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Rhonda Ferree's ILRiverHort

Rhonda Ferree's Horticulture Blog
Chicago Peace Rose at Cantigny Park 9-08
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Heirloom Flowers Making a Comeback


Old fashioned flowers and flowering shrubs are the most recent gardening trend. Roses, hydrangeas, sweet pea, lilac, and more are becoming commonplace again in our gardens.

Technically, an heirloom is defined as a plant that is open-pollinated. These are pollinated by insects, hummingbirds, or wind and the resulting seed will produce plants that are identical (or very similar) to the parent plant.

Heirlooms are popular for lots of reasons. For many, they are sentimental – plants that your mother or grandmother always grew. For me that plant is sweet pea. My Grandma Kinsel had sweet pea growing on her front porch. Just smelling it takes me back to summers spent with grandma learning to crochet, cook, and sew.

At horticultural shows and meetings plant breeders talk frequently about producing old-fashioned flowers for today's garden market. Priority features include fragrance, color, small size, and vigor.

In general, heirloom plants are larger and more fragrant. Not only is the smell amazing, but they also attract important pollinators such as hummingbirds, butterflies, and honey bees. Roses are a good example of this. Many newer roses are not only more fragrant, but also have better resistant to many rose diseases.

Rare and unusual colors in old-fashioned flowers are very popular today. Examples include black petunias and blue roses. You'll also notice that more and more new plants change color with each season, not just in the fall. New hydrangea types have exploded into the marketplace and many have this feature. The popular 'Limelight' hydrangea flowers gradually darken throughout the summer from a light green to deep pink; and the blooms are sturdier and thus need less staking.

Since the majority of homeowners have small yards or maybe just a small patio, breeders are producing smaller and smaller plants. Container sized heirloom plants that perform well include marigolds, zinnias, and cleome. I particularly like the Profusion zinnias that consistently flower all summer long without any powdery mildew problems.

One old-fashioned flower that I recently have begun to appreciate more is the violet. There are many newer varieties of pansies that help extend colorful blooms into late fall and early spring. But it is our native violet, which is also our state flower that intrigues me most these days. For years I've been removing it from my flower beds, thinking of it only as a weed. A recent visit to Luthy Botanical Gardens in Peoria showed me how beautiful the violet looks growing in natural settings. I plan to add it back to my shade garden as a groundcover.

As you stop to smell the roses this summer, notice which are the most fragrant. I bet they have roots in an heirloom rose type. Enjoy!



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