One of my very favorite aspects of the gracious historical homes of downtown Delaware is the dazzling display of heirloom shrubs, trees, and flowers. They add just as much charm and interest to the property as the delicate gingerbreading of the doorways and gables. I passionately believe in the perseverance of heirloom plants and vegetables. I would like to share some of my favorite heirlooms with you, how care for heirlooms can differ from modern hybrids, and how to identify your favorites.
My first selection is actually a native wildflower found right here in Delaware County, the Virginia Bluebell. Bluebells are a fabulous heirloom star of the mid-spring garden due to their ease of care and attractive bloom. In mid-late April, when Bluebells bloom, it is easy to see how they were given their name. Clusters of beautiful bell-shaped blooms appear on each stem. Unique because unlike many other heirlooms such as Black-Eyed Susans, Bluebells thrive in shade and extreme moisture. Also an attractive option because within a few short years three or four plants will have spread to fill your entire shade garden. Shortly after their blooming in the early summer, Bluebells go dormant leaving room for your other shade-lovers like hostas to spring up with no competition. Virginia Bluebells are very self-sufficient and require little care. They are best placed in a shaded, moist area.
Without a doubt my two favorite heirlooms are lilacs and peonies. They both have bewitching fragrance and make fabulous cut arrangements. Lilacs bloom at the very end of April into early May. They have alluring, very large panicle-shaped blooms densely packed with hundreds of individually opening buds to create one very showy flower. They were an immensely popular addition to the landscapes of the 1950-70s—as you may notice if you are in a neighborhood built in that time. In the ‘80s lilacs were hybridized to a dwarf variety which became a very popular option because they only grew to a maximum of about four feet tall. Quite a contrast from (as they’re commonly called in nurseries) “old-fashioned” lilacs which can easily grow 10 feet or higher. The dwarf lilacs still have a pleasant aroma but are not as strong. Their blooms are much smaller, not as dense, nor as richly colored. Also, in heirloom varieties of lilac shades range from deep purple to a soft lavender all the way to white. When looking for these in nurseries, they will all begin with syringa followed by their common name. For deepest violet, the syringa Royalty is the best choice. Royalty is a late-blooming variety developed in the 1880s in Canada to resist late frosts. For the true “lilac” color, my personal favorite is the President Grevy. Fast growing with heavy profusion of blue-violet blooms this variety never disappoints. For white blooms, the two most popular varieties are Angel White and Beauty of Moscow. Heirloom lilacs are best planted in pairs for ensured pollination. And because they grow so effortlessly it is advised to prune them back by about 1/3 every spring. The President Grevy is usually the easiest to find in a nursery’s inventory, whereas the others may require a little bit more searching. Speak with someone at your preferred nursery and they should be able to help you order them. Lilacs are best planted in full sun with well drained soil.
Another fixture of the historical homes of Delaware’s landscapes are peonies. Luckily, the various shades of peonies are much more readily available in nurseries than some of the heirloom lilacs. Peonies bloom only once in late May through early June … many people associate them with Memorial Day as the first blooms always open just in time for the holiday. Much like lilacs, peonies have a unique and iconic perfume. The three most popular shades of bloom are deep magenta, soft shell pink, and white; however, shades of lemon yellow, vivid scarlet and deep violet are also available. Despite only blooming once, their attractive cut, glossy leaves make an attractive and textural addition to the summer landscape. There are two main families of peonies, I am writing about the garden peony or paeonia although there is also the Paeonia suffruticosa which is a tree peony. According to OSU Factsheet HYG-1241-94 “… All peonies have five or more large outer petals called guard petals and a center of stamens or modified stamens. Single forms have centers of pollen-bearing stamens. Centers of semi-double forms consist of broad petals intermingled with pollen-bearing stamens. Double types have dense centers of only broad petals …” The peonies most popular are the double form petals, as they produce one large very full flower. Single-form have only five petals with a center of yellow, which are the stamens. Peonies should be planted in full sun with well-drained soil. A few of the best varieties of double-form blooms are: ‘Kansas’ (vivid magenta), ‘Festiva Maxima’ (white), ‘Nick Shaylor’ (blush pink) and ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ (baby or rose pink).
Both lilacs and peonies’ aroma trigger very happy memories for many people and are a beautiful way to bring tradition and nostalgia into your garden. Some even refer to lilacs as “the mother of memory” because when their aroma sweeps through an open window in the spring it takes you to another time. Heirlooms add that special signature to your garden that defines the space by memories both new and old.
Stephen Jones is an OSU Extension Delaware County Master Gardener Volunteer.