overlooked heirloom flowers, with marilyn barlow

Heirloom flowers from Select Seeds‘HELP!’ I cried to Marilyn Barlow the other day, after getting lost online among her tassel flowers, unusual poppies and crazy chenille-like amaranths. It had been more than 20 years since Marilyn first toured me through her actual Connecticut garden of oldtime flowers, and now I needed virtual guidance through Select Seeds’ online aisles. But where to start? She knew: With “annuals and perennials you’d love—if only you were introduced properly,” she said. I’m game; let’s go.

When we first met in 1991, I remember madly taking notes on every last thing in Marilyn’s garden, because they were all unfamiliar to me.

“At that time,” said Marilyn, “open-pollinated annuals commonly grown in European cottage gardens had been ignored here as gardeners favored the newest of the new hybrid flower varieties.”

In the years since, this passionate collector worked to remedy that.

Today, modern, environment-focused gear and greenhouse practices help her maintain and expand the impressive collection of oldtimers or old-style charmers that she sells by mail as seed or plants. Select Seeds/Antique Flowers captures rainwater in a 4,500-gallon storage system; recycles its water (using flood benches to irrigate crops from below), for instance, and has a solar system and other power-saving gear. No neonicotinoids or systemic chemicals are used, to protect pollinators and other beneficials.

But what will probably catch your eye more than those conservation measures: the flowers (or at least once Marilyn has a chance to tell you where to look among the many choices). Like these:

overlooked flowers; a q&a with marilyn barlow

Q. What are some things you feel responsible for helping come out of the shadows over the years?

A. I hope I helped fragrance to reappear as a sought-after trait in flower breeding. At the time nicotianas had no fragrance but bloomed all day; sweet pea flowers were large and long-stemmed with ruffled petals, but many lacked their signature heady scent; and unassuming fragrant flowers such as mignonette and evening scented stock were ignored completely.

I also hope I helped in some small way to bring unusual open-pollinated flowers into the lexicon of gardeners’ choices.  Having a tall ageratum to grow in place of the dwarf version offered back then by flower breeders, for example, was a revelation.

imperial pink poppy and polygonum orientaleQ. Are there specific plants you are most proud of introducing, or re-introducing?

A.  I had been looking for kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate (above right), or Persicaria orientalis, also called Polygonum orientale, since I saw a listing in an early 1800s seed catalog list.

“There is something oriental looking about it. It reminds me of the willow trees on Blue Willow china,” a Mr. Yoakum wrote in his letter to me, a letter that included seeds of Persicaria orientalis. Victory!

It is a top pollinator-friendly variety, attracting native bees and wasps as well as honeybees—a sun-loving annual here that gets to 6 or 7 feet tall, blooming summer to fall. It takes 16-18 weeks from seed.

I just got in a shorter variety called ‘Cerise Pearls’ and can’t wait to trial it this spring.

Q. I know you have always had an eye for poppies, too.

A. Yes. Opium poppies (Papaver somniferum) historically were an important part of the physic garden, and so naturally, we sought these out, not for their medicinal qualities but for their incredibly beautiful flowers.

We were again the grateful recipient of a collection of poppy seeds from a fellow gardener in the early 1990s, and have grown our heirloom poppy ever since. From that mix of lavender, black raspberry, and cherry, we selected the ‘Imperial Pink’ poppy (above left) for its large cup-shaped or “tulip” flowers on tall stems, and plan to select more varieties from the mix to offer.

Q. Where do you find these plants (or are we allowed to know your secrets)?

A. We do get a lot of varieties from Europe still, even after 25-plus years. Seed-company consolidation has taken its toll on the diversity of available varieties, and we are responding by expanding the number of varieties we grow ourselves. Of course, our climate is a limiting factor in seed production, and we hope to someday partner with a grower out West.

