Heirloom gardeners preserve the plants of the past.
While driving along a country road, most people only notice the meadows filled with colorful wildflowers. It takes an heirloom gardener to distinguish a hard-to-find plant such as Dame’s-rocket from the common weeds surrounding it.
Heirloom gardeners – those who enjoy searching for and planting old-fashioned non-hybridized plants – don’t hesitate to hit the brakes and park alongside grassy embankments to get some cuttings or a few seeds.
The time they spend tramping through open fields or across cemeteries is their contribution to the preservation of seemingly rare cultivators. They also share their knowledge – and ofentimes, a few plants – with other gardening enthusiasts.
Betty Perry, 81, is one such gardener.
“I just love to collect plants,” said Perry, a former volunteer and garden curator at Mordecai, a historic home, garden and park site in Raleigh. “You see, they’re taking the old plants that were big and rangy and all, and making them into little [plants], for people who have little gardens. I don’t like them. I like the old plants. I didn’t like seeing plants destroyed.”
After volunteering in Mordecai’s garden, which she helped install in 1973, and having amassed several plants, some of which had been in pots for more than 20 years, Perry got to work creating her dream garden at the 1820s North Carolina home place of her husband’s family.
“I wasn’t getting any younger,” said Perry, who is assisted three days a week by her gardener Ed Sessoms. (Her husband, James, mows the lawn.) “I should have started earlier because I have so much I want to do.
What is an heirloom?
Most definitions for “heirloom plants” are highly subjective. Some believe true heirloom plants are strictly open-pollinated - plants pollinated naturally or ” in the open.” Others say an heirloom must be at least 50 years old or introduced in the United States in the 1600s to the mid-1950s. Others call an heirloom a plant that has been passed along throughout the generations or simply an old-fashioned plant. But most agree that heirlooms are not hybrids – plants bred through cross-fertilization.
Perry is not alone in her quest for preserving plants. The N.C. Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill is a founding member of the Center for Plant Conservation, which actively preserves seeds or plants of endangered species.
Old Salem, restored Moravian community in Winston-Salem has one of the best-documented gardens in the country and supports plant preservation through seed saving. It is a member of Seed Savers Exchange, founded in 1975 whose membership has grown in popularity as the interest in heirloom plants has grown, according to Keyes Williamson, Old Salem’s director of horticulture.
“Enormous number of old varieties of plants have disappeared in the U.S. in the last 100 years,” said Williamson, who cites a USDA statistic that 97 percent of vegetables available in the 1900s were not available in 2000. “They were lost because commercial growers focused on certain plants, and the rest just disappeared.”
Individuals are also doing their part to preserve the plants of the past. Lee Calhoun of Chatham County has gained national fame as “the apple man” for his efforts to preserve old-fashioned varieties of this all-American fruit. Several are farmers provide heirloom varieties of tomatoes for the Carrboro, North Carolina’s Farmer’s Market annual tasting, selling them to customers throughout the year. And countless other unsung heirloom plant gardeners are gathering seeds and cuttings – and the stories behind them – every day, like Betty Perry.
Perry’s “old country garden” is a little more than 5 acres that is broken into several flower beds with a colorful hodgepodge of flowers, ornamental grasses and old garden roses. One of the oldest is a 1540 musk rose (Rosa moschata). She got it from a cutting that was growing in a cemetary in Charlotte. The only other known cultivators have been spotted in Hillsborough at the Burwell School for Girls, a historic site, and at Chatwood Gardens, she said. When Perry began searching for native plantings for Mordecai’s garden, she discovered that the best specimens were only a few blocks away. During the 1970s and mid-1980s in downtown Raleigh, buildings on Blount, Hillsborough and Willimington streets were being demolished. Before grading began, Perry asked the property owners for permission to get the plants.
“I got a lot of my choice plants that way,” Perry said. “A lot of these plants [in the garden] that I saw were in yards and they were destroying them. I knew that they were not readily available and I would probably never see them again.”
Walking through the garden, Perry enthusiastically explains where she found each plant – oftentimes stopping in midsentance to pick a weed or to check on the condition of a seed pod. Perry found the mush-sought after Dame’s-rocket (Hesperis matronalis), growing in a field in Chapel Hill. This fragrant perenial with clusters of purple flowers that resemble phlox, can grow about 3 feet tall. Its seeds will self-sow, but some suggest treating it as a biennial.
One of her rarest finds is a fig tree (Ficus carica), which bears black fruit. She got a cutting from a yard in Oakwood when a home was remodeled and the tree eventually destroyed., she said.
Perry also claimed wildflowers when I-40 was being built, in the area where Cary’s Crossroads shopping center is. In her many years of collecting plants, she has been “caught” only once.
“One time in Maryland, I was down under a bridge, and I had my four little kids in the car and a policeman stopped and he asked, ‘Are you having trouble?’ No, but there’s a plant down here that’s a weed, and I need to get a start of it because I take care of a historic garden and I need this plant. It’s called Lunaria,’” Perry recalled. “It was a yellow thing that looked like a snapdragon and he said, ‘Well, can I help you get it?’ He was so nice.’” Perry chuckles.
Trials and tribulations
Even though the largest obstacle to heirloom gardening is finding the seed or the plant, heirloom gardeners must also harvest seeds and cuttings to keep the species in existence. This task has proved challenging in the last few years because drastic weather conditions – like the current rainy spells and last year’s drought – can make collecting seeds difficult.
“In this rain, I’ve lost more plants,” Perry said. “And the weeds. The weeds!”
Unlike hybrids, which Perry describes as being high-maintenance, heirloom plants tend to be hardy and resilient. “For a plant to make it through so many years, it’s got to be tough,” said Perry, who doesn’t believe in babying plants. Perry doesn’t irrigate and only waters new plants.
She is also an organic gardener preferring to fertilize with chinchilla and rabbit manure. She enriches the soil with compost and suggests using pine straw or decayed leaves as a mulch to retard weeds and to keep in moisture. Perry strongly advises against using pine bark mulch, which can harm plants, she said.
Perry collects seeds – “when they’re ready” – dries, sifts and places them in medicine bottles or in envelopes. She doesn’t own a greenhouse and sows the seeds in trays inside her house every March.
Future of heirlooms
In a way, through Perry’s work with Mordecai and its popular plant sale, which was the event in the gardening community back in the 1980s, she has fostered the preservation of several heirloom plants. With sun beaming down upon her blue garden hat, Perry also explained that gardening has kept her in shape despite her bouts with arthritis, cancer and two knee replacements. “I know I would have been in a wheelchair by now,” said Perry. “But I plug along.”
And though she’s not completely satisfied with her garden, Perry looks back on her plant rescues with great pride.
“I do believe that through heirloom plants we are preserving a lost history. I really do.”