All the historical, antique, or heirloom plants in my gardens put on spectacular shows.
I’ve always been intrigued by flowers and edibles with histories richer than those of many countries. That’s why the bulk of my vegetable patch, miniature fruit trees, and perennials are cultivars with a past.
Seven Year Wait
Eight years ago, I acquired a miniature pear tree from the National Clonal Germplasm Repository in Corvallis, Oregon. It’s the tissue and plant bank for the USDA. ‘Le Nain Vert’, translated from French, means “The Green Dwarf”, and it is. Less than five feet tall, the ancient tree grows in a columnar fashion. It’s a true genetic dwarf, first mentioned in literature in the 11th century by the poet Virgil. The tree was developed for widespread cultivation in 1839 in France.
After 7 seasons in my garden, the tree finally bloomed in mid-May! I had almost given up hope for pears. Plenty have set now. The fruit is large, globular yet irregular in shape, and the white flesh is dry with a sweet, sugary flavor. I can hardly wait to bite into the first one at the end of August.
Eight years ago I also purchased a true Rembrandt or broken tulip from 1620 from Old House Gardens in Ann Arbor, Michigan. 'Zomerschoon' is the result of viral infection carried by the green peach aphid that created broken or feathery coloration. It is one of a few tulips affected by the virus that fueled the economic phenomenon known as "Tulipmania” in the 17th century. The bulbs were used as a form of currency, and people abandoned jobs, businesses, wives, and homes, all to become tulip growers. Some bulbs fetched over $37,000 each! ‘Zoomerschoon’ is a late bloomer of short stature in my garden, but it’s gorgeous.
'Zoomerschoon' is a broken virus tulip that men made and lost immense fortunes over in th 17th century. It graces my garden along with other spectacular ancient bulbs. Photo courtesy of Old House Gardens.
‘Estelle Rijnveld’, a smashing parrot tulip also with broken colors, is another bulb I got from Old House Gardens. It dates from about 1954 and is the most spectacular tulip I’ve seen or grown. Luckily, it blooms early and grows tall and vigorous.
Edible Heirloom Passion
The first heirloom vegetable ready for harvest is ‘Grandpa Admire’s’ butterhead lettuce. It only takes 6 weeks from to harvest the first juicy, big leaves full of refined lettuce flavor. Each plant will form large, loose heads of bronze-splattered, crinkly leaves. It’s named for George Admire, a Civil War veteran, who found the bronzy lettuce in his garden in about 1820.
I'm already enjoying fresh salads from this heirloom lettuce, despite a cold and late spring.
My passion for the plants mentioned above and the 300 other heirlooms I’ve grown in the last two decades is captured in my new book Heirloom Flavor, Yesterday’s Best Tasting Vegetables, Fruits and Herbs for Today’s Cook.
The book, published by Cool Springs Press, will be in stores by the end of August and can be pre-ordered at various online bookseller sites. I hope you take a look at the web description to see the gardening, cooking and shopping aspects of some of the greatest edibles we have preserved for future generations.
Doreen Howard has written for The Old Farmer's Almanac All-Seasons Garden Guide for 15 years and is the former garden editor at Woman’s Day as well as a photographer. She has grown more than 300 varieties of heirloom edibles and flowers in the last two decades.
In stores now!
Look for Doreen's newest book, Heirloom Flavor: Yesterday's Best-Tasting Vegetables, Fruits and Herbs for Today's Cook. Find in stores everywhere including Walmart and on the Web including amazon.com.