Q. Does it sometimes take years to track down something, and get it up to a sufficient bulk to be able to sell it?

A. It does. Another seed-swap gem we were lucky to get, hummingbird-pollinated Petunia exserta, is one of a kind (photo in box at bottom of page). I first grew it last year and collected the tiny capsules of seeds all summer, but still did not have enough to offer a seed packet to customers, so I am growing and offering plants instead, and plan to build up our seed supply–if all goes well, that is!

A mere 14 specimens made it to North America from its native Brazil in 2007, and since then, it has been traveling, hand to hand, among seed-sharing gardeners.

It has brilliant red coloring and gold pollen dusting the tips of the out-thrust, curved stamens. It’s the only petunia to be pollinated by hummingbirds, and the only red-flowered species found in the wild.

Q. So if I said, “Name a dozen things I can’t live without—but that I might not even know of” from your collection, what would they be? This is your chance to stump for your beloved candidates!

A. In no particular order, some that I want you to meet:

1. Mexican Tulip Poppy ‘Sunlite’ (Hunnemania fumariifolia)

The hardy annual ‘Sunlite’ (below left) has never completely disappeared from gardens since it won an AAS award in 1934, but is not often grown. I am drawn to the combination of beautiful ferny blue-gray foliage and bright lemon cup-shaped flowers. It is really like a very large scale California poppy (to 2 feet tall) and it shares with the California poppy a need for sun and well-drained soils. It also keeps blooming all summer, so if you are one of the many that love poppies and mourn their disappearance as summer takes hold this is for you.

hunnemania and cambridge blue salvia2. Gentian Sage ‘Cambridge Blue’ (Salvia patens)

We are one of the very few that offer this 2-foot gem (above right), a tender perennial (Zone 8 or 9). Once you see the opalescent spring sky-blue color of the flowers you will be hooked.  It’s true that the hooded flowers are fairly sparse along the stem, but all is forgiven when it blooms all summer and we all love that hue!  We offer plants, too.

3. Zinnia ‘Starbright Mix’  (Zinnia angustifolia)

If you value disease-resistant zinnias (and who doesn’t really?) this lesser-known variety (below left) is fantastic. It’s one of the parents of the interspecific hybrid ‘Profusion’ Series, but Zinnia angustifolia is more endearing than its famous offspring. This foot-tall tender annual has smaller, starry flowers, decorative fine foliage, and great heat tolerance, plus it is so easy to grow.

starbright mix zinnia and vervain4. Vervain (Verbena rigida)

If you have a sunny garden, this little plant (maybe 8-12 inches, above right) should be a garden essential. We remain puzzled by its relative obscurity. It blooms all summer and fall, attracts butterflies in hordes, has fantastic dark green leathery foliage that holds up to whatever summer throws at it, it takes practically no care. Plus it has the most vibrant violet-purple color that combines well with zinnia ‘Starbright Mix’ (Zinnia angustifolia) or ‘Benary’s Giant Lime’ zinnia, and another excellent heat-lover, Melampodium paludosum. Vervain is a half-hardy annual, meaning Zones 8-10; grow it as an annual elsewhere.

tassel flowers5. Tassel Flower (Emilia javanica)

Earlier generations paid close attention to this small-flowered bright annual, circa 1806, aptly naming it Flora’s Paintbrush’ (above left). It’s high time for us to give it its due. A great front-of-the-border weaver, it’s 1-to-2-foot tall curvy stems are continually topped with tufts of brilliant scarlet, or in ‘Irish Poet’ soft orange (above right). They look great with blue annual clary (Salvia viridis) or ‘Kew Blue’ painted tongue (Salpiglossis sinuata) in temperate summer gardens. An overlooked yet long-lasting cut flower, and an easy direct-sow choice.

