to snake’s-head fritillaries – see our complete how-to at


“Finest” Antique Flower Pot Sells for $63,250

Antique Flower Pot Sells for $63,250 –

Here’s a flower pot I’d definitely like to have sitting on my favorite plant stand. Arguably “the finest American ceramic flowerpot known,” it was recently sold at auction for $63,250.

It’s a salt-glazed stoneware pot just over seven inches tall that was made in Baltimore in the 1820s. What makes it so special is its age (most flower pots from the early 1800s were broken and lost long ago), its excellent condition (even its saucer has survived), and its unusually elaborate decoration – “an incised and cobalt-highlighted design of birds perched on the stems of a flowering plant” – which raises it to the level of folk art.

As a gardener, I immediately tried to identify the flowers depicted on the pot. They may be purely imaginary, but I think the ones described as daisies may actually be auricula primroses which were much more fashionable in the 1820s. The other, splayed-petal flowers have delicately fringed tips and so may represent pinks, while I’d say the “hanging cluster-shaped blossoms” are simply buds.

Hopefully the pot will end up on display in a museum – and if it’s ever reproduced, I’ll be first in line to buy one. See additional photos and learn more here.


Our Tiger Lilies “Look Amazing” at
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Home

Tiger lilies were Frank Lloyd Wright’s favorite flower, and he grew masses of them in the gardens of Taliesin, his spectacular Wisconsin home and studio.

Jessica Tripalin, Cultural Landscape Coordinator at Taliesin, emailed us earlier this summer saying, “The 50 tiger lilies you sent us last fall look amazing in the gardens here.”

“The preservation crew is aiming to restore the entire estate to the year Mr. Wright passed,” she continued. “Our goal is to attain the look and feel of 1959. I am so happy with the results in the gardens this year. Thank you so much for your beautiful plants!”

Jessica also sent us this photo of a few of our tiger lilies blooming in front of one of Taliesin’s massive stone chimneys and the intricate iron-pipe trelliswork that Wright designed for the gardens.

Tiger lilies are native to Japan and were frequently depicted in Japanese art. It’s easy to see how their simplicity, grace, and drama appealed to Wright, and no doubt they also reminded him of the months he lived in Tokyo while overseeing the construction of his early masterpiece, the Imperial Hotel.

To learn more about Wright’s gardens, read our review of Derek Fell’s The Gardens of Frank Lloyd Wright.


Will the Real Mrs. Langtry Please Stand Up?

Unfortunately we recently discovered that the daffodil we’ve sold for many years as ‘Mrs. Langtry’ is actually some other as-yet-unidentified daffodil.

Our NOT ‘Mrs. Langtry’ (photo on right) came to us from one of Holland’s leading experts on historic bulbs, and as you can see it looks a lot like the TRUE ‘Mrs. Langtry’ (photo on left). It’s definitely a very old daffodil, probably from the late 1800s.

However, the cup of the true ‘Mrs. Langtry’ opens a pale, creamy yellow and then matures to what the official RHS/ADS description calls “yellowish white, with canary yellow at rim.” The cup of the NOT ‘Mrs. Langtry’, on the other hand, starts out a richer yellow and never quite gets to “yellowish white.”

We’ve already contacted everyone who ordered ‘Mrs. Langtry’ and offered a refund. We’ve also posted an EXPANDED version of this article at our website so you can learn more. Please share it and help us spread the word about this mix-up.

And here’s some happier news: Breeder William Backhouse apparently named ‘Mrs. Langtry’ not for Lillie Langtry, the scandalous Victorian actress, but for the wife of one of his gardeners who was also, more importantly, his family’s beloved housekeeper.


Passing the Torch: It’s My Last Year!

I was 30 years old when I started lecturing on landscape history, and 40 when I mailed my first tiny catalog of heirloom bulbs. Now I’ve become an heirloom myself, and in May after we wrap up our 24th year of shipping, I’ll be retiring.

I hate to leave you – and my crew, our growers, and the bulbs themselves. But time rushes on and my wife, who has sacrificed a lot to help me pursue this dream, has been patiently waiting for me to join her in the joys of a hard-earned rest.

But it’s not the end of Old House Gardens. Recognizing that our “Save the Bulbs” mission is unique and important, and loving our customers like I do, my office staff asked if they could buy OHG and keep it going, and I happily agreed.

It won’t be easy, but Rita, Vanessa, Mike, and Justin are enormously talented, our shipping and micro-farm crews are awesome, and I’ll be sticking around to help them a bit, so I’m optimistic that they can make it work.

Will there be changes? Yes, and I’m excited to see what they might be. What will never change, though, is OHG’s commitment to preserving the best of the past, to delivering bulbs of the highest quality, and to treating you like a friend.

Old House Gardens would never have made it this far without the support of thousands of gardeners like you. Season after season since 1993 you’ve “crowd-funded” our mission and showered us with kind words and encouragement. Please be as good to the new owners as you have been to me.

Finally, from the bottom of my heart, thank you – and let’s have a wonderful last year together!


America’s First Peony –
and One of Louise Beebe Wilder’s Favorites

The vast majority of the peonies grown today are cultivars of the Asian Paeonia lactiflora, the first of which arrived here from China in the early 1800s causing a sensation.

But long before the lactifloras appeared, the colonists were growing a completely different species, the European P. officinalis, which had been revered as a medicinal herb since ancient times. (Officinalis means “of the [apothecary] shops.”)

Since they bloom a week or two earlier than the lactifloras, the officinalis clan came to be called May-flowering peonies. Double red ‘Rubra Plena’ was the most popular form, especially in the 19th century when it decorated the graves of so many Civil War veterans that it was called the Memorial Day peony.

But times change, and as the Civil War faded in the past and hundreds of exciting new lactiflora peonies were introduced, the old officinalis peonies gradually fell out of fashion.

“Today the May-flowering peony is neglected,” wrote the great American garden writer Louise Beebe Wilder in 1927. Yet “in peaceful old gardens that remain unfretted by changing fashions and modern introductions we are apt to find huge bushes of the old May-flowering peony or “piny” as it is called in country neighborhoods. . . .”

Several officinalis peonies grew in the Maryland garden of Wilder’s childhood. “There was the “old crimson” [‘Rubra Plena’],” she wrote, “which is yet one of my favorite peonies and exhibits almost the richest color that I know. There was a full pink sort that we children called the ‘strawberry-ice-cream peony,’ and there was a loose-petalled white one.” When she later bought an old house and garden in New York, Wilder was “happy to find those sweet and wholesome friends of my childhood growing in the tangled dooryard.”

Ancient, herbal, early-blooming, richly colored, and enduring – why not add P. officinalis ‘Rubra Plena’ to your dooryard this fall?


Green Reading: Penelope Hobhouse’s Top 10

How about settling down in the shade with a tall glass of something frosty and losing yourself in a great garden book this summer?

After a lifetime of gardening, 86-year-old Penelope Hobhouse – who has written a dozen books and designed gardens for English royalty, the RHS, and Steve Jobs – listed her ten favorite garden books in the December 2015 issue of Gardens Illustrated.

Two of her favorites, I’m happy to say, are more than a century old, and six deal with garden history!

Garden Design, by Sylvia Crowe, 1958 – “My first choice,” Hobhouse says. This work starts with a long section on garden history and “remains the most comprehensive book on design I know.”

The Education of a Gardener, by Russell Page, 1962 – A modern classic, this small book by the celebrated garden designer “describes his visits to great gardens and discusses what they taught him.”

Green Reading: Penelope Hobhouse’s Top 10 –

The Formal Garden in England, by Reginald Blomfield, 1892 – This historical survey by a man who was “violently opposed” to the then-new “natural-style” gardens “makes you think where you stand in the argument which still reverberates today.”

Penelope Hobhouse’s Gardening through the Ages, 1992 – Originally published in England as Plants in Garden History, this is “an illustrated history of plants and their influence on garden styles from ancient Egypt to the present day.”

Paradise as a Garden in Persia and Mughal India, by Elizabeth Moynihan, 1979 – “Highly readable” and a “masterpiece,” this is “the best introduction” to garden-making from Cyrus the Great in 540 BC to Shah Jehan in 1660 AD.

The Landscape of Man: Shaping the Environment from Prehistory to the Present Day, by G. and S. Jellicoe, 1979 – “Perhaps this is the only book you need,” Hobhouse writes, because it covers garden history and design “but with an emphasis on the garden as part of the environment.”

Green Reading: Penelope Hobhouse’s Top 10 –

Italian Villas and Their Gardens, by Edith Wharton, 1903 – The only American book on her list, this 1903 work by the famous novelist “captures the essence of Renaissance taste.”

The Hillier Manual of Trees and Shrubs, by Hillier Nurseries – This is “for me the most valuable” reference book, Hobhouse writes, because “I cannot envisage a garden without a framework of woody plants.”

Perennials and Their Garden Habitats, R. Hansen and F. Stahl, translated in 1993 – “Astonishingly detailed” and “my new bible for planning my own garden,” this encyclopedic German work “puts more emphasis on the ecological needs of a plant.”

The Green Tapestry: Perennial Plants for the Garden, by Beth Chatto, 1999 – “No library can be complete without” one of Chatto’s books, Hobhouse concludes. “She has taught us to garden better using suitable plants in sustainable ways.”

Could one of these be your next favorite garden book? If you can’t find them at your local library, ask about borrowing them through inter-library loan which is simple and free. Or consider buying used copies at Amazon and elsewhere, where some are available for as little as $.01 plus $3.99 shipping – less than you’d probably pay for a six-pack of annuals.


Iconic Garden
Reblooms after $3 Million Restoration

Gardens are constantly changing, and every gardener knows how quickly weeds can get the upper hand – which is pretty much the story of Naumkeag, a world famous Massachusetts estate designed by one of America’s most inventive landscape architects, Fletcher Steele.

For almost 30 years starting in 1926, Steele worked closely with Naumkeag’s owner Mabel Choate to develop an eclectic series of gardens that ranged from a whimsical terrace ringed with Venetian gondola poles to the modernist masterpiece known as the Blue Steps.

On her death in 1958, Choate bequeathed Naumkeag to the Trustees of Reservations, the leading Massachusetts nonprofit devoted to scenic and historic sites. Unfortunately, the estate’s needs outpaced the Trustee’s resources, and little by little Steele’s brilliant gardens lost their luster or disappeared altogether.

But happily Naumkeag’s story doesn’t end there. In 2012 an anonymous donor promised the Trustees a million dollars to restore the entire landscape – but only if they could match that donation and finish the enormous project by this summer. Against all odds, they did! Read the whole inspiring story and see the results in the spring 2016 issue of Preservation.


There’s No Debate:
All the Presidents’ Gardens is a Winner

Just in time for election season, Marta McDowell’s fascinating new book All the Presidents’ Gardens is now on bookstore shelves and online.

As Marta writes in the preface, “whether gardeners lean right or left, blue or red, we are united by a love of green growing things and the land in which they grow,” and that’s what this book is all about. From George Washington – who “like most serious gardeners was a bit plant-crazy” – to Michelle Obama and her iconic vegetable garden, All the Presidents’ Gardens tells the story of the White House landscape and the people who’ve shaped it for the past 200 years. Even better, Marta sets this special place’s history into the much larger story of American gardening and shows us how new plants and technology along with deep-seated cultural changes and the whims of fashion have all played a role in its constant evolution.

I remember Marta telling me way back in 2002 when she first ordered bulbs from us that she was working on a book about Emily Dickinson – and did I know that Dickinson loved hyacinths? Since then she’s published Emily Dickinson’s Gardens as well as Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life, but as much as I like those earlier books, I think All the Presidents’ Gardens is her best yet. There’s a rich depth and breadth to it and yet it reads almost like a novel, brightened by Marta’s personal voice and engaging sense of humor.

See what I’m talking about – and enjoy some of the book’s 215 color and black-and-white images – at the Timber Press website where a “book preview” of the first 73 pages is available for your browsing pleasure. Then, if you’re like me, I bet you’ll want to get your own copy of this All-American winner.


The Astonishing Gardens (and Bulbs) of Alcatraz

Like most people, I had no idea that flowers ever grew at The Rock – until 2009 when an order for some of our dahlias and glads arrived here from that infamous island in San Francisco Bay.

Alcatraz, I soon learned, has a long, complex history, and gardens have been a part of most of it. Some were public plantings tended by prisoners while others were the home gardens of the warden and guards who lived there with their families.

Last month I spent an afternoon walking Alcatraz with Dick Miner, a long-time volunteer who’s been helping to bring its gardens back to life after 40 years of abandonment. Dick talked about the herculean effort to clear decades of weeds and overgrowth and the excitement of rediscovering paths, retaining walls, and a surprising array of garden plants that survived amid the ruins.

“Bulbs were a favorite garden plant of the island’s residents,” Alcatraz’s director of gardens Shelagh Fritz wrote recently in Horticulture magazine. “Many bulbs originate from other Mediterranean regions and therefore find great success here – a happy coincidence since soldiers and guards simply brought their favorite garden plants with them to Alcatraz” including daffodils, freesia, Spanish bluebell, snowflake, and grape hyacinth. “When we cleared the overgrowth from the gardens, these bulbs came back to life after lying dormant for decades.”

