Heirloom Bulbs & Garden History  •  Living Treasure from the Past


July 2019

Jul
31
2019

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.)

Jul
24
2019

“Monarchs in the Rough” – Golfing for Butterflies

Can we save the monarchs?

America’s favorite butterfly has suffered a 90% drop in population over the past 20 years but a new program is hoping to change that by planting milkweed – and raising awareness – at golf courses around the country.

Co-sponsored by Audubon International and the Environmental Defense Fund, Monarchs in the Rough “connects and supports golf course staff as they plan, install, and manage habitat projects” for monarchs. Along with providing “regionally-appropriate milkweed seed” to establish “about one acre of high-quality monarch habitat,” the innovative program also offers “signage, posters, and technical guidance to golf course managers as they install and manage habitat, and as they communicate with course members about their efforts to save the monarch.”

Doesn’t that sound great? To learn more, or to enlist your favorite golf course in the program, visit monarchsintherough.org/.

Jul
17
2019

Martha Stewart’s 300-Foot Border of Tiger Lilies

Some gardeners shy away from orange, but not Martha Stewart – as you can see in this photo from the July-August 2019 Martha Stewart Living.

That’s the driveway to Martha’s home in Bedford, New York, flanked by a 300-foot-long pergola. Wisteria and clematis drape the pergola and along its sides are six-foot-wide borders filled with crocus, grape hyacinths, alliums, and various perennials in shades of “mauve, lavender, violet, purple, and blue.”

But Martha wanted more color and a longer bloom season, so first she “sprinkled in a few kinds of orange poppies” and then she planted hundreds of tiger lilies (Lilium lancifolium). Now “just as everything else begins to fade”, the lilies “explode into fat rows of tall, sturdy stems” and then “unfurl their spotted petals at the end of July, transforming the border into a sweep of orange.”

See more at themarthablog.com/2018/08/my-blooming-lily-border.html – and then if you want to see what a little orange can do for your mid-summer garden, order a few of these easy, enduring lilies now for planting this fall.

Jul
12
2019

Peonies, Lilies, and Stroopwafels, Oh My!
— Our Trip to the Netherlands

Justin with Henry’s lilies

Although spring is definitely the best time to visit the Netherlands, we’re always way too busy shipping and planting bulbs then, so it was the first of June before Vanessa, Rita, and Justin got there – but they still found plenty to see and enjoy.

Can you smell that fragrance?

LILIES – They arrived just in time for Lily Days which is when Dutch lily farmers and hybridizers showcase their lilies in vast greenhouse displays for potential buyers that come from around the world.

“Opening the doors to the greenhouses,” Vanessa told me, “sent your nose into a frenzy with the powerful fragrance of a thousand lilies all blooming at once.” Although most were modern varieties, some heirlooms we offer were also on display including ‘African Queen’, ‘Golden Splendor’, ‘Pink Perfection’, and (for spring planting) gold-band lily and Henry’s lily.

acres and acres of peonies, old and new

PEONIES – Since it was peony season they also saw a LOT of peonies, and an impressive number of these were heirlooms. “Walking through the peony fields was almost like visiting a museum,” Vanessa said, “and the care taken to grow these plants is inspiring.”

Justin said he “liked all of them” and was constantly “imagining where to use such a wide variety of colors, shapes, and sizes” at his house. He was also impressed by how many of the Dutch devoted “a small chunk of their backyard – maybe 2000 square feet or so – to growing peonies for cut flowers.”

Which ones would you choose for your garden?

SMALL FARMERS – Just like in the United States, small farms in the Netherlands are slowly being swallowed up by larger operations. But just like here, young Dutch farmers are finding new ways to make small farming work.

One of these farmers is Jan Hein. As Justin explained, he’s “a young grower, close to my age. He grows a few things for us now” – including ‘Prince of Austria’, ‘Phillipe de Comines’, and ‘Zomerschoon’ – but he wants to grow much more.” Vanessa told me that “because Jan plants fewer than 500 bulbs of each of these varieties, they are all dug by hand and processed through an antique-looking machine.” Justin added that “his dad was a bulb grower so he grew up a farmer, and he loves the history and special characteristics of heirloom bulbs. For us at Old House Gardens, this is good news. We need motivated and passionate people to help us save these bulbs.”

Rita and her stroopwafel

ART, BIKES, & STROOPWAFELS – Of course there’s more to the Netherlands than flowers. Rita “loved the country’s bicycle culture” and was “amazed by the bicycle parking lots, including the Fietsflat which holds 2500 bikes.” She also said they “made quite an adventure out of sampling all the wonderful foods of the Netherlands. One night we waited in line for over ten minutes to have a freshly made stroopwafel. I skipped the chocolate dip and extra toppings and just went for the basic version. YUM!”

Justin said he especially liked seeing the work of two of the Netherlands’ greatest artists, Rembrandt and Van Gogh. Both, he said, were “masters of preserving a moment in time with incredible depth and clarity,” and he added (gladdening my heart) that “heirloom flowers have a unique connection to the past in a similar way. They are the result of the creative works of nature and humans’ adoration of nature.”

Jul
3
2019

“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.