6. Black-eyed Susan Vine ‘Alba’ (Thunbergia alata)

White flowers are often overlooked in favor of vivid blooms, but the Black-eyed-Susan vine ‘Alba’ (below left) has pure white flowers with black dimples in the center that look cool and refreshing, especially in a sun-dappled garden on a hot day in summer. Grow it to 5-8 feet high on a trellis in a pot with trailing dichondra ‘Silver Falls’ (Dichondra argentea) and lemon-green creeping jenny (Lysimachia nummularia) spilling over the edges.  Hardy in Zones 8-10.

white thunbergia, cosmos rubenza7. Cosmos ‘Rubenza’ (Cosmos bipinnatus)

This annual cosmos is the favored child of our Number 1 Dutch supplier and breeder, and no wonder, as it has a strong upright even habit, and a color no other cosmos had before, a dark ruby red (above right) that fades to old rose as the flowers age. Easy to grow, too.

8. Maltese Cross (Lychnis chalcedonica)

This gorgeous survivor (below left) has acquired many names over its hundreds of years in cultivation: London Pride, Scarlet Mountain Lychnis, and Jerusalem Cross. It is not commonly grown today, but should be. Great foliage, good sturdy stems to 3 feet (no staking needed) and intense, flame-colored flowers that look great with blue Canterbury bells (Campanula medium) and sundrops (Oenothera fruticosa). An early summer classic. Hardy in Zones 4-8.

maltese cross, lime nicotiana9. Lime tobacco (Nicotiana alata)

It’s all about the color, and this 3-foot tobacco (above right) has full, saturated color, with fuller flower trumpets during daylight hours than the taller, night-blooming, more fragrant sorts. Fantastic in combination with violet-hued flowers such as heliotrope ‘Fragrant Delight’ (Heliotropium arborescens) or dusty reds such as coleus ‘Redhead.’ Easy to grow from seed as long as care is taken with the tiny seeds and you can resist the urge to sow too thickly. We offer plants, too.

10. Basket Flower (Centaurea americana)

This native flower (below right) is relatively unknown but is easily grown and is an important food source for native bees. The 5-inch-wide feathery flowerheads in mauve and cream are spectacular and make excellent dried flowers, but the bracts surrounding the buds are just as beautiful. These pale golden bracts are arranged in a way that makes them resemble woven baskets. An awesome, large plant (to 3 feet) that can take part shade (full sun best).

rehmannia, centaurea11. Chinese Foxglove (Rehmannia angulata)

Chinese foxglove (above left) is remarkable for its all-summer and fall bloom and its ground-covering habit. The low rosettes of foliage turn purple in late fall. The spires of flowers (to 2 feet tall) are the color of ripe raspberries, definitely not a common pink shade. It is gaining more attention lately, and deservedly so, for who would want foxgloves relegated to spring-blooming plants only? One caveat: If you’re wary of its ground-covering habit in areas where hardy (Zones 7-10), grow in pots instead. We offer plants, too, of this circa 1835 annual/tender perennial.

12. That Petunia exserta I mentioned already. (Photo in the box at the bottom of the page.)

nici's findling and corsican violaQ. Of course gardeners worldwide are feeling a little freaked out without their trusty impatiens in recent seasons, because of downy mildew. Any less-than-obvious ideas for part shade?

A. We don’t have a lot for shade, but what stands out as good for an Eastern exposure with afternoon shade is fuchsia ‘Nici’s Findling’ (above left), Browallia ‘Blue Lady’ and ‘Snowwhite,’ and Corsican viola (above right).

Fuchsia ‘Nici’s Findling’ is a hardy fuchsia (Zones 7-10) with glossy dark green leaves, a compact shrubby habit and instead of dangling flowers, jaunty outward-facing blooms. Browallia americana is a great weaver to a foot tall with elegant small flowers that bloom all season, and Corsican viola (8 inches high; Zones 4-8) is long blooming, even through summer.

how to win the gift certificate

P8815 petunia exserta 3I’LL BUY ONE READER a $25 gift certificate from Select Seeds’ catalog, and all you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box below (UPDATE: GIVEAWAY IS COMPLETE):

Have any favorite heirloom or otherwise traditional flowers in your garden that you want to tell us about?