Dahlias and glads appear in historic photos of Alcatraz, and Shelagh has ordered many of ours to replant there including ‘Clair de Lune’, ‘Old Gold’, and ‘Thomas Edison’ dahlias and Abyssinian, ‘Bibi’, ‘Dauntless’, ‘Fidelio’, ‘Spic and Span’, and ‘Starface’ glads.

For a look at these fascinating gardens, see Shelagh’s article, “A Hardened Garden.” To learn even more, go to And if you’re one of the 1.5 million people who will visit Alcatraz this year, don’t miss the docent-led tours of the gardens!


Tour the Instanbul Tulip Festival – from Home

The spectacular bulb plantings at Holland’s Keukenhof Gardens are internationally famous, but have you ever heard of the Instanbul Tulip Festival – where four times as many bulbs will burst into bloom this month?

“Istanbul sparkles in April,” wrote Frazer Henderson in a recent newsletter of the Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society. “Brilliant splashes of color decorate public parks, streets, road verges, and traffic islands . . . as millions of tulips exuberantly announce the arrival of spring. Started in 2005, the city’s Tulip Festival seeks to revive the flower’s popularity and celebrate its contribution to Turkish culture. This year over 30 million bulbs – all propagated in Turkey – were planted.

Tour the Instanbul Tulip Festival –  from Home

One highlight of last year’s Festival was the world’s largest floral carpet blooming in front of Hagia Sophia, the spectacular Ottoman cathedral built in 543. “Over 500,000 bulbs in . . . deep purple, red, bright yellow, and burnt orange were planted in a highly geometric design covering 1262 square meters. . . . A babel of exaltations . . . confirmed the carpet’s awesomeness.”

If you can’t get to the Festival in person this spring, treat yourself to a virtual visit at Click any of the tiny photos at the bottom of the article for a slideshow of many, many more. Enjoy!


Brand New Stamps Feature Heirloom Flowers

Anyone who loves heirloom flowers (or reads our blog) will find a lot to like in a set of stamps the post office issued recently.

The ten “Botanical Art Forever” stamps are illustrated with images drawn from the antique catalog collection of the New York Botanical Garden. Six of the flowers pictured on the stamps, we’re happy to say, are bulbs — daffodils, dahlias, corn lilies (Ixia), and three different images of tulips, including one you may have seen at our website — along with petunias, roses, stock (Matthiola), and Japanese iris.

See all ten of these beauties or order your own here.


The Wall Street Journal, Heirloom Flowers, & Us

“Rather than planting big-box-store flowers this spring, why not raise storied heirloom varieties that yield bragging rights as well as beauty?” So asks Bart Ziegler of the Wall Street Journal in a Feb. 20-21 article titled “Petals with Provenance.”

“Heirloom vegetables have been the rage for more than a decade,” Ziegler continues, “with foodies cooing over zebra-striped tomatoes and blue potatoes. But a lesser-known category of historic plants has its own devoted following: heirloom flowers.”

Bishop of Llandaff, 1927

Illustrated with a big color photo that includes our catalog and even a few of our gladiolus corms, the article quotes experts from Monticello, Old Sturbridge Village, and Longwood Gardens, along with yours truly and our good customer Alicia Guy.

“Cooking-school manager Alicia Guy, who grows antique dahlias at her home outside Seattle, said of doing so, ‘It makes me feel like I have a connection with gardeners from 100 years ago that transcends technological change,’” Ziegler writes. Alicia “likes knowing her great-great grandmother might have cared for the same flowers,” including ‘Bishop of Llandaff’, a “summer showstopper.”

Mexican Single tuberose, 1530 -

“The bragging rights historic plants give gardeners are well-founded,” Ziegler continues. “You can grow the same tulips planted in the White House Rose Garden when it was redesigned for President John F. Kennedy, in 1962; the variety of tuberoses Louis XIV enjoyed at Versailles; or the diminutive Silver Bells daffodils that author Eudora Welty tended in her Mississippi yard in the 1930s. All are available through Old House Gardens.”

“Raising heirloom plants,” he adds, “yields more than beauty: You ensure their survival. Catalogs from the . . . early 1800s offered hundreds of varieties of hyacinths, said Scott Kunst, founder and owner of Old House Gardens,” while today “most purveyors sell a half-dozen or so.”

The article ends with a call to action that you’ve probably heard from me before: “Heirloom flowers can’t be conserved in a museum like historic documents or antique furniture. ‘The only way to save them is to grow them,’ Mr. Kunst said.”

You can read the entire article here. (And thank you, Bart and the Journal, for shining a light on the flowers we love!)


How Did Beautiful ‘Jane Cowl’ Get Its Name?

Before it sells out early this year (as it always does), here’s a bit of history about big, beautiful ‘Jane Cowl’. Sent to us by our good customer Jim O’Donnell of Philadelphia, it’s from the November 1927 edition of Garden and Home Builder:

“In the large class at the American Dahlia Society’s show for seedlings” – which are dahlias that are not yet named or for sale – “not one of the more than thirty varieties exhibited could be casually passed by. Judging this rich amount of material occupied the gathered experts for some considerable time, and it was by no means an easy walkover for the winner; and yet, when Miss Jane Cowl [one of the most famous actresses of that era], who honored the exhibition with her presence on the first day, was invited to select out of the seedlings the one that should be named for her, she unhesitatingly and almost instantaneously decided on the same bloom that the judges had already selected for the big award.

“It would not be wise, however, to argue from this that the expert judges might be done away with. Miss Cowl, of course, selected the bloom that pleased her most without any regard to its comparative distinctiveness and other qualifications and standards by which the experts must measure any newcomer. There is, however, much satisfaction to be had in the fact that the popular favor and expert judgment in this instance, at all events, did coincide.”

See what Miss Cowl and the experts liked so much here, and if you decide you have to have it, be sure to order soon!


Historic Meadowburn Farm Offers Rescued Dahlias

Meadowburn Farm in northwest New Jersey was once the home of popular garden writer Helena Rutherfurd Ely. When published in 1903, Ely’s A Woman’s Hardy Garden was one of the first American garden books to reject Victorian pattern bedding in favor of a more informal style of gardening with shrubs, old-fashioned annuals, and perennials.

Meadowburn Farm has changed remarkably little since Ely’s death in 1920. It’s been owned by one family since 1930, and since 1883 its gardens have been tended by Ely’s original gardener and his descendants. Today, with the help of the Garden Conservancy, the gardens are being restored to their former glory

Ely wrote that dahlias, glads, cannas, and red salvia were the only pattern-bedding plants she grew at Meadowburn. Dahlias are “decorative and desirable for cutting,” she explained, and “all the varieties are lovely.”

Today seven dahlia varieties survive at Meadowburn, possibly from as far back as Ely’s time. Unfortunately by the time Quill Teal-Sullivan was hired four years ago to guide the restoration of the gardens, the names of all had been lost. Quill turned to us for help, but since literally tens of thousands of dahlias have been introduced since Ely’s time, I knew that identifying Meadowburn’s relics would be a long shot at best.

Historic Meadowburn Farm Offers 7 Rescued Dahlias

After looking at photos, all I could tell her was that one might be ‘Jane Cowl’ and another ‘Deuil du Roi Albert’. We sent her tubers of both so she could grow them side by side to compare foliage, height, bloom-time, and other details – which is the only way to be certain about an identification – and we put her in touch with nearby dahlia experts who could visit Meadowburn and offer their insights.

Quill finally decided that one of the dahlias is indeed ‘Jane Cowl’, and she’s given new names to the others. Perhaps oldest of all – to judge by its 19th-century form and the way its flowers nod – is the one that’s now called ‘Meadowburn Byba Vincenza’ (see above left).

All seven are for sale at the Meadowburn website, with proceeds helping to fund the restoration of the gardens, including “the 150-foot dahlia allèe – filled with heirloom varieties – [which] erupts with color in late summer, as it has done for more than a century.” Learn more about Meadowburn’s gardens and its dahlias – and then maybe order one of its relics to grow in your own garden this summer! (Feb. 2016)

Historic Meadowburn Farm Offers 7 Rescued Dahlias

Heirloom Named 2016 Perennial Plant of the Year

Although it’s not a bulb, the 2016 Plant of the Year of the Perennial Plant Association is an heirloom – and extraordinary.

‘Honorine Jobert’ is one of the oldest Japanese anemones, dating back to 1858. According to William Robinson in The English Flower Garden (1893), it “originated at Verdun sur Meuse in the garden of M. Jobert. From a large tuft of [normally pink] A. japonica, a stem arose with pure white flowers.” Jobert named it for his daughter, and it’s been gracing gardens ever since.

A big clump of ‘Honorine Jobert’ flourishes by the front sidewalk of one of the old houses in our neighborhood, and every fall my wife and I make multiple pilgrimages to it (with Toby, of course) so we can gaze at its exquisite flowers.

A vigorous perennial, ‘Honorine Jobert’ does best in zones 4b-7b, in light shade and alkaline soils that never dry out completely. It can be slow to get established, but once it does it spreads eagerly, it’s deer-resistant, makes a fine cut-flower, and will light up your fall garden. Learn more from our friend Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp, and look for it online or in local garden centers this spring.


Gray is Cool – And So is 500-Year-Old ‘Florentina’

Once scorned as boring, gray is now one of the coolest colors around, as anyone knows who’s picked up a shelter magazine or watched a home improvement show recently.

But gray flowers?? Believe it or not, one of the most beautiful iris I know is the luminous, pewter-gray ‘Florentina’, and two of the 20th century’s leading horticulturists agree that it’s something special.

In her 1916 best-seller My Garden, Louise Beebe Wilder called ‘Florentina’ “a charming inhabitant of old gardens” and “one of the loveliest of irises,” and in 1930 the first president of the American Iris Society, John Wister, wrote that it “well deserves all its popularity, as nothing is better either for massing or cutting.”

Wister described its unique color as “pearly white,” and some gardeners see it as a very pale lavender, but to Wilder and me it’s truly gray. Wilder called it “French gray,” a pale gray warmed by a hint of brown or gold, but to my eye it most resembles the silvery gray of softly polished pewter.

‘Florentina’ is “invaluable to us in creating May pictures,” Wilder wrote, no doubt in part because gray goes well with just about everything. She suggested combining it with pink bleeding heart and Single Late tulips, yellow leopard’s bane (Doronicum), and lavender woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata), or planting it “in spreading groups near pink-flowered crabapple trees.”

So, are you cool enough for this gloriously gray beauty? Order a few now for delivery in April!


Fragrant Glads: Why More Aren’t Like ‘Lucky Star’

Bill Seidl of Wisconsin emailed us a while ago looking for a fragrant glad from the 1950s. Although we couldn’t find it for him, he taught us something about why gladiolus fragrance is so elusive:

“From about 1957 through 1967,” Bill wrote, “I hybridized glads with fragrance as a goal. No progress. In 1968, for $200, I imported 20 bulbs of ‘Lucky Star’ from Joan Wright [its New Zealand breeder] and worked at fragrance from that angle. Still no improvement.

“Dr. Robert Griesbach [the famous breeder of lilies and daylilies] worked at it at the same time and gave up after a while. He realized before me what the trouble was: ‘Lucky Star’ has a genetic makeup of AaAa, where A stands for the fragrance gene from Abyssinian glads [which Joan Wright had already discovered were virtually impossible to cross with regular glads]. Unfortunately during meiosis the genes segregate uniformly rather than randomly, which means the pairings are always Aa, never AA or aa. So when you cross them with regular glads, which don’t have any fragrance, the resulting plants are always Aaaa – or in other words, there is always a DECLINE in fragrance.

“At age 83 I do not intend to start over with glads,” Bill added. “But in 1968 I also spent $200 to buy four peonies from Japan, the first intersectional hybrids by Toichi Itoh. That was a better investment. It inspired me to get into peony breeding. Now you can find me on the internet if you type my name and ‘peony’ into any search engine.”

As for ‘Lucky Star’, Bill says he still plants “six corms every year in a pot atop a five-gallon pail, which makes for easy watering,” and he still enjoys its fragrance, which he pointed out is “best sniffed toward evening.” To sniff it yourself, order ‘Lucky Star’ now for spring planting!


The Artist’s Garden: American
Impressionism and the Garden Movement

Gardening is a creative act, and plants can be amazingly beautiful, so is it any surprise that artists are often gardeners — or should I say that gardeners are often artists?

In The Artist’s Garden, the intertwining histories of American art and American gardening from about 1880-1920 are explored in seven essays by noted experts. Written to accompany a traveling exhibit organized by art historian and avid gardener Anna O. Marley of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the book focuses on artists from the Northeast and the Philadelphia area which has had a rich gardening tradition for centuries.

More than 100 of the book’s 250 pages feature full-page color illustrations of paintings and other works by artists ranging from well-known figures such as Childe Hassam and Mary Cassat to lesser lights whose work is often equally impressive. Although the quality of the reproductions isn’t as sparkling as might be hoped — Impressionism, after all, emphasized sunlight and vibrant colors — paging through them is a great pleasure and offers fascinating glimpses of the gardens of the era.

