How do you start your heirloom flower garden? Here are ten of Kentucky farmwife Catherine Pond's favorite heirloom annual flowers and where to find them.
When I worked as a site manager of a house museum in New England, we were fortunate to have two extraordinary volunteers, Priscilla and Rich Williams, who wanted to create period-appropriate flower gardens with heirloom seeds. Even though I grew up with my garden-loving mother and grandparents (who had a produce stand for years), this was the first time I learned what an “heirloom” actually meant and how important they were in perpetuating beloved “grandmothers’ gardens,” from our Colonial heritage.
Here in the South, Monticello has continued the tradition of Thomas Jefferson’s love and study of horticulture, and many of his favorites still grow there today.
Heirloom Annual (Perennial) Flowers
Some gardeners I’ve known have often chided annual flowers for their fuss because of having to replant each year. My theory is that this kind of flower gardener isn’t much for constant splash and vibrancy, preferring perhaps a more leisurely pace of the perennial’s shorter floral pageantry. While perennials might be reliable, the annual flower adds punch, continuous bloom and often fragrance. An annual will pull out all of the stops until frost because of its short-lived reality. Besides, an heirloom seed can either be saved to plant again or will often self-sow readily in your garden beds—so they are easier than you might think to plant and grow.
My favorite sources for heirloom annual (and perennial) flower seeds are Marilyn Barlow’s Select Seeds in Union, Connecticut and Renee’s Garden, exclusively online. Both have offerings of unusual heirloom flowers, while Renee’s Garden also has an extensive variety of heirloom herb and vegetable seeds which owner Renee Shepherd specially curates for the home gardener. Also, seeds I’ve purchased from both companies have high germination rates.
Our 10 Favorite Heirloom Flowers
There are numerous heirloom flower seed varieties — too many for any article — so it wasn’t an easy task to narrow down to my top ten. These are personal and well-liked cottage garden favorites that will not only be easy to grow, but some are fragrant and make long-lasting indoor arrangements, while some can be easily grown in outdoor containers.
In the country, roaming deer can be a delight to see but detrimental to any garden. With the exception of the Morning Glory, all of these flowers are deer resistant and not generally favored by other critters, either, except they will attract important pollinators to your garden, too—butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds. All thrive in warm, hot, and humid conditions and are ideal for the southern flower garden.
The “White Queen” and “Rose Queen” varieties of this tall, striking flower date back to 1817 and are garden showstoppers. They thrive in heat and humidity, will easily self-sow, and are unusual additions to the flower garden. Their only downfall is that they can be spiky and as the season progresses they will get somewhat stalky—but well worth it for their presence in the garden.
The cosmos can bloom from 1- to 3’ depending on the variety and will flower from summer until frost. A new variety I want to try this year is from 1879 and called “Chocamocha,” with a sweet chocolate scent! Cosmos is more traditionally found in shades of pink and white with wide petals and a yellow center.
One of the most delightful flowers in the garden is the intoxicatingly scented heliotrope. The low-growing (only 18”) and deep purple “Marine” variety is found in most garden centers today. But the taller “White” (2 feet) and “Amaretto” varieties (a pale lilac) grow upwards of 3.5 feet with a more almond-like scent. No wonder they are swarming with bees and butterflies all summer long.
“Clarke’s Heavenly Blue” and “Grandpa Ott’s” are two early 20th century varieties of this charming climbing vine and cottage garden staple. Fast to grow, but slow to flower (usually not until August), it thrives in heat, humidity, and even drought, and will flourish in any soil. While not fragrant, the flowers will open each morning and enjoy one day before replaced by a profusion of more—blooming in abundance from mid-to-late-summer until first frost. But warning, deer love it as we discovered when we raised an injured fawn on our farm one year!
This tender annual is hands-down one of my favorite summer flowers (and I collect vintage nasturtium kitchen items, too). Not only is it easy to grow (the worse the soil, the better) but you can grace your summer salads with the flat lily pad-like leaves and bright blossoms. Most varieties have mounding habits but some also trail or can be trained on a trellis. Favorite varieties include the trailing “Variegated Queen,” “Alaska” with its white variegated leaves, and “Caribbean Cocktail” which has a red and yellow shade spectrum.
Browse any seed catalog or garden center and you will find an extensive variety of colorful and patterned petunias. But have you ever smelled one? When hybridizing for color and habit in the past century, their lovely fragrance was often removed in the process. This variety, sold exclusively by Select seeds, was a ‘passalong’ sent to them by a woman named Virginia Davidson whose grandmother had grown them around her porch. The fragrance is especially strong in the evening at the end of a hot summer day and the colors are a mixture of pastel purples, pinks and white. This variety will easily grow on a trellis or trail from a pot.
There are seemingly hundreds of varieties of sunflowers now and all are easy to grow, heat-loving stunners in the garden. Most seed companies sell an extensive diversity of this variety from branching, to tall, to those without pollen. Several are heirlooms, including the “Mammoth Titan” and “Autumn Beauty.” Seeds will self-sow but can easily hybridize with other varieties.
For a flower as delicate looking as this, the sweet alyssum is a strong and cold hardy annual that will also withstand summer heat. It can be transplanted in the ground or pots early in the spring and will bloom all season until frost. It has a compact, upright but slightly trailing habit that makes it ideal for a container mixed with other flowers or at the front of a border where it will spread easily but not grow very high. Two varieties, “Benthamii” (10” high) and “Paletta Mix,” (4”) are especially fragrant in white and hues of violet. Their honeyed fragrance will bring all the bees to your yard.
This old heirloom, from 1726, has only been seen more commonly in recent gardens and has been well worth the reintroduction. Often sold as an expensive perennial offering in garden centers (it will grow year round in warmer zones), it is also an easy-to-grow, self-sowing annual. It has a spiky verticality and branching habit with small clusters of purple flowers. It takes a while to germinate and the tiny seeds can be scattered right on the soil in the late fall or early spring. Once the leaves appear it will grow quickly and will continue blooming until your garden freezes (it loves heat but can also withstand some light frost). It looks splendid with tall zinnias and is also a favorite plant for pollinators.
I am sentimental for zinnias because they are one of the first flowers that I remember from my mother’s small suburban garden and because they were so easy to start from seed in a cup in Sunday school class. They are like “poor men’s dahlias” because they pack the same punch but without the fuss of having to lift and store the tubers each fall. Several favorite heirloom varieties are the “State Fair” mix, any of the “Benary’s Giants,” “Green Envy,” “Queen Red Lime,” and “Cut and Come Again.” Zinnias are also among the best cut flowers as they will hold their shape and color longer than most.