I am crazy about the little species (non-hybrid) zinnias that Marilyn mentioned, and also the opium poppies, and loads of Nicotiana as well that have been self-sowing here for decades–to name a few.

No answer or feeling shy? Just say “Count me in or some such, and I will (but an answer is even better. I picked a random winner after entries closed at midnight Sunday, April 6, 2014. U.S. winners only due to shipping restrictions overseas.

(All photos from Select Seed/Antique Flowers; used with permission.)

  1. Ann says:

    The most anticipated flower I grow from seed is the old-fashioned sweet pea! I grow them for their unforgettable fragrance. Another favorite of mine is the lilac. I only grow the common variety and French hybrids; I’m already anticipating the blooms and, of course, the fragrance!

  2. Sandy says:

    Four o’clocks! That light, sweet lemony fragrance, plus the crazy striping, makes them a garden standout for me. That they faithfully reseed is just a plus. I wouldn’t garden without them. I also adore love-in-a-mist, a.k.a. nigella. A pure, clear sky-blue that’s so hard to find in flowers–and it self-sows, too. Oh, one more–old-fashioned balsam, with its shy flowers along the stem. Guess what? Self-seeder! Pure laziness has made me well-acquainted with the self-seeding annuals.

  3. mary ellen masciale says:

    I suppose this makes me sound like a lazy gardener, but my favorites are the ones that self sow: Lychnis coronaria, nicotiana (several varieties that have all mixed, so I never know what I’m going to see!) and johnny-jump-ups. I love the way they pop up in unexpected places, and tie everything together.

  4. Connie Etter says:

    Wow! Where shall I start? My hummingbird garden perhaps? In this area I plant flowers my hummingbirds love (and ones I find easy to photograph them with). I have tried many but my favorites are almost all the tall slender salvia’s like blue&black, red shades, hot lips and coral nymph. Other favorites are red hot poker, red poppies and pineapple sage for the fall.

    In my butterfly area, (butterfly, milkweed, passion vine, hops, dutchman’s pipevine, parsley, dill and fennel for my caterpillars) Verbena bonariensis, lantana, lily’s/Turks Cap variety, butterfly bush, Pentas, Mexican sunflowers,

    I could go on and on and on!!! Drop by my Facebook page and see how my gardens grow ;) ( Connie Etter Photography)

  5. Jan Doeringer says:

    My grandmother always grew zinnias, cosmos and snapdragons in Pennsylvania. I now live in Georgia and have a much longer growing season than she did. My love of gardening comes from watching her tend her lovely flowers and I spend much of my time trying to recreate the beautiful sea of flowers that made her so happy.

  6. Susan Galyon says:

    I love the Bachelor Buttons. Blue Boy often pops up in unexpected places and looks lovely with the pinks and the yellows. The bees adore these flowers and the flower colors are so intense! Blooms for months here in my Georgia garden. Love, love, love!

  7. ljfq says:

    Siberian wallflower (Chiaranthus allioni? The name may have changed) – LOVE the shades of bright orange, and the wonderful fragrance. Sadly, they don’t persist in my garden and they are not easy to find.

  8. Judy Donnelly says:

    Let me start by saying that I so appreciate people who love heirloom varieties. So much has been “bred out” and now those old qualities are coming back. I couldn’t be happier!

    As a child, I was fascinated with the old names of flowers my grandmother grew. She saved seeds every year, and kept some alive in water on her glassed in back porch. As soon as I heard Kiss Me Over the Garden Gate and Love Lies Bleeding, I was hooked! To this day, I think of her and hope she is proud of me for saving seeds and supporting old varieties.

  9. Karen Peteros says:

    I bought 1 forget-me-knot plant more than 10 years ago. I spread the seeds around my yard each year. They grow fabulous on their own. Their little blue faces with small yellow centers are so cheery and actually make the invasive oxalis in my yard look good!