As might be expected, the essays vary in interest and readability, but they’re all worthy contributions. I especially liked Katie Pfohl’s “The Garden Painted, Planted, and Printed” which explores the rise of chromolithography in nursery catalogs and commercial art and its impact on fine art and the public’s acceptance of the brighter palette of Impressionism.

If you’re lucky enough to live near Winston-Salem or Pasadena, you can enjoy the exhibit itself at the Reynolda House Museum of American Art through January 3 or the Huntington Library near Pasadena from January 23 through May 9. If not, add the book to your holiday wish list and you can enjoy it in the comfort of your own home all winter long.


Broken-Color Iris: From ‘Loreley’ to ‘Bewilderbeast’

New to our catalog for delivery in April is ‘Loreley’, one of the most popular iris of the 20th century. Introduced in 1909, ‘Loreley’ was one of the first “broken-color” iris, a type that has become increasingly popular in recent years.

Unlike broken tulips whose stripes are caused by a benign virus, broken-color iris are irregularly splashed with contrasting colors due to a genetic mutation. Although at least one dates to the 19th century – ‘Victorine’ of 1840 – most early examples were probably discarded as misfits. The enormous popularity of ‘Loreley’, however, helped iris breeders begin to see these “flawed” iris in a whole new light.

Varieties with names like ‘Kaleidoscope’ and ‘Joseph’s Coat’ followed, but ‘Loreley’ remained the most popular broken-color iris until the elaborately patterned, purple and white ‘Batik’ was introduced in 1986. ‘Batik’ won the AIS’s top prize for iris its size and became a huge commercial success, opening the door for the scores of broken-color iris introduced since then, often with amusing names such as ‘Bewilderbeast’.

As our friend Mike Unser writes in his excellent blog post about the history of broken-color iris, “No two blooms are ever just alike, and they can create a very lively and exuberant effect in the flower garden.” To see for yourself, order ‘Loreley’ now for delivery in April!


JFK’s Tulips – More History and a New Sampler

We knew that ‘Blue Parrot’ tulips were featured in the redesign of the White House Rose Garden initiated by President Kennedy in 1962 (see “JFK’s Garden”), but thanks to a tip from a friend, we’ve now learned a lot more about that iconic garden – and we’re celebrating with a brand new sampler of five fabulous tulips that bloomed for Kennedy there.

Located just outside the Oval Office, the Rose Garden has a long history, but by Kennedy’s time it was woefully neglected. He re-envisioned it as a flower-filled ceremonial space for welcoming foreign dignitaries, hosting major press conferences, and so on, and he enlisted the remarkable Bunny Mellon to turn his vision into reality.

Mellon was a philanthropist, art collector, and avid amateur gardener. Her redesign featured an open lawn surrounded by boxwood-edged flower beds and four great saucer magnolias transplanted from the Tidal Basin. Kennedy was intimately involved in the development of the garden and, having read Thomas Jefferson’s garden diary, urged Mellon to include plants in it that Jefferson grew. “It was truly President Kennedy’s garden,” Mellon said later. “His concern for its growth and well-being was never ending.”

See photos and learn more about the Rose Garden’s long history at the White House Historical Association’s website or – for even more – treat yourself to a copy of the summer 2015 issue of White House History which is devoted to the topic.

And now with our brand-new “Springtime in Camelot” sampler, you can enjoy five of the tulips that bloomed in Kennedy’s garden. We’ll send you three bulbs each of lavender ‘Blue Parrot’, dark maroon ‘Black Parrot’, flamingo-pink ‘Fantasy’, rose-pink ‘Mariette’, and ‘White Triumphator’, all for just $25. No matter what your politics, this beautiful sampler deserves your vote!


Tulips Gone Wild:
Florentines in Yorkshire and Sweden

Although it’s a graceful wildflower with a long history in gardens, the Florentine tulip (T. sylvestris) is also a bit weedy, spreading by underground stolons to produce new plants that can take years to bloom. Two articles in the Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society newsletter gave me a deeper appreciation for both its history and its vigor.

Linda Chapman explains that the Florentine is “a tetraploid (having double the number of chromosomes) which may account for its vigor. It is not native to the UK but is naturalized here, though how it arrived is not known. It could have come with the Romans” or much later with “Flemish, Walloon, or French refugees from 1540 onwards.”

When Linda went searching for Florentines where they’d been reported in the past, she found almost none – until she visited a protected “Site of Special Scientific Interest” in Yorkshire. There along the banks of the River Nidd “there were tulips as far as we could see, literally hundreds of them. It was a truly remarkable sight.”

In a second article, Anita Irehoim writes about the Florentine in Sweden. “Olof Rudbeck the Elder (1630-1702) established the first botanical garden in Sweden at Uppsala and grew the ‘yellow tulip from Bologna’” – an early name for the Florentine tulip. (Florence and Bologna are 50 miles apart.) By 1744 it was naturalized in Sweden, and today it’s still foundespecially in grass areas in old gardens and parks but also in forest edges and along [roadside] verges.” Anita says “the best way of getting flowers is to disturb the soil. Dig and turn the soil upside down! It makes some sense since it is . . . a weed of the vineyards.”

Olof Rudbeck’s son was also a botanist, and “one of his best known students was Carl Linnaeus, the man who devised our system of plant nomenclature.” Today Linnaeus’s summer house is a museum and “sanctuary for surviving Linnaean plants. Of the 900 varieties he may have had in the garden, only about 40 remain today – one of which is T. sylvestris.”


JFK’s Garden and ‘Blue Parrot’ Tulips

‘Blue Parrot’ — one of the seven tulips we’re offering for the first time this fall — once played a leading role in the White House Rose Garden.

According to a 1963 LIFE magazine article titled “JFK’s New Garden,” the “once rundown” space outside the Oval Office was bulldozed and replanted as a “traditional 18th-century garden” with a lawn for presidential receptions.

“And the master gardener is none other than urban oriented J.F.K. himself,” the article continues. “While Jackie toils at renovation in the White House, the President happily shows visitors around the great outdoors of the flower beds. ‘Isn’t this garden terrific?’ he glows. ‘And you know, you’re only allowed to stand in one spot on the grass for two minutes.’”

The garden was designed by Bunny (Mrs. Paul) Mellon, a good friend of the First Lady who went on to spend the rest of her long life — she died last year at the age of 103 — gardening, designing gardens, and collecting rare garden books at her Virginia estate, Oak Spring Farms.

The article includes color photos and a partial plan of the garden where “visitors now parade amid a panoply of Blue Parrots, santolina, Oriental Splendor, Queen of Sheba, Yellow Cheerfulness, periwinkle, and Shot Silk nourished by seven gardeners working diligently under the President’s very eye.”

See the entire article here, and learn more in our follow-up article here.


Campernelle Narcissus:
From Slave Quarters to Lake Superior

One of our all-time best-selling bulbs is our true, American-grown Campernelle narcissus. Often called the “large jonquil” in old books and catalogs, Campernelles are a naturally-occurring hybrid of Narcissus jonquilla (the “small jonquil”) and N. pseudonarcissus (Lent lily) collected from the wild sometime before 1601.

In zone-8a East Texas, our good friend and daffodil expert Keith Kridler makes an interesting observation about this enduring daffodil: “One of the things I’ve noticed in our area is that the black slaves nearly all had Campernelles and jonquils blooming where they lived. You often find at larger plantation headquarters that the main house where the white folks lived (this part of the country was poor, so we’re talking about a simple ‘dog-trot’ house here) has few if any daffodils, but back from the house aways and further down the spring creek, the slaves’ or sharecroppers’ location is marked with masses of these daffodils today.”

Although they’re best known and loved in the South, Campernelles also do fine for us here in zone-6a Ann Arbor – and sometimes even further north. For example, our good friend Nancy McDonald who lives near Lake Superior in zone-5a Grand Marais, Michigan, writes: “I’ve had your Campernelles since 1995 and they’ve done very well, multiplying freely. So maybe they’re hardier than you think, especially in a mix of sand and old horse manure” – and when your garden is insulated by ten feet of snow every winter, as Nancy’s is.


Gender-Bending “Indian Turnip”

In 1820 when it was listed in America’s very first bulb catalog, Indian turnip was the common name for the striking native plant that most of us today call jack-in-the-pulpit. Although its raw corms are poisonous, Native Americans learned to neutralize the poison by roasting or drying them for six months, after which they could be peeled and ground into a flour for making bread.

Jack-in-the-pulpit and Indian turnip are just two of this intriguing plant’s many names which include (so the internet says) Iroquois breadroot, starchwort, pepper turnip, bog onion, dragonroot, memory root, Indian cherries (for its red fruit), Indian cradle, brown dragon (to distinguish it from its native cousin, green dragon), petit precheur (in Quebec), aronskelk (in Dutch-settled areas), tuckahoe, cooter-wampee, wake robin (a name more often applied to trillium), Adam’s apple, devil’s ear, cobra lily, and — from its Old World cousin Arum maculatum — cuckoopint and lords-and-ladies.

And here’s another fascinating tidbit: jack-in-the-pulpit can change from male to female and back again. When they’re smaller, plants are generally male, but when environmental conditions are favorable and they grow large enough, they become female, producing seeds in a cluster of bright red berries. The year after fruiting or when conditions are challenging, plants often change back to male until they can build up the strength to set seed again.

This multi-talented native bulb is easy to grow in light shade, and you can order it now for fall planting.


Summer Fun:
An Online Guide to Historic Landscapes Near You

Summer is a great time for visiting other people’s gardens, and if you like historic gardens – or historic parks or maybe even historic cemeteries – there’s a wonderful online guide that will help you find ones close to where you live or travel, including some you probably never even knew existed.

It’s called “What’s Out There” and it’s an ongoing project by The Cultural Landscape Foundation, the country’s leading non-profit devoted to historic landscapes. With it you can easily search for landscapes by location – for example “Michigan” or within so many miles of your zip code – or by landscape type – including garden/estate, botanical garden, public park, golf course, and even roof garden – or by designer, style, or the property’s name.

To find out what’s out there by you, go to and click “Advanced Search” in the list on the right. Or if you’re using a smart-phone, click the handy, GPS-enabled “What’s nearby” button to see everything within a 25-mile radius. And have fun!


Book of the Month: The General in the Garden

Mount Vernon’s head gardener Tatiana Lisle visited us last month, and along with gifts of home-made soap (including “Honey and Yogurt” with honey from her backyard hives, and “Hempalicious” with . . . well, we were afraid to ask), Tatiana also brought us a couple of wonderful new books.

If you’re a foodie I’m sure you’ll enjoy the fascinating Dining with the Washingtons — with recipes for everything from and fairy butter and salamongundy to cherry bounce — and if you’re a gardener I highly recommend The General in the Garden.

Although beautiful enough to be a coffee-table book, The General in the Garden is also rich in information. At its heart are three chapters exploring Mount Vernon’s landscape history. The first tells of Washington’s dramatic redesign of his estate after the Revolutionary War. The second details the ever-changing restoration of the landscape from 1860 to 2005. And the third details the meticulous research and archaeology that led to the recent recreation of the Upper Garden — which for most of the 20th century was a formal rose garden — into three enormous, utilitarian vegetable beds bordered by relatively narrow flower beds. The book concludes with a historical guide to everything from “Greenhouse and Slave Quarter” to “The Lost Deer Park” along with lists of plants grown at Mount Vernon during Washington’s time.

As one of the most important American landscapes to survive from the 18th century, Mount Vernon has long deserved a book of this caliber. Whether you simply page though it enjoying the illustrations or read every word including the footnotes, The General in the Garden will give you a deeper appreciation for this extraordinary landscape, for the difficult art of landscape preservation, and for Washington himself, a man who was not only the father of his country but a gifted landscape designer and an unabashed tree-lover.


See Our 20,000 Tulips in Colonial Williamsburg

Since 2009 we’ve been proudly supplying all of the bulbs that Colonial Williamsburg plants throughout the 300 acres of its world-famous historic village. If you haven’t seen them blooming there, we highly recommend you add “visit Williamsburg in spring” to your bucket list. It’s really something.

This spring our tulips also graced the cover and a four-page photo spread in Colonial Williamsburg: The Journal of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. “The tulips arrive from Old House Gardens, a supplier of heirloom flower bulbs, during October’s first week,” the article begins. “They are planted anew each season to ensure that the displays in Historic Area gardens are spectacular. More than 20,000 tulips are planted, usually around November 1. More than 14,000 bulbs of other kinds – narcissus, anemones, alliums, hyacinths, and others – go into the ground as well.”

To enjoy the photos, start at the cover (which may load slowly) and then enter 28 in the page-number box at the bottom of the screen. Although we don’t offer most of the tulips in the photos to home gardeners, you can order the stiletto-petalled Tulipa acuminata (on page 31) and all the rest of our fabulous tulips NOW at last fall’s prices – and enjoy a bit of Colonial Williamsburg in your own back yard next spring.


Heirloom Myth-Busting #2:
Does an Heirloom Have to Be 50 Years Old?

