Heirloom Plants

The two word title of this post belies the actual amount of work I’ve put into this subject of late. I am on a quest to discover as many old time “pioneer” plants as I possibly can. I am the first to admit, it was a huge “a-ha” moment when it dawned on me that the plants the pioneers/settlers/homesteaders used were the ORIGINAL sustainable plants. Duh.

Memorial Day weekend is a poignant part of my history. Every year, we piled in my grandmother’s big blue Chrysler and tooled around to the large and small and obscure graveyards in north Idaho. We lovingly and somberly delivered huge, bountiful, beautiful bouquets to my mother’s resting place, my great grandparents (homesteaders in Idaho from Ireland), my granddad, and many more. Those bouquets were cut early in the morning and arranged in coffee cans with a bit of water. Nestled in the cavernous trunk of my grandmother’s sedan, were a couple dozen fragrant arrangements of peonies, lilacs, bridal wreath spirea, the occasional late tulip, German bearded iris in a rainbow of colors and maybe a branch of  apple blossoms or two.

Here then, is a list of some of the plants I’ve been working with. My thanks to Scott Kuntz of Old House Gardens for his guidance and tips, and leads: where to look next.

Pioneering Gardening

Iris, tall purple with fragrance of grape bubble gum – Iris germanica, the paler purple

Iris pallida dalmatica (pallid =sweet)

Iris flavescenspale – pale  yellow

Rosa ‘Harrison’s Yellow’

Peony, large white, Paeonia ‘Festiva Maxima’

Peony, large red, Old Memorial ‘Piney’, Paeonia officinalis or (some hybrid thereof)

Daylily, ditch lily, tiger lily, tawny lily, hemerocallis fulva

Narcissus poeticus, or pheasant’s eye narcissus

Fruit trees: ‘Foggy Lau’ and ‘Petit Pear’, Pyrus communis

Hollyhock, black, pink, deep red and mixed , Alcea rosea var.nigra and ‘old fashioned mixes’

Bouncing bet = saponaria offinalis. Also called soapwort, soaproot or Fuller’s Herb

Dame’s Rocket = Hesperis matronalis, or Dame’s rocket, wild phlox, Dame’s violet, sweet rocket.


Included in the heirloom garden references as garden standards:

Papaver somniferum and other papavers (Oriental poppies)

Scarlet lychnis (Maltese Cross)

Campanula (Canterbury bells)

Mirabilis japonica (Marvel of Peru/ four o’clocks)

Ranunculus repens (Buttercups)

Dianthus barbatus (Clove and/or Maiden pinks)

Aruncus dioicus (Goatsbeard)

Spirea (Bridal wreath)

SolidagoGolden rod

Digitalis purpura or alba (Foxglove)


(Chrysanthemum) Daisy

Bellis perennis (English daisy)

Additional resources :

Reading the Landscape of America, May Theirrlgard Watts, New York: McMillan, 1975.

Restoring American Gardens: An Encyclopedia of Heirloom Ornamental Plants, 1640-1940, Denise Wiles Adams, Timber Press, Portland, OR  2004

American Household Botany, Judith Sumner, Portland, Oregon, Timber Press, 2005

My Antonia/Song of the Lark/Oh Pioneers all by Willa Cather

The Willa Cather Foundation, Red Cloud, Nebraska, www.willacather.org

Tinsley House, Museum of the Rockies, Bozeman MT, www.museumoftherockies.org.


Plant sources:

Old House Gardens, on the web, www.oldhousegardens.com

Select Seeds, www.selectseeds.com

Antique Rose Emporium, www.antiqueroseemporium


The posts today and tomorrow are excerpted from my recent presentations on Pioneer Gardens/Willa Cather’s novels/Heirloom Plants.
Willa Cather’s novels, My Antonia, Death Comes to the Archbishop, and O’Pioneers, make reference to the gardens of American settlers and homesteaders. These brave people grew gardens for food and beauty with nary a drop of pressurized irrigation water and without the aid of the combustion engine. It’s now 2011 and heirloom gardens are hotter than ever. This enlightening program will look at what kinds of gardening techniques and principles still work in today’s gardens, and why.