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How Does Your Garden Grow? Heirloom plants

In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in heirloom plants. A current trend in gardening involves learning about and growing antique or heirloom plants.

What exactly is an heirloom plant? Officially, a plant needs to have been introduced before 1950. Plants grown in America from the 1600s to 1950 would be considered heirloom status.

A secondary definition of heirloom plants would be plants handed down from generation to generation within a family. These plants are often sentimental favorites full of family memories and are a welcome component of the family's current garden.

Enthusiasm for heirloom plants stems from the fact that they offer larger blooms and fantastic fragrance. Heirloom plants are different from hybrid plants because they are open-pollinated, which means that they self-pollinate or cross-pollinate and manage to keep identical or very similar characteristics to the original mother plant.

Time for a brief history lesson.

In colonial times, plants served a purpose. Medicines, dyes, herbs and food for the family all came from the garden and allowed the early settlers to survive in the new world. So, as early as the 1600s, plants were a critical part of every day life in America.

Fast forward to the turn of the 20th century. Victorian gardens were all about the bling! Gardens of this era were very flamboyant showcasing bold colors and bold-sized plants, carpet beds of annuals in decorative shapes, and impressive garden ornaments and statuary. Victorians also were all about giving their plants dramatic, emotional names. You would find in their gardens plants called bleeding heart, forget-me-not, love-in-the-mist and kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate.

During the World War I time period, gardens returned to a more serious nature as Victory gardens appeared all over the United States, and families fed themselves with vegetable and fruit produce from their home gardens.

Throughout America's history, our gardens have been our valued possessions helping us through difficult and also fun, creative times.

How can we add some history to our home gardens? For authentic heirloom plants, there are catalogs that feature annuals, perennials and shrubs of bygone eras. Heirloom seeds can be purchased by mail order from organizations such as Seed Savers Exchange and Seeds of Change. To be historically correct in the world of roses, your rose selection must have been created before 1867.

For a more casual approach, plants can be added to your garden that mimic the heirloom version but are currently easier to locate and purchase.

Classic heirloom type plants are available in many forms. Annual options include bachelor's button, larkspur, pot marigold and love-in-a-mist, while bleeding heart, Oriental poppies and four-o-clocks are good perennial choices. Many of the early heirlooms were biennial plants, and good current plants for this category are foxglove, hollyhock, forget-me-not and Sweet William. No dedicated Victorian gardener would be without a dramatic vine in their garden, and their and your current vine of choice would be either fragrant sweet peas or morning glories.

Travel back in time and let some old fashioned plants give new life to your home garden. Lets keep historically valuable plants alive and growing for future generations to experience and enjoy.

• The Master Gardeners are available to answer your questions from 9 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday at the University of Illinois Extension DeKalb County office in the Farm Bureau Center for Agriculture, 1350 W. Prairie Drive in Sycamore. Call 815-758-8194 or email Walk-ins are welcome.

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