Absolutely not. Although some people may tell you that’s a requirement, they’re just confused or oversimplifying. Trust me, there’s no International Registrar for Heirloom Plants that’s charged with officially defining the term – and age is relative, in any case.

Some plants like peonies and apples will live for a very long time, even in a totally abandoned garden, while other plants like dahlias and tomatoes will disappear most places unless someone saves, stores, and replants them every year. This means that 50-year-old peonies are relative youngsters compared to the many that survive from 100 or even 150 years ago, while 50-year-old dahlias are already hard to find, making them, in effect, much older.

It’s sort of like the way it is with dogs. It doesn’t make sense to define an “old” dog as one that’s at least eight years old because Irish wolfhounds rarely live that long while Chihuahuas can live to be twice that age.

That’s why I believe that insisting on a specific cut-off date for heirloom plants is misguided, and that rarity or endangeredness has to be as much a part of the definition as age itself. Heirlooms have been handed down because they’re wonderful plants, and the older they are the more they allow us to experience the incredible diversity of the past. (Hence our OHG tagline, “So Much More than New.”) But if we don’t grow and care for heirlooms, even the toughest of them will eventually be lost, and the ones that are most in need of our care are the ones that are the rarest and closest to extinction – even if they’re not yet 50 years old.

(You might also enjoy reading my earlier newsletter article, “Heirloom Myth-Busting #1: Are They Heirloom, Heritage, Antique, Vintage, or Historic Plants?”)


Online Now 14,000 Antique Garden Catalogs

Here’s some exciting news for all of you who enjoy the antique images we use in our print catalogs. Last week the Biodiversity Heritage Library celebrated their amazing online collection of over 14,000 historic garden catalogs with a week-long social media event called “Garden Stories.” Even if you missed our Facebook alert about it, you can still:

Online Now for Your Viewing Pleasure: 14,000 Antique Garden Catalogs –

1. Read the Library’s 12 blog posts about the history of garden catalogs, including ones on Shaker seeds, catalog art, and “Leading Ladies.” Click the “Older Posts” link at the bottom of each set of articles to see them all.

2. Enjoy the thousands of antique catalog images the Library has posted at Flickr. Be sure to click on your favorite images to see others from the same catalog – and if you find one you think would be perfect for our next catalog, let us know!

3. Explore some of the Library’s thousands of digitized catalogs dating from 1782 to 1969. Leaf through the 1825 catalog of the William Prince nursery, for example, and you’ll find 22 pages of fall-planted bulbs – including several whose names you’ll recognize from our catalog – and almost two pages of dahlias which at the time were so new to cultivation they were placed in the section labeled “Green-House Plants.”

The Biodiversity Heritage Library is a consortium of natural history and botanical libraries working together to digitize “the legacy literature of biodiversity” and make it more widely available in a global “biodiversity commons.” The BHL’s garden catalogs were digitized mainly from the collections of the National Agriculture Library (which holds some 200,000 catalogs), the New York Botanical Garden, the Missouri Botanical Garden, and Cornell University. We applaud the BHL’s work and we’re glad they recognize the value of historic garden catalogs!


Celebrate ADS Centennial with “Cream of the Crop”

Congratulations to the American Dahlia Society on its 100th anniversary!

Introduced from Mexico in 1798, dahlias became one of the most popular plants of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The UK’s National Dahlia Society was founded in 1881, the German Dahlia Society in 1897, and – after a failed attempt in 1895 – the ADS was established in 1915. The new society held its first national show that fall in New York’s Museum of Natural History. The blooms were displayed in milk bottles, winners took home $100 worth of ribbons and medals as well as $325 in cash, and the show drew some 35,000 enthusiastic viewers.

Dahlias are on the rise again today, and of all the bulbs we ship in the spring, they’re the most popular with our customers. They’re easy to grow, great for bouquets, and spectacularly diverse. To celebrate the ADS centennial, here are four easy ways to add at least one of these incredible flowers to your garden this spring:

‘Little Beeswings’

1. Grow the oldest dahlia that still ranks as an ADS “Fabulous 50” dahlia – ‘Kidd’s Climax’, which last year won 78 blue ribbons or higher awards.

2. Grow an heirloom that still ranks as an ADS “Cream of the Crop” dahlia – ‘Kelvin Floodlight’ (with 42 blue ribbons or higher awards in 2014), ‘Bonne Esperance’ (26), ‘Juanita’ (18), ‘Thomas Edison’ (16), and ‘Little Beeswings’ (16).

3. Grow a dahlia that’s so old it could have been shown in the very first ADS show: ‘White Aster’ (introduced in 1879), ‘Union Jack’ (1882), ‘Tommy Keith’ (1892), ‘Little Beeswings’ (1909), ‘Wisconsin Red’ (1910?), or ‘Prinzessin Irene von Preussen’ (1912).

4. Grow one of our easy heirloom dahlia samplers, Dreamy Dahlias or Endless Bouquets.


Tips from 1954:
Companion Plants for “Up and Coming” Daylilies

“Gaining rapidly in popularity, daylilies are truly one of the most up-and-coming perennials we can choose for our gardens,” wrote G. M. Fosler and J. R. Kamp in a nifty little 1954 booklet titled Daylilies for Every Garden. With its mid-century vibe, the booklet offers these tips for companion plantings:

“Daylilies are often planted with early bulbous stock, such as tulips and daffodils. The daylily foliage does not interfere during the blooming periods of these plants. Later in the season the maturing and unattractive bulbous foliage is hidden by the expanding lush daylily clumps.

“The earliest blooming varieties [such as ‘Gold Dust’, ‘Sovereign’, and ‘Orangeman’] are effectively combined with bearded iris, the whites and the delightful shades of blue and purple in iris contrasting beautifully with the gold and yellow daylilies. The later daylilies . . . also make ideal garden companions for bearded iris and peonies. Daylily foliage does not grow very large until after the iris and peony blooming seasons are past. It is then that the daylily really comes into its own to continue the succession of color in the garden.

extra early ‘Orangeman’

“For pleasing effects later in the summer, the artistic gardener will think of endless combinations. Some daylilies work in well with colorful phlox, columbine, and blue delphiniums. Purple liatris is very striking with yellow daylilies. Many daylily colors also harmonize pleasingly with Shasta daisies, floribunda roses, oriental poppies, platycodon [balloon flower], hardy lilies, and even fall chrysanthemums. Highly interesting foliage contrasts are also possible with such plants as canna, coleus, dusty miller, and hosta. . . .

“An all-season perennial border made up of tulips, iris, peonies, daylilies, and chrysanthemums will provide continuous interest from early spring until frost.”

We’re shipping all 18 of our heirloom daylilies right now, but please note that in a few weeks they’ll be too large to ship safely, so if you want them, NOW is the time to order.


Daffodils in American Gardens: 1733–1940

This is a landmark book, not only because of its content but simply because it’s been published. Twenty years ago I don’t think anyone would have even considered publishing an entire book devoted to the history of daffodils in America. And yet here it is, and that in itself is a testament to the progress that’s been made in convincing people that old plants can be just as garden-worthy as new ones, and that preserving them is as important as preserving historic buildings and other relics of our cultural history.

Our friend Sara Van Beck, the book’s author, has been an advocate for historic daffodils for many years. Her late father John Van Beck, was the founder of the Florida Daffodil Society and joined with me in the late 1980s to persuade the American Daffodil Society to establish a special section for Historic Daffodils in every ADS show across the country. In Daffodils in American Gardens, Sara shares the wealth of information – and images – that she’s collected over the years not only from old books and nursery catalogs but from letters, diaries, periodicals, and from exploring the daffodils that survive at historic places and abandoned sites throughout the Southeast. And what a wealth it is!

Although this may not be the easiest book to read (think dissertation rather than pop fiction) and Sara and I may sometimes disagree in our interpretation of the historical record, Daffodils in American Gardens is a major work of garden-history scholarship, and I’m thrilled that it’s been published. Congratulations, Sara, and thank you!


Old Masters Remixed:
The Floral Still Lifes of Bas Meeuws

If you’d love to own one of those sumptuous flower paintings from Rembrandt’s era filled with striped tulips, cabbage roses, and other exquisite blooms, but their multi-million dollar price tag is beyond your budget, take a look at the astonishing art of Dutch photographer Bas Meeuws.

With his digital camera and hours of painstaking work in Photoshop, Meeuws creates images that both mimic the centuries-old masterpieces and yet are strikingly new. Like the original artists, he starts by creating images of individual flowers — and insects, snails, and so on — and then later draws from this digital stockpile to assemble his bouquets. By the time he’s done composing, manipulating shadows, erasing cut lines, and so on, he may spend as much as 60 to 100 hours on a single work.

Meeuws’ bouquets feature many of the spectacular broken tulips we offer from the Hortus Bulborum. When the original paintings were created in the 1600s, these tulips — and many of the other flowers depicted in them — were so new and rare that it was actually cheaper to buy a painting of them than the flowers themselves. In his photographs, Meeuws says he tries to evoke the feelings that “people looking at the picture then would have had, the awe that they must have felt for all the expensive and exotic flowers.” Take a look and I think you’ll agree that he’s accomplished that remarkably well.


The Garden Diary of an Irish Lady, 1891-1922

When she married the Earl of Mayo in 1885 and moved to the family estate outside of Dublin, Geraldine Ponsonboy knew little about gardening. Before long, though, she had thrown herself into it whole-heartedly, hiring and firing several head gardeners until she found one who could accept her decidedly hands-on approach, and eventually filling a garden diary with 31 years’ worth of notes, drawings, and watercolors.

‘Conspicuus’ 1869

Geraldine’s fascinating and beautiful diary has recently been published as Lady Mayo’s Garden. Sub-titled The Diary of a Lost 19th Century Irish Landscape, it gives readers an insider’s look at gardening during an era when Victorian pattern-bedding was giving way to Arts and Crafts esthetics and “old-fashioned” perennial borders. Happily for bulb-lovers like us, it focuses mainly on the spring garden, and as our good friend Betsy Ginsburg points out in a recent blog post, “with the renewed interest in heritage gardening and heirloom varieties, many of Lady Mayo’s favorite spring plants are obtainable today. The lovely Narcissus poeticus recurvus and ‘Conspicuous’ daffodils currently sleeping in my garden are the same varieties that graced” Geraldine’s garden a century ago.

Narcissus poeticus recurvus

In 1922 the Mayos’ estate was attacked by partisans during the Irish Civil War. Given just 20 minutes to get out before her house was burned, Geraldine set her chickens free and saved her diary. Learn more about this remarkable woman and her garden in Betsy’s engaging review of Lady Mayo’s Garden at


3 Experts, 3 Centuries, 3 Great Iris

Sure, we think our heirloom iris are awesome, but there’s no need to take our word for it. Here’s what experts in 1597, 1930, and 2012 had to say about three of our favorites:

‘Quaker Lady’, 1909

I. pallida ‘Dalmatica’ – In 1597 John Gerard praised this ancient iris in his landmark Herbal, saying it “hath leaves much broader, thicker, and more closely compact together” than other iris, “like wings, or the fins of a whale fish.” From these “riseth up a stalk of four feet high, as myself did measure oft times in my garden,” with “fair large flowers of a light blue” which “smell exceedingly sweet, much like the orange flower.”

‘Mrs. Horace Darwin’ – More than three centuries later, famed horticulturist John Wister writing in his book The Iris praised this petite beauty as one of three whites that “can never be omitted.” He called it “wonderfully free blooming,” and added that “it is unexcelled for massing and should be used in every garden in quantities.”

‘Quaker Lady’ – Last but not least, Kelly Norris who grew up on his family’s iris farm and now works at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, praised this subtle flower in his 2012 Guide to Bearded Iris: Cultivating the Rainbow, saying it “has a soft-spoken princess charm that stops me in my tracks each spring. . . . If your garden needs a vintage touch in lovely pastel hues of bronze and lilac, look no further.”


Rediscovering Papaw’s Hardy Lavender Dahlia

“I am hoping that ‘Mrs. I. De ver Warner’ is the dahlia that my papaw and mamaw grew for many years,” Roger Flatford wrote us when he ordered last spring. I hoped so, too, but I knew that was a very long shot. Tens of thousands of dahlias have been introduced, many look a lot alike, and very few have been preserved. But in late summer we got a happy surprise:

“I can’t say thank you enough for ‘Mrs. I. De ver Warner’ dahlia!” Roger Flatford wrote. “This dahlia grew at my mamaw and papaw’s house in [zone-7a] Heiskell, Tennessee, coming back for them for 30 or 40 years, even through some hard winters. I’m 52 and I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t there. Every summer it would reward us with the most beautiful lavender blooms. We never knew its name but we always loved to see it bloom.

“My papaw kept a beautiful yard, and I inherited the flower gene from him. After he died in 1980 I tried to keep his flowers growing for my mamaw. Over the years, though, most all were lost except for the lavender dahlia and two old peonies and a little iris that just kept multiplying. Then one year the dahlia didn’t come back. I was really sad to see it gone.

“A few years later my mamaw passed away at 93. That summer I spent a lot of time at the little white house on the hill, remembering how much fun we had visiting there when I was a kid. Then I started looking everywhere I could think of, hoping to find the lavender dahlia. I bought several that looked right, but when they bloomed they were never the one.