    I also like nigella (love-in-a-mist), I bought a few seed packets of distinct colors many years ago. Over the years, they’ve gotten cross-pollinated. I scatter the seeds around and I look forward to seeing what colors will appear in my garden. They change from year to year.

  10. Alyson says:

    In the late 1970’s, my brother worked at a hospital with beautiful gardens. My father, a long time gardener, toured the grounds and collected digitalis seeds, some of which he shared with me. Fortunately the foxgloves loved my soil and thrived. My father died in 1980, but every year when the digitalis bloom, I think of my Dad and our mutual love of gardens. I have affectionately named the plants “Dad’s digitalis” and have shared seeds and plants with many friends.

  11. Pat says:

    Among my favorites are the Hellebores also known as the Lenten rose as they begin to bloom in Feburary or with this artic winter we have just gone through in March. Mine are in a shaded garden under a magnolia tree and continue to bloom until the heat of August. I have a large patch of the self-sowing white mixed with a lesser clump of pink. The bed is interplanted with heucheras another favorite–transplanted from my childhood garden when they were more known as coral bells. Now love all the new varities and colors.

  12. pattyk says:

    Opium poppies have Long been a favorite of mine and Select Seeds introduced me to so many wonderful antique varieties.

  13. Carol says:

    I love my reseeding old fashioned tall nicotiana alata for it’s wonderful fragrance at night and the purple and pink spikes of painted sage (salvia viridis)

  14. Nancy Lowe says:

    I have too many things that I love! I have an herb bed, and one of the great things in it is pineapple sage. It blooms at the end of the season, when everything is starting to dwindle. The vivid red blooms attract the hummingbirds that are migrating to warmer climates. Then there is the daphne that begins blooming in January and continues until warm weather (It’s still blooming now.) The scent is unbelievable! In my black and white bed, the white hardy hibiscus grows larger each year. There is no scent, but the 6 to 8 inch diameter flowers are definitely attention grabbing! And the cross vine on my fence beside the “summer sky” bed covers the fence in late spring with coral colored flowers (my favorite color). And I could not tell you which is my favorite…

  15. Sharon Subjin says:

    Bachelor’s Buttons, Snow On the Mountain and Cosmos. All remind me of my Grandma’s garden, vegetables surrounded by beds of flowers, both annuals and perennials.

  16. Deborah Horvath says:

    Twenty-five years ago my husband dug up three small wisteria plants from
    his grandmother’s garden and today they fully encompass the arbor
    and extend out to my butterfly bushes and look spectacular.

  17. Anita says:

    I love my forget-me-not the plant was given to me by an elderly woman who had a wonderful flower garden. It has lived in my garden now for the last 30+ years.

  18. Maralee Karwoski says:

    Horned Poppy, Eryngium giganteum ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’ and Verbena-on-a-stick (Verbena bonarenisis) are some of my favorite oldies but goodies!

  19. Irena says:

    I absolutely love pot marigolds (calendula). I haven’t grown them for years and got so calendula-sick that this year I have spread the seeds everywhere and now am waiting in anticipation.

  20. Lorraine says:

    My favorites are always those that take me back to my Granny’s yard. She loved her flowers and each year she would hand quilt for others. The pay she earned for that long tedious work went into her “flower stash” and she allowed herself a “new” flower for her flower bed. Iris just scream “Granny” to me! ha! She called them “flags.” and they lined the garden and driveway. Old fashioned Cosmos, Johnny Jump-ups, and the piece de resistance: Surprise Lilies! My Surprise Lilies came from Granny’s yard and every time they reveal themselves, I am overjoyed!

  21. Linda Herhold says:

    Every year I can’t wait to see the “volunteers” that come up – cosmos, zinnias, columbines – and I still plant more. Nothing like being able to pick a vase of flowers to bring inside!

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