“This past spring I saw two dahlias at your website that I thought maybe, just maybe were it, so I purchased them both. A couple of weeks ago I went out to the garden and there it was, Papaw’s Lavender Dahlia. What a reward! I know Mamaw and Papaw are smiling down from heaven.

“Next spring, I’m going to plant another one at the little white house on the hill in memory of my mamaw and papaw, Goldie and Roma Graham. Thank you, Old House Gardens, for finding and preserving the beautiful ‘Mrs. I. De ver Warner’.”

You’re welcome, Roger! Interestingly enough, that unusually hardy dahlia came to us from Joyce Dowell who got it from her grandmother in Scottsville, Kentucky – which, as the crow flies, is just 100 miles away from where your grandparents lived.


Thousands of Glads Bloom Forever in 1921 Saginaw

Have you ever seen a flower show devoted entirely to gladiolus? Well, now you can, thanks to a “virtual exhibit” by the Castle Museum of Saginaw County History.

Four photographs at the Michigan museum’s website offer glimpses of a 1921 show sponsored by the Saginaw Woman’s Club, with thousands of glads displayed in wicker baskets and milk bottles. The show included big displays by commercial growers such as the leading glad hybridizer of the era A.E. Kunderd (“Originator of the Ruffled Gladiolus”), Fred Baumgras, and P. Vos (with mood lighting and what looks like wisteria dangling from the ceiling), as well as a room full of glads grown by local amateurs.

The images are part of a larger online exhibit of garden photos by a 1920s club member. Most of the photos show gardens in Saginaw, including a spectacular formal garden by Charles Platt that’s been preserved by the Saginaw Art Museum, but there are also shots of the Michigan gardens of chemical magnate Herbert Dow and popular garden writer Mrs. Francis King. Paging through the nearly 100 photos provides viewers today with an introduction to some of the defining features of early 20th-century gardens – birdbaths, sundials, benches, gates, trellises, pergolas, and summer houses – as well as many of the era’s most popular plants – peonies, iris, phlox, golden glow (Rudbeckia laciniata ‘Hortensia’), Shasta daisies, and, of course, gladiolus.

new ruffled glads, Kunderd display
glads in milk bottles, Baumgras display

Extinct No More: Last Eyed Hyacinth Rediscovered

“What really is extinct?” our good friend Alan Shipp asks in the fall 2014 journal of Plant Heritage, the UK’s non-profit devoted to conserving garden plants. “The coelacanth was considered to be extinct,” he writes. “The ‘fossil pine’ was only known by its fossilized remains.” And then Alan tells of another exciting rediscovery.

Although originally considered inferior, double hyacinths came into vogue in the early 1700s after one breeder discovered a double white that had “red” petals in the center of each floret. “Eyed” hyacinths with other contrasting colors were soon developed, fueling a Hyacinth Mania in the 1730s – but, as Alan writes, “we considered all of these extinct many, many years ago.”

Recently, though, “a lady called Ingrid living in Switzerland had a lorry driver friend called Theo. Theo and a fellow driver took a lorry load of humanitarian aid to a remote little village in Romania where Theo’s friend met, courted, and eventually wed a local girl. Theo returned to the village for the marriage, and so splendid was the hospitality that Theo gave the bride’s father a pocket watch.” In return, the father invited Theo to “take anything he wished from the garden. Theo selected a hyacinth bulb labeled ‘Gloria Mundi’ and on his return to Switzerland gave the bulb to his gardener friend Ingrid.

“Very fortunately for the plant world, Ingrid passed it on to Alan Street of Avon Bulbs who [eventually] gave two small bulbs to me for the Hyacinth National Collection. . . . ‘Gloria Mundi’ was illustrated in 1767, and a pot of ten small bulbs in bloom was this spring awarded an RHS Certificate for Plants of Historic or Botanical Interest.

“Footnote: The garden in Romania has been located and visited this past April. The old man is dead and his son has dug up all flowers to grow vegetables. Saved just in the nick of time one might say!”

While we wait for Alan to increase ‘Gloria Mundi’ and share it with us, why not enjoy a few of our other fabulous hyacinths, both doubles and singles, which are all on sale now.


New and Free:
Georgia Daffodil Society’s Historics Handbook

Our good customer Sara Van Beck of Atlanta has been a tireless explorer and advocate of heirloom daffodils for many years. Although her much-anticipated new book Daffodils in American Gardens: 1733-1940 won’t be released until February, you can get a preview of some of what it’s sure to include in her recent online publication Historics Handbook: A Short Field Guide to the Most Common Old Daffodils in the Deep and Coastal Southeast. The 66-page booklet can be downloaded for free from the website of the Georgia Daffodil Society. There’s no direct link to it, but just go to, click on the Historics Handbook link at the very top of the page, and then click on the link under the GDS address.

No matter where you live, if you’re a fan of historic daffodils you’ll find this handbook a valuable resource. Most of the daffodils in it are hardy well into zone 5, and it starts off with universally helpful sections on Characteristics of Historic Daffodils, Saving and Moving Daffodils, Rules for Rescuing, and Taking Photos for Identification. More than 50 historic varieties are pictured and described, along with many unknowns, and Sara’s descriptions are often rich in details that will help differentiate a variety from other similar daffodils. Some photos may be confusing to gardeners further north because the colors of many varieties bleach to paler yellow or even pure white in the stronger sunlight of the South, but other than that they’re generally excellent.

Although the handbook is free to view or download, the Georgia Daffodil Society is welcoming donations in support of it, and we hope you’ll be inspired to send them a check.


Elizabeth Lawrence & Friends
on the Old White Trumpet Daffodils

‘Colleen Bawn’, 1882

Elizabeth Lawrence, the revered Southern garden writer, had a great interest in heirloom plants, searching for them in rural “market bulletins” and researching them in old books. In this 1971 newspaper column (later collected in Through the Garden Gate), she weaves together her own observations with those of fellow daffodil-lovers from almost a century before:

“Many years ago Carl Krippendorf lent me William Baylor Hartland’s Original Little Book of Daffodils (1887), the first catalog ever to be devoted entirely to daffodils. Hartland, an Irish nurseryman, said white trumpets were a specialty at Temple Hill, his place near Cork, and he listed nine varieties. One of these was ‘Colleen Bawn’. ‘No daffodil is more pure white,’ he said, ‘or so easily recognized by its broad twisted propeller-like perianth segments, and long cylinder-like trumpet.’ It is described in A. M. Kirby’s Daffodils (1907) as ‘a gem among white daffodils, silvery-white, drooping, nodding flowers; gracefully twisted petals. Best when grown in shade and grass.’

N. moschatus, 1604

“’Colleen Bawn’ is still with us, though extremely rare. . . . It is very like the other small trumpets of its day, the silvery swan’s neck daffodil, Narcissus cernuus (now called N. moschatus), and the silver bells of old gardens, but the very narrow, very long trumpet distinguishes it from the others. The trumpet is distinctly yellow though very pale, at first, and the segments are fawn color. The second day it lifts its bowed head to a horizontal position, and both trumpet and perianth become silver white. It has a delicate fragrance.

“In One Man’s Garden, Miles Hadfield quotes from a letter that [daffodil breeder] George Herbert Engleheart wrote about these old trumpets: ‘Away back in the 188os and 1890s I was collecting old forms of white daffodil, chiefly from Ireland. Miss Curry — some years dead — used to hunt them up from old Irish gardens, and a small club of three or four of us used to share them. They were all white things of the ‘Colleen Bawn’ type, but varying in size and form. They didn’t take kindly to cultivation, and are mostly, I think, lost. I made some attempt to discover their history, and came to the conclusion that Irish religious houses must have had some connection with Spain and Portugal — the focus of the white species.’

‘Beersheeba’, 1923

“. . . From these beginnings Engleheart developed ‘Beersheba’ (1923), still to me the most beautiful of all white trumpets, and very early, usually blooming the first week in March. Engleheart described it as a ‘miracle of stately loveliness,’ and was vexed when [daffodil breeder] P. D. Williams criticized the trumpet as 1/4 inch too long.”

Another great old white trumpet is ‘Broughshane’, although it’s sturdy and handsome rather than graceful. See all the white trumpets we offer — and if you’re thinking of ordering ‘Colleen Bawn’, we encourage you to do it NOW because savvy gardeners have already snapped up over half of our very small supply for this fall.


What’s That Iris? See 100s of Photos
and More at Revamped

The already excellent website of the Historic Iris Preservation Society (HIPS) just got better – and a new address, – thanks to an ongoing upgrade by webmaster Christine Woodward.

Although I miss the charming look of the old site (by Mike Unser, a major hero of historic iris), the revised site offers a lot more information. My favorite section is still the Photo Gallery with descriptions from old catalogs, and now you can sort it by era (choose “pre-1900,” for example, and you’ll get a list of 49 names) or use the “Comparison Display” feature to look at two similarly colored iris side by side.

In the Resources section there are almost 60 reprinted articles dating from as far back as 1887, and don’t miss the former HIPS e-zine, Flags. The annual Rhizome Sale fund-raiser is online now, too, and if you move fast you can order from a list of over 300 heirloom varieties (including some that we donated) for just $6.50 each.

There’s a lot more to explore and enjoy at the HIPS site, and if you like what you see there I hope you’ll consider joining HIPS. It’s a terrific organization doing important work to preserve our garden heritage.


The Results Are In: You Call It the Tree Lawn, Parkway, Skirt, Berm, Devil Strip, & More!

A rose may be a rose whether you live in Maine, Georgia, Kansas, or Oregon, but when we asked our newsletter readers and Facebook fans, “What do you call that space between the sidewalk and the street,” you replied with 41 different names – yes, 41! – from banquette and curb strip to outlawn and verge.

Although I’ve been asking people that question ever since I left home for college and was shocked to discover that most people don’t call it the boulevard, even I had no idea that this humble space had such a rich abundance of names.

No matter what you call it — or don’t — I hope you’ll enjoy my full report here.


Country Gardens Spotlights OHG
and “New Generation of Sustainable Farmers”

As we told you last month, our Ann Arbor micro-farms are featured in the summer 2014 issue of Country Gardens. What we didn’t know then, since we hadn’t seen the entire magazine yet, is that editor James Baggett had some very kind words to say about us in his editor’s letter at the front of the magazine:

“We talk a lot about farmer’s markets,” he writes, “and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), urban gardens and handcrafted food. Something that doesn’t get talked about all that much is the changing face of the American farmer. It turns out there are some pretty wonderful folks out there taking up the reins with skill and intelligence. Their enthusiasm is infectious.

“My friend Scott Kunst is one of those people. Twenty years ago, he started selling heirloom bulbs out of his 1889 Queen Anne home in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (He named his new venture, appropriately enough, Old House Gardens.) But a few years ago, Scott and his crew realized they needed to grow some of the bulbs in their mail-order catalog. . . . So Scott starting turning neglected lots around town into microfarms, where today old-fashioned varieties of bearded iris and daylilies bloom their heads off in empty backyards and alongside railroad tracks. Not only do these microfarms beautify the streets of Ann Arbor, they also provide nectar and cover for wildlife. Check out our story . . . and join our celebration of this new generation of sustainable farmers.”


Thomas Edison, Gardener (and Dahlia)

Thomas Edison, Gardener (and Dahlia) –

Inspired by the deep purple, 1929 dahlia ‘Thomas A. Edison’, our friend Betsy Ginsburg blogged recently about the great inventor’s “strong connection to horticulture.”

Edison and his wife Mina were both nature lovers, she writes, and in 1885 Edison himself sketched out the landscape plan for their new winter home in Florida. It’s an orderly, geometric design with lots of trees and shrubs, broad panels of lawn ringed by flower beds, and a big kitchen garden screened from the house by a hedge of lemons and limes.

Years later Edison’s good friend Henry Ford built a house next door, and in the 1920s the two men joined with tire magnate Harvey Firestone to establish the Edison Botanic Research Corporation on the grounds. Seeking a domestic source for rubber, Edison grew, cross-bred, and tested some 17,000 plants there, eventually developing a goldenrod (Solidago) that yielded almost 12% rubber.

Today the lush grounds of Edison’s Florida home are preserved as part of the Edison and Ford Winter Estates museum. You can learn more about Edison’s landscape at the museum’s website, and read Betsy’s “Edison’s Plants and Plans” at her always interesting blog, The Gardener’s Apprentice.


See Our Micro-Farms in Country Gardens!

Boy, are we excited! The summer 2014 issue of Country Gardens features a wonderful article about us and our urban micro-farms.

It starts with this big, gorgeous bouquet of our iris, daylilies, peonies, and Byzantine glads, and other photos show us sitting on our old-house porch (with Toby squirming to get off my lap) and weeding our micro-fields. The text by Anne Raver tells the story of how we’ve turned neglected spaces in our downtown neighborhood into a patchwork farm for heirloom bulbs.

Country Gardens’ editor James Baggett – who lives in a charming early-1900s bungalow in Des Moines – is a long-time supporter of OHG, and we had a lot of fun with him and his crew when they visited us here last year for the photo shoot. (Thanks, James, Karla, and all!)

See all the photos and read the entire article here.


French vs. English Jonquils:
Did “Early Louisiana” Get its Start in New Orleans?

Our heirloom “Early Louisiana” jonquils are a wonderfully fragrant, unusually vigorous form of N. jonquilla that blooms weeks earlier than the ones sold by mainstream sources – but why? An intriguing answer to that question was offered in the March 2012 Daffodil Journal by the late Carl Amason, a founder of the Arkansas Daffodil Society and a great mentor for me when I first got interested in old daffodils 30 years ago.

Carl lived on the old family homestead in southern Arkansas, and four very old daffodils flourished there: Buttercups (his name for the original trumpet daffodil, aka Lent lily), Butter and Eggs, Twin Sisters, and jonquils – which he described as “a strain of Narcissus jonquilla which was vigorous, prolific to self sow,” and had a fragrance that would “make a statement, especially by moonlight on a warm night.”

But, he wrote, “I was frequently asked why some jonquil plantings were much earlier and more vigorous than others.” At first he “assumed that the more vigorous . . . were growing in established places with good soil and more sun.” Later he realized “there were two or more distinct strains of N. jonquilla, and that was the primary reason for the differences.”

The earlier-blooming strain was what he “came to call the French jonquil, to distinguish it from the English jonquil that bloomed a month later.” This strong-growing French strain “has become naturalized in north Louisiana, south Arkansas, and east Texas,” he wrote, but it’s not as common further east where the less vigorous strain “that came with the English speaking peoples from Virginia and the Carolinas” predominates. “Evidently,” he concluded, “the New Orleans settlers brought the earlier French strain upriver to Arkansas and east Texas.”

Native to Spain and Portugal, N. jonquilla has been naturalized in the nearby south of France for a very long time. Like many wild plants, it’s a highly variable species, and it’s reasonable to believe that centuries ago earlier-blooming strains were favored by gardeners along the sunny Mediterranean in France, while later-blooming strains were preferred in the more northerly British Isles – and the bulb fields of the Netherlands – where spring comes later and early flowers would be more likely to be damaged by late frosts. Carl’s French/English dichotomy also helps to explain why virtually all modern hybrid jonquils are later blooming. As he wrote, “The English strain was what the hybridizers, mostly British, used in their work because it was only natural for them to use what was readily available.”

“This is all speculation on my part,” he added, but his conclusions make sense to me. Today the English strain is widely offered by mainstream bulb-sellers, but if you want the vigorous, early-blooming, richly fragrant, heirloom French strain – grown for us in east Texas – we’d be glad to help you out!


Blog of the Month:
Margaret Roach Talks Heirlooms with Scott

If you’re not reading Margaret Roach’s A Way to Garden, you’re missing something special. Margaret’s combination of what she calls “horticultural how-to and woo-woo” have made hers one of the most popular garden blogs.

And Margaret appreciates the pleasures of the past. In 2007 she left her job as Editorial Director of Martha Stewart Living and moved to an old farmhouse in rural New York that she’s been restoring and filling with all sorts of beautiful things, from antique typewriters to pressed seaweed. (Take a peek at

So naturally I was thrilled when Margaret asked me to talk with her recently about heirloom bulbs, especially dahlias. You can listen to the podcast of our 24-minute chat anytime you want, or read the condensed version of it at her blog.

She starts by calling me “Mr. Heirloom Bulb himself” – which I’m pretty sure she meant as a compliment – and then asks me to explain my “anthropological passion for these exceptional plants,” how my definition of heirlooms has changed over the past 30 years, why I like growing dahlias, and more. In the course of our talk I learned that she “particularly loves” dark-leaved dahlias such as ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ and that her favorite antique iris is ‘Gracchus’.

Margaret’s pantry/garden room.

There’s a lot of excellent how-to at Margaret’s blog, and unusual plants, and recipes, and even frogs, but her greatest strength, I’d say, is that she enjoys exploring the deeper connections and meaning in gardening, nature, and life. One recent example is her heart-felt remembrance of Jack, the cat who walked out of the woods and into her life on 9/11. If you’re an animal lover, especially, you won’t want to miss it.


Who’s That Growing in My Garden?
“Singularly Fearless” Mrs. George Darwin

Who’s That Growing in My Garden? “Singularly Fearless” Mrs. George Darwin

For the first time this spring we’re offering the elegant little iris called ‘Mrs. George Darwin’.

Like its equally wonderful sister-in-law ‘Mrs. Horace Darwin’ which we also offer, it was bred in the late 1800s by Sir Michael Foster, a Cambridge physiology professor who laid the foundations for modern iris by crossing garden forms with unusual varieties — including the first tetraploids — sent to him by missionaries and travelers.

But who was Mrs. George Darwin?

Wikipedia offers a short biography along with a charming portrait of her dressed all in white, like her namesake iris. Philadelphia-born Martha du Puy — who was always known as Maud — met her husband while visiting relatives in England. George was the son of the great Charles Darwin and a noted astronomer at Cambridge where the young couple became lifelong friends with Foster.

I learned a lot more in the entertaining Period Piece: A Cambridge Childhood written by Maud’s daughter Gwen Raverat.

Her mother’s “casual happy-go-luckiness . . . was one of her most attractive qualities,” Raverat writes, but she was also “singularly fearless” and “always on the side of progress,” with a “sturdy American belief in independence” that made her “encourage us to do things for ourselves, unlike the well brought up English children of our class, some of whom did not know that you could make a bed yourself.” When Maud died in 1947 at the age of 88, her obituary noted her campaigning for women police officers.

Although iris aren’t mentioned in the 66-page preview of Period Piece at Google Books, there is a funny account of Maud’s first meeting with Foster, who seemed a bit tipsy. Even better, Raverat’s description of Maud’s physical appearance suggests why Foster named this particular white iris with its touches of gold and purple for her. “My mother . . . had golden-brown hair and dark blue eyes and such a lovely complexion that people often thought that she was made up.”


Toast the Holidays with . . . Heirloom Iris?

With the curiosity of a scientist and the writing skills of a master story-teller, Amy Stewart is one of my favorite authors. In her 2013 New York Times best-seller The Drunken Botanist, she explores the hundreds of “plants that create the world’s great drinks,” from barley and hops to obscurities such as quandong, sloe berry, and even a couple of centuries-old iris:

“The pharmacy and perfumery of Santa Maria Novella, established by Dominican friars in Florence in 1221, gained notoriety for its use of the rhizomes of iris. They were not the first – Greek and Roman writings mention it – but their perfumes, cordials, and powders contained liberal doses of this rare and precious substance.

Florentina, 1500 –
Florentina, 1500

“Orris was popular not so much for its fragrance – although it does contain a compound called irone that gives it a faint violet smell – but as a fixative, holding other fragrances or flavors in place by contributing a missing atom that would otherwise make the fragrance volatile and easily released from the solution it is suspended in.

“None of this chemistry was understood at first. Perfumers and distillers would also not have understood why the rhizomes had to dry for two to three years before they become effective as a fixative. We now know that it takes that long for a slow oxidation process to occur, . . [which] causes irone to form . . . .

“Only about 173 acres of orris are cultivated worldwide. Most of the orris is either I. pallida ‘Dalmatica’, grown in Italy, or . . . I. germanica var. Florentina, grown in Morocco, China, and India. I. germanica ‘Albicans’ is also used . . . .

Pallida Dalmatica, 1597 –
Pallida Dalmatica, 1597

“To extract the orris, the rhizome must first be pulverized and steam-distilled to produce a waxy substance called orris butter, or beurre d’iris. Then alcohol is used to extract an absolute, which is . . . a stronger version of an essential oil.

“Orris is found in nearly every gin and in many other spirits. Its popularity in perfume is due to the fact that it not only holds the fragrance in place but clings to the skin as well. It also happens to be a very common allergen, which explains why allergy sufferers might be sensitive to cosmetics and other fragrances – as well as gin.”


A Fellow Bulb Merchant on Our Street – in 1839

The past is always present, as an email from our good customer Susan Wineberg reminded us recently. “I just bought this letter from 1839 on eBay. It’s on foolscap!” she began. Although I knew foolscap was some kind of old paper, I had to look it up online to learn that it refers to a size, 8.5” x 13.5”, which was the traditional standard before the 20th century.

A Fellow Bulb Merchant on Our Street – in 1839 –
West Park, once the site of Noble’s nursery, looking east towards downtown Ann Arbor today.

The letter was written by nurseryman Samuel B. Noble who in 1839 was selling plants – including many of the same bulbs we sell today – just a few blocks down the street from us here in Ann Arbor. “I have an establishment . . . in its infancy,” he writes to a fellow nurseryman in Detroit, “and my supply of fruit [trees] except apples is quite limited. My supply of hardy shrubbery and ornamental trees is also small, as well as bulbous roots.”

A Fellow Bulb Merchant on Our Street – in 1839 –
Although records don’t go back that far, Noble is believed to have lived in this house which was owned by his brother, a well-known abolitionist, a decade later.

Noble goes on to list thirteen ornamental plants that he’s seeking for his nursery in this small Midwestern city that just fifteen years earlier had been nothing but wilderness. Seven are bulbs: 100 tulips, 100 hyacinths (once even more popular than tulips), “50 to 100 dahlias of choice varieties, double assorted” (a reflection of the already booming popularity of dahlias which were first grown in US gardens just a few decades earlier), 25 tiger lilies (also relatively new, having arrived from China in 1804), 25 anemones (probably A. coronaria), 25 ranunculus, and 25 crown imperials – but no daffodils, whose heyday was yet to come.

Completing the list of ornamentals are 120 roses, 40 scented-leaf geraniums, 25 each of three shrubs – snowballs, honeysuckle, and double flowering almond – and 10 each of horse chestnut and mountain ash trees as well as “Lonicera flexuoso” (probably the now invasive Hall’s Japanese honeysuckle).

A Fellow Bulb Merchant on Our Street – in 1839 –
1929 plaque mounted on a boulder in the park to mark “an old Indian trail plainly visible” then.

Since he’s writing in March, Noble also asks his Detroit colleague “what time may we expect the Lake to be open” – that is, ice-free – so the dahlias and so on can be delivered with “as little delay as possible,” apparently from the extensive wholesale nurseries near Buffalo, at the far end of Lake Erie.

Noble’s nursery was the first of a series of nurseries and greenhouses that for over 100 years occupied a stretch of low-lying land just five blocks north of OHG’s world headquarters. Today most of the land is a large city park with some magnificent old native oaks and a creek that’s been partially “daylighted.” This past summer, I spent many happy hours walking our new dog Toby there, even before I knew anything about its history – which I’ve since learned includes a Native American trail still visible in 1929 and a flower-filled grade-school garden in the early 1900s.

A Fellow Bulb Merchant on Our Street – in 1839 –
Hand-colored postcard from the early 1900s. Note
castor-beans (by middle girl) and vine-covered gazebo. Based on the railroad overpass in back, the image
seems to be reversed. Click to enlarge and flip.

Just outside the park’s eastern entrance, Noble’s small Greek Revival house still stands today, and as Toby and I meander through the park now I keep looking for plants that might be survivors from this pioneering colleague’s nursery. Although I haven’t found anything yet, we’ll keep walking and looking and enjoying – each in our own way – things we can’t actually see.


Who’s Growing in Your Garden?
Uncle Theron Returns Home

‘Theron’, the first “red’ daylily

Every now and then we’re reminded of the very real people in the mostly forgotten past of our heirloom flowers.

Recently, for example, first-time customer Amy Turner of Wainscott, NY, added this note to her order for 25 ‘Theron’ daylilies: “My great grandmother, Martha Prentice Strong, a great gardener and friend of A.B. Stout [the pioneering daylily hybridizer], selected and named this daylily after her husband, Theron Strong. I look forward to a garden of Therons!”

Intrigued, we turned to Google and discovered an obituary for the remarkable Mrs. Strong published in the Journal of the New York Botanical Garden where Stout worked.

One paragraph explained that the daylily was actually named for her son rather than her husband: “Another of her absorbing horticultural interests was the daylilies developed by Dr. A. B. Stout. From the first, she was enthusiastic over them, and for more than twenty years she maintained a collection of named varieties at [her home] ‘The Dolphins.’ In 1941, this collection of more than 100 kinds was transplanted to the old Clinton Academy (now a museum) in East Hampton, where it will be maintained by the Garden Club of the town. The name ‘Theron’ in memory of her son, was given by her to the first dark red clone of Hemerocallis developed by Dr. Stout, at his invitation.”

‘Theron’ blooming in front of our neighbor’s historic chicken coop, July 10, 2013.

“Oh, Uncle Theron!” Amy said when I called with the news. Her father’s uncle, Theron Roundell Strong was a lawyer, head of Manhattan’s homicide bureau, and a lieutenant in the artillery during World War I. Amy’s family still has the diary he kept during the war, and she especially remembers his entry on Armistice Day, 1918: “The guns are silent. I’m heading to Paris to marry May” — and a week later they were wed.

As for Mrs. Strong’s daylily collection, Amy says it survived until recently when the garden club ripped it out to plant wildflowers, a painful example of how historic plants are often lost to whatever’s currently in vogue in the garden.

Here in Ann Arbor this year, ‘Theron’ opened its first flowers on Independence Day — which I believe Theron Strong would have appreciated.


Stone Cold Survivors:
Tiger Lilies Thrive in Voyageurs National Park

Starting in the 1940s, Chicago businessman Jack Ellsworth and his wife Elsie built a monumental terraced garden next to their summer home on the shores of Lake Kabetogama, deep in the wilderness of what is now Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota.

At its peak in the early 1960s the garden included 62 rock-edged beds planted with thousands of lilies and other flowers and ornamented by 200 rock sculptures.

When the Ellsworths left Lake Kabetogama in 1965, the forest soon began reclaiming their garden. By 2001 when the National Park Service began implementing a preservation plan for it, decades of neglect, overgrowth, and zone-3 winters had taken their toll, and almost none of the garden’s original plants survived.

Photos from the 1960s, though, showed the garden ablaze with thousands of tiger lilies, and after we confirmed the identity of these incredibly tough lilies, the Park Service ordered 500 more to replant in the garden a couple of years ago.

Learn more here, and if you’re looking for a beautiful, historic lily for your own garden, consider planting some Lake-Kabetogama-tough tiger lilies this fall.


Heirloom Myth-Busting #1: Are They
Heirloom, Heritage, Antique, Vintage, or Historic?

A Dutch friend asked me recently, “Are heirloom bulbs different from historical bulbs?” Not really, I told him, but we’d say “historic” instead of “historical” – and then the former English teacher in me kicked into high gear and I gave him my thoughts on other words commonly used to describe older plants:

Historic, not Historical – Although their meanings overlap somewhat, historical usually means “relating to history” while historic means “a part of history.” So a historical novel – a story written ABOUT the past – is not the same as a historic novel – which was written IN the past. Some people say that historic has to refer only to important things in history, but the modern sense of history has changed so much that we no longer think it’s only kings and famous people who are historic. Our house and office, for example, are in the Old West Side Historic District, and thousands of houses across the US are also in historic districts – not historical districts. Universities have programs in Historic Preservation, there’s the Historic Iris Preservation Society, the American Daffodil Society has a section in every show for Historic Pre-1940 Daffodils, etc.

Antique – In America, older varieties of apples are typically called “antique apples.” I don’t know why, but they are. Antique suggests something that’s old but with the added connotation of value or worthiness. People collect antiques, we have antique shops, etc.

Vintage – Although it comes originally from the world of wine, “vintage” is being used more and more often to describe things from the past that aren’t as old – or maybe as serious – as antiques. It’s most often used to describe clothing, but it’s also frequently used for items offered on eBay and Craigslist. It seems to be a word that’s more appealing to younger adults, who may see “antique” as being stuffy or hoity-toity but who appreciate the scruffy, counter-culture look of, say, ragged jeans, and the creative diversity of older things.

Oldies and Old-Timers – The dahlia and gladiolus societies sometimes use these terms, but as much as I like their informal, approachable tone, I think they discount the importance of older varieties. “Oldies,” to me, sounds like something that’s merely quaint and interesting, while “historic,” “heirloom,” and “heritage” sound like something valuable that we ought to take care of and preserve.

Heritage – This is often used in England and Canada to describe historic resources such as buildings, etc. It’s also being applied to plants now. (Ten years ago, “antique flowers” was the common term in England.) It has the sense of something being handed down but with more of a community or national significance rather than just personal or family importance. It’s a term that’s just starting to catch on for buildings and plants here in the US – and I’ve actually been thinking of changing our name from Old House Gardens - Heirloom Bulbs to Old House Gardens - Heritage Bulbs.

Heirloom – This suggests something old that’s often of more emotional than monetary value, and that has been handed down from generation to generation. My wife and I have antique furniture in our house that we bought at antique shops, but the rocking chair that her grandmother gave us is not just an antique, it’s a family heirloom. This to me is the best word to describe what our bulbs are. It says, “These are important, they’re not just old, they’ve been handed down, entrusted to us, they speak of the past, they carry and evoke emotion, they deserve our care.” Not everyone can get excited about history and historic, but heirloom means that you care about it, that it has personal meaning and value. It’s also the word most often used to described older vegetable varieties whose seed has been saved and passed down – and that have become very popular here. Many fancy restaurants, for example, serve heirloom tomatoes, heirloom beets, and so on.

Of course there are many other words – old, old-fashioned, classic, retro, old-school, etc. – but I think I’ve said enough.


Historic Peony Garden Launches New Website

Our friends at the University of Michigan Peony Garden – the country’s largest collection of historic peonies – are beaming.

In February the Plant Collections Network of the American Public Gardens Association awarded the Garden “full status accreditation.” On June 1 their efforts to restore, catalog, expand, and bring the Garden online will be showcased at the American Peony Society’s national convention. And the Garden’s impressive new website is now online at

Although the staff is still polishing the site, and there are big plans for future improvements, it’s already a great resource for anyone who loves peonies. You can search the Garden’s 315 cultivars by color, form, breeder, and so on, learn how to divide peonies, explore the peony’s Asian connections, find other peony collections near you, check the Bloom Countdown, and more. Give it a look – and have fun!


Pallida Dalmatica
in the Fields of Italy (and Your Garden)

The grape-scented, lavender-blue iris known as I. pallida ‘Dalmatica’ has been used in perfumery since ancient times, and it’s still being farmed for that purpose today – as our good customer Debbie Hughes of Wellsville, Kansas, discovered while vacationing in Tuscany. Debbie’s photo of a field of Iris pallida (above) inspired us to learn more, and a Google search led us to the Sagrona vineyard, “a small family vineyard in the heart of Chianti” where I. pallida is grown amid the grapes as it has been for centuries.

I. pallida ‘Dalmatica’

As you’ll see at, it’s not the iris flowers that are harvested but the rhizomes. Peeled by hand and dried for two to five years, they develop a violet-like scent and fixative properties that preserve the chemical structure of other fragrances, prolonging their aroma. Ground and distilled, a ton of dried rhizomes – known as orris root – yields 4.5 pounds of a thick, oily, and very expensive substance called orris butter which is still widely used in making high-end fragrances – and gin.

But there are many other reasons to grow this great old iris. “Among its sterling qualities,” writes Sydney Edison in A Patchwork Garden, “are a tenacious resistance to borers, stems strong enough to support the medium-sized blossoms, and superb gray-green foliage that is an asset in the garden instead of an eyesore. . . . A wild species found originally in Dalmatia [roughly the former Yugoslavia], Iris pallida appears somewhere in the family tree of most modern cultivars but it has none of their faults. . . . I prefer this lovely, deliciously scented hand-me-down to all other tall bearded irises.”


Silver Bells, Presbyterian Sisters, and Eudora Welty

The small white daffodil known as Silver Bells, Swan’s Neck, or Goose Neck has been a cherished favorite in Southern gardens for a very long time.

Author Eudora Welty and her mother grew it in their Mississippi garden, and she wrote about it in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Optimist’s Daughter, as Susan Haltom and Jane Roy Brown explain in their excellent One Writer’s Garden:

“Welty loved Silver Bells daffodils, ‘the nodding, gray-white kind with the square cup’ that a family friend brings to the funeral in Laurel’s father’s house in The Optimist’s Daughter.

“‘You know who gave me mine — hers are blooming outside,’ the friend says to Laurel, alluding to Becky [Laurel’s mother] having shared the daffodil bulbs in typical pass-along fashion. Years after her death, Becky’s gesture has circled back to comfort her daughter.

“Daffodils blooming in fields or woods throughout the South often mark the sites of bygone houses, where they traditionally lined the front walk. These flowers also may have reminded Welty of Elizabeth Lawrence, who also preferred white daffodils.”

Another favorite in the Welty garden was the fragrant, cluster-flowered narcissus ‘Avalanche’ which Eudora called Presbyterian Sisters “because they hang together.”

Welty’s home has recently been restored and opened to the public as a museum, and we’re proud to have supplied the daffodils, Roman hyacinths, oxblood lilies, tuberoses, dahlias, glads, and other bulbs that once again grow in her garden.


20 Years of OHG Catalog Covers & History Online

As part of our year-long celebration of our 20th anniversary year, we’ve posted all 20 of our catalog covers online.

Although our first nine covers were all purple, and our first full-color covers are a bit embarrassing to us today (we’ve learned a lot since then!), we hope you’ll enjoy this 20-year retrospective.

We’ve included a few year-by-year highlights, too, and even if you don’t see your name mentioned in this very brief history, if you’ve helped in any way to make our first twenty years of “Save the Bulbs!” a reality and a joy – THANK YOU!


Renoir and the “Magnificent Red Dahlias”

A “large panel with magnificent red dahlias amidst a jumble of grass and creepers” — that’s how a reviewer in 1877 described Renoir’s five-foot-tall The Garden in the rue Cortot which hangs today in the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.

According to Renoir Landscapes: 1865-1883, “This exuberant depiction of an overgrown garden is linked to the creation” of one of his most famous paintings. “In spring 1876 he was seeking a studio in Montmartre which would put him in proximity to the outdoor cafe where he planned to paint his large, multi-figure composition, The Ball at the Moulin de la Galette. . . . There he would store the canvas overnight, enlisting the aid of friends to carry it the short distance to the Moulin to begin work each day. His friend Georges Riviere described how he and Renoir . . . found such a studio . . . [and] were delighted to discover that it came with a large, secluded garden, ‘which resembled a beautiful abandoned park . . . . We were amazed.’” Renoir completed several important paintings in the garden and applied what he learned there “as he painted his friends at the Moulin enjoying themselves under the acacia trees on a sunny afternoon. . . . Secluded and tranquil but within hailing distance of central Paris, the garden in the rue Cortot was . . . an oasis for Renoir and, in its lush splendor, a spur to his creativity at a vital moment of artistic development.”

Dahlias also figure prominently in Renoir’s Claude Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil of 1873, and art historian Clare Willsdon has “wondered if Monet perhaps might not have given Renoir some of his own dahlia tubers to plant in the rue Cortot garden.” Since dahlias were one of the most popular flowers of the era, Renoir could have gotten his tubers anywhere, but as gardeners we’re happy to believe that Monet — an avid, life-long gardener — passed them along to his friend.

Monet Painting In His Garden At Argenteuil

“Half My World”: Restoring
the Garden of a Harlem Renaissance Poet

One of the most interesting historic gardens I’ve ever visited is that of Anne Spencer, a little-known African-American poet who lived in Lynchburg, Virginia. Starting in 1905, Anne and her husband Edward transformed their narrow backyard into a highly personal garden with an aqua-blue pergola, a small pool filled by a cast-iron African head spouting water (a gift from W.E.B. DuBois), and beds overflowing with roses, iris, larkspur, poppies, and other flowers.

After Anne’s death in 1975, the garden that she’d called “half my world” was all but lost – but, remarkably, it wasn’t, and the story of its unlikely rescue is told in a fascinating new book, Lessons Learned from a Poet’s Garden by Jane Baber White.

Restoring the Garden of a Harlem Renaissance Poet –

“Lessons Learned” are the key words, because as Jane told me in a recent email, the book isn’t just “the 28-year story of a garden restoration by a group of garden club ladies. The names could be changed and it could be anywhere. Indeed, that is sort of the point. I hope the book will be helpful to anyone, anywhere, who might be planning a garden restoration. These are the steps we took that might be helpful to them.”

It’s not a dry how-to manual, though. It’s a richly illustrated book laid out something like a scrapbook with all sorts of bits and pieces clipped together and overlapping one another – old family photos taken in the garden, notes Anne scribbled on seed catalogs, receipts, newspaper clippings, snapshots of the restoration, and evocative photos of the restored garden today.

Although I could argue with some of the things Jane and the garden club ladies did – I don’t think any restoration, for example, should start with a bulldozer – the bottom-line is that this compelling garden was in dire need and they saved it. For that, all I can say is bravo, and thanks!

To buy a copy of Lessons Learned, visit the newly-upgraded website of the Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum which is full of excellent photos and information. And since proceeds from the book will help fund the ongoing care of the garden, and the “lessons” it offers are so valuable, please consider asking your local library, garden club, or historical society to buy a copy, too.

Restoring the Garden of a Harlem Renaissance Poet –

Book of the Month: One Writer’s Garden

Here’s a book to put at the top of your gift list – for you and anyone who loves gardening, history, American literature, independent women, or the South.

Eudora Welty is one of the most revered American writers of the 20th century, and her home in Jackson, Mississippi is now a historical museum visited by pilgrims from all over the world. But when Welty first gave the property to the state in the 1980s, the garden which she had helped her mother plant and tend since the 1920s, and which offered her comfort and literary inspiration for decades, had all but disappeared from neglect.

One Writer’s Garden is the story of the rediscovery and restoration of that garden, guided by author Susan Haltom and based mostly on family photographs, old letters, and Welty’s memory. What makes the book truly outstanding, though, is the way Haltom and co-author Jane Roy Brown integrate the story of the Welty garden into the broader social history of gardening and America – street-car suburbs, garden clubs, civic beautification, Progressivism, the conservation movement, and so on – and illuminate the many connections between Welty’s gardening and her writing.

It’s also an especially attractive book, with big, full-color shots of the restored garden interspersed with a wide array of old photographs and historic images from books, magazines, and seed catalogs. We’re proud that many of our historic bulbs grow today in the Welty garden (Susan even thanks us in her acknowledgements), but even if they didn’t I’d be telling you this is a book you don’t want to miss!


Google Gives New Life
to Scott’s Old-House Journal Articles

I love Google Books, and not just because it’s made all of the articles I’ve written for The Old-House Journal instantly available online.

The first one, about carpet bedding, dates to 1985 when I was still teaching school and just getting started as a landscape historian. I remember how thrilled I was to get that acceptance letter! Next came “Victorian Vegetables” and then others on antique apples, outdoor furniture, historic paving, herb gardens, post-Victorian landscapes, and of course heirloom bulbs.

My first bulb article was “Victorian Tulips” in 1988 when ‘Prince of Austria’ and ‘Clara Butt’ were still being offered in several catalogs.

Then came “Daffodils: The Glory of the Post-Victorian Garden” and “Antique Hyacinths.” Sadly, six of the twelve hyacinths I recommended in that 1990 article are now commercially extinct, and three of the four sources for them have disappeared as well.

Next came “Antique Iris” and then “Antique Peonies” in 1993 (the year we mailed our first catalog) and finally “Savoring Dahlias” in 2008.

Heirloom daylilies will be next, if I can find the time to write it – and you’ll be the first to know.


Bill & Greg’s New Heirloom Gardening in the South

North, south, east, west – no matter where you garden, if you like heirloom flowers, you’ll want Heirloom Gardening in the South.

Our friends Bill Welch and Greg Grant have been growing and championing heirloom plants for decades. Their 1995 The Southern Heirloom Garden became an instant classic, and although this new book is based on that landmark publication, it’s different enough to warrant the new title. Chapters on the garden influences of various ethnic groups – Native Americans, Africans, Germans, etc. – have been completely rewritten, and many new chapters have been added, including ones on naturalizing bulbs, traditional ways to multiply plants, heirloom fruits, and “Natives, Invasives, Cemeteries, and Rustling.”

It’s a hefty book at 537 pages, and nearly 350 of those are devoted to an encyclopedia of heirloom plants for the South. Some entries are pretty much identical to what originally appeared in The Southern Heirloom Garden, but others – such as the five pages on lilies – are completely new. Following the final entry (Zizyphus jujuba, with a recipe for jujube butter) comes one of the book’s best parts, “How Our Gardens Grew,” in which Bill and Greg tell the very personal stories of their own gardens. Don’t miss it.

The book is list-priced at $29.95, but Amazon is offering it for just $19.77 – less than I paid last weekend for two flats of annuals that will be dead by Thanksgiving. No matter how you do the math, this extraordinary book belongs on your bookshelf.


Tuberoses in Williamsburg, from 1736 to 2011

Wesley Greene, Williamsburg’s lead-interpreter for heirloom plants, wrote us a while ago in praise of one of our most popular heirlooms, tuberoses:

“What is amazing to me is how well known the tuberose is in the 18th century, and how little known in the 21st. It is mentioned frequently in the correspondence between John Custis of Williamsburg and Peter Collinson of London.

“A 1736 letter from Collinson reads: ‘It gives Mee great pleasure that the Tuberoses proved a new Acquisition to your Garden. I [am surprised] you had them not, when they are on both sides of you in south Carolina & Pensilvania. My friend [colonial botanist John Bartram] from Last place writt Mee he had last yeare 149 flowers on one single Flower Stalk which is very Extriordinary, but I have heard the Like from Carolina where they Stand in the Ground and Increase amazeingly.’”

Wesley went on to say, “I did not realize at first how much more fragrant they were in the evening, because I am home by then. One of our visitors from Mexico told me, so one night when I had to stay late I walked back to the garden about 7:30 and the fragrance was nearly over-powering!”

To enjoy that lush fragrance yourself, order a few to plant this spring.


How Dutch Bulb Fields
Changed Monet’s Gardening and Art

An 1886 trip to Holland had a profound impact on Monet’s painting and gardening, as explained by Vivian Russell in Monet’s Garden: Through the Seasons at Giverny:

How Dutch Bulb Fields Changed Monet’s Gardening and Art –
Tulip Fields at Sassenheim, 1886

“The Dutch tulip fields stretched before him in sheets and blocks of color that formed a bold, brilliant mosaic that no painter, Dutch or otherwise, had ever attempted to capture on canvas before. In a letter, Monet spoke of these ‘enormous fields in full bloom; it’s admirable, but enough to drive a poor painter crazy – impossible to render with our poor colors.’

“Not one to let a challenge pass, he took up his brushes and in twelve days produced five canvases. Infused with sunlight, blue sky, and white clouds, his red and yellow tulip fields shone luminously.

“The bulb growers’ technique of strengthening the bulbs by picking off the flower heads just at their peak also impressed him. There were piles of these blooms on the banks of the canals. What struck Monet was that ‘on these little canals we see spots of yellow, like colored rafts in the blue reflection of the sky.’ The image of flowers floating on a mirror of water would obsess him for the rest of his life.

How Dutch Bulb Fields Changed Monet’s Gardening and Art –
The Artist's Garden at Giverny, 1900

“Using the tulip fields as a point of departure, he began recreating the effect of these concentrated splashes of color [in his gardens at Giverny] by making long rectangular beds planted with one variety of flower giving a solid block of color. Occasionally he would mix flowers to give various color harmonies. This became the theme and variations of the flower garden, with new plants and color schemes being added all the time – blocks of yellow marigolds, for instance; long, wide lines of blue irises; gladioli in one color or a mixture of two; Japanese anemones in whites and pinks; mauve and orange snapdragons together.

“To allow him to expand and experiment with an even greater variety of colors and plants all at once, he created smaller versions of these long beds, his famous ‘paintbox beds,’ thirty-eight in all, laid out in pairs from the top of the garden to the bottom. The gardeners [today] always refer to them affectionately as les tombes because they are the same size and shape as a grave, but it is not known whether that was Monet’s nickname for them, too. Each one was planted seasonally with different annuals or biennials in specifically chosen colors, laid side by side, like daubs of color on a palette or on one of his canvases.”


In the Beginning:
Double Hyacinths Go from Rejects to Super-Stars

‘Ophir’ in 1827 Florist’s Guide and Cultivator’s Directory

As Heidi Klum says on Project Runway, “In fashion, one day you’re in, and the next day you’re out.”

But fashion cuts both ways, and what’s scorned or overlooked one day can become the coolest of cool. That’s what happened with double hyacinths which emerged from the compost pile to become, for much of the 18th and 19th centuries, the world’s most popular flower bulb.

The story of their origins is told in an 1897 article in The Gardeners Chronicle based the Marquis de Saint Simon’s exhaustive Des Jacintes, de leur Anatomie, Reproduction, et Culture of 1768:

“The first double variety was a seedling which appeared in the gardens of Peter Voorhelm . . . at Haarlem. At that time, the exact date is not certain but it was probably towards the latter part of the seventeenth century, all the bulb growers waged incessant warfare against all hyacinths raised from seeds or offshoots bearing flowers which in any way did not conform to the conventional notions of a perfect flower. The idea of a double variety does not appear to have entered even into the dreams of the Dutch [flower lovers].

“But (and the story reads almost like a page out of Dumas) Peter Voorhelm was taken ill, and could give no attention to his plants, and was unable to examine them until the hyacinths were beginning to die off. A flower of unusual form arrested his attention, and examination proved it to be a double hyacinth. It was very small, but he cultivated and multiplied it, and was soon able to place it on the market, whilst numerous amateur growers were found willing to pay high prices for the new bulb.

“The . . . first double hyacinth had a comparatively short life, for it was lost long before 1768. The two double varieties discovered subsequently were named, respectively, ‘Marie’ [not the single ‘Marie’ that we offer now] and the ‘Roi de la Grande Bretagne’. . . . The latter was raised about 1698, and was infinitely the finest of the first three varieties and over a thousand florins was paid for a single bulb.”


Tiger Lilies and Dahlias in
The Gardens of Frank Lloyd Wright

Beyond his iconic Fallingwater, few of us know anything about the gardens and landscapes that were always an important part of Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision.

Now Derek Fell, the renowned garden photographer, sets out to change all that in The Gardens of Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s a beautiful and informative book, and any gardener with a taste for art, history, or nature will find plenty to like in it.

Be sure to check out the photos of our ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ dahlias and Wright’s favorite flower, tiger lilies, at Taliesin, Wright’s home and studio in rural Wisconsin.

tiger lilies at Taliesin

Tiger lilies, which are native to Japan and have been pictured in the country’s art for centuries, may have reminded Wright of the months he lived there during the construction of his landmark Imperial Hotel.

Dahlias figured in one of the saddest episodes of Wright’s life. While he was away from Taliesin, his live-in companion, Mamah Cheney, and her two young children were murdered in a fire set by an employee gone berserk. The next morning as Wright walked among the smoldering ruins with a Chicago Tribune reporter, “a crushed dahlia flower attracted his attention and seemed to raise his spirits. He picked up the flower and stirred the earth around its roots to give the plant a new lease on life.”

Later, Wright “gathered all the flowers he could salvage from the garden and made piles of dinner-plate dahlias, summer phlox, long-stemmed zinnias, and armloads of peppery-scented nasturtiums” to fill Mrs. Cheney’s casket.


Saving Local Heirlooms
at the Pickle Barrel House Iris Garden

Some of the most exciting heirloom flowers aren’t found in catalogs or gardens. They’re just out there, in the wild, the last reminders of houses and gardeners that are long gone.

In a small town on the shores of Lake Superior, our friend Nancy McDonald decided to collect some of these relics and display them in a living museum of local garden history. Her charming, photo-filled account of the Pickle Barrel House Historic Iris Garden – home now to “Linnamaki Purple,” “Baker Grade” (from the site of a railroad switchman’s cabin), and other “noids” – is an inspiring story that may get you saying, “I could do that!”


Bulls-Eyes and Stars:
How Many Bulbs Do I Need for This Space?

Bulls-Eyes and Stars: How Many Bulbs Do I Need for This Space –

To easily answer that question, check out our new web-page, “Bulbs per Square Feet: For Pattern-Beds or Anywhere.”

There you’ll find a few simple charts and formulas to help you figure out:

(a) the square footage of any planting area and

(b) how many bulbs you’ll need to fill that space, whether they be crocus at 3 inches apart, lilies at 18 inches apart, or anything in between.

But we didn’t stop there. Hoping to inspire you to try a bit of historic pattern-bedding, we added antique images and advice from historic catalogs in order to show you how to plant bulbs in true Victorian style.

It’s easy and fun – and not just for grand public gardens like Keukenhof or the lawns of Victorian mansions. Take a look!


No Need to Buy a Monet, Just Garden Like Him!

For the last twenty years of his life, Monet painted only one subject: his gardens in Giverny.

Many bulbs played a leading role there, and it seems his taste for bulbs was shaped, at least in part, by financial difficulties in his early years.

In Monet: The Gardener (2002), Sidney Eddison writes: “Today, water lilies continue to float on the pond at Giverny. In May, irises in every imaginable shade of blue and violet bloom in their long, narrow beds; in June, roses smother the metal arches along the front walk. By midsummer, gladioli stand tall among the nasturtiums, which have begun their headlong rush toward the middle of the path. And in the fall, dahlias lavish their rich colors on the beds.”

In the same book, Robert Gordon writes of Monet’s early career: “Given his precarious finances and the temporary nature of his abodes, many of the plants he chose were annuals ... or corms, such as gladiolus, which can be dug up in the fall and saved from year to year.

“At Argenteuil, Monet planted gladiolus corms by the hundreds. In a painting simply titled Gladioli of 1876, ... [Monet’s wife] Camille ... gazes wistfully at cheerful ranks of pink, red, and bicolor flowers.... Two years later, in a work depicting Monet’s new garden at Vetheuil, gladioli appear again, but this time growing in decorative blue-and-white ceramic containers — a reminder of the impermanent nature of these early gardens. The same containers ultimately found a home at Giverny.”


Hyacinth History 101

Hyacinth History 101 –

Once the world’s most popular bulb, hyacinths have been cherished in gardens since the days of Greece and Rome.

Very few people know anything of their history, though, so we recently posted a terrific short history of hyacinths at our website.

We bet you’ll find it fascinating!


Collecting Antique Hyacinth Vases

Gardeners in the 19th century loved forcing hyacinths in special vases for winter bloom. The practice dates back to the mid-1700s when Madame Pompadour, influential mistress of Louis XV, had hundreds of hyacinths forced in vases at Versailles.

Today, antique hyacinth glasses are collected worldwide. For a glimpse of the immense collection of Dutch enthusiast Wim Granneman – a few of which are pictured here – visit

Wim’s homespun site includes forcing-vase history, tips for finding them today, and even a section on crocus pots. Best of all is the “Vases Worldwide” section which features hundreds of Wim’s vases, old and new.

For even more on forcing vases, see the wesite and blog of British enthusiast Julie Berk at and