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. Becky Ross says:

    The ones I wait for each year are the iris I transplanted from my grandmother’s garden in 1985 and have moved twice since then. They have never minded that it wasn’t “the right time” to move them and just keep blooming year after year.

  2. tracy grimm says:

    Fascinating selections. I have just retired and am excited to be able to do some new plants, even if they might require a little time and attention I haven’t had until now.

  3. Emma says:

    Have only a few flowers in my garden – hollyhocks, bee balm, evening primrose – but having just retired, I’m delighted to learn of Select Seeds and look forward to adding heirloom and old-fashioned flowers to my small selection.

  4. Laura Johnson says:

    Every year I plant seeds with no luck whatsoever. I plan to order from your company after studying your catalog and reading the testimonials of your customers. I so hope and pray I will have good luck this time. Any clue or hints you care to share re:their success will be greatly appreciated .

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Laura. Select Seeds will send basic instructions with your order, I expect, but if you want to review my basic seed-starting process it’s at this link. Mot seed failure (when starting indoors) involves too little light, like this story explains. The only difference between sowing the vegetables in those stories and flowers is timing (and any other variety-specific details that Select Seed will specify on the packets or with your order). Wonder what to start what? Here’s the calculator tool to figure it out.

  5. Catherine says:

    Got some bee balm from a friend back in 60’s, and grown it ever since. It almost died out but I found a couple of sprigs in 90’s and now have a thriving bed again. Ditto ageratum and garden phlox.

  6. Cori says:

    Black-eyed-Susan vine ‘Alba, did not know about this plant, love it. I will be looking for seeds and growing them

  7. Sissy says:

    Sorry to have missed out on this sweepstakes! I grow the tall Night fragrant white Nicotiana, larkspurs, catchfly, dame’s rockets, Money plant and obedient plant in the lavender pink and also the white. My flower gardens are mostly roses, lilacs, peonies, iris, night fragrant stock, heliotrope, ,jasmines, tuberoses, columbines, clematis, and loads of vines and bulbs. Anything fragrant.

  8. Cindy Donahey says:

    I have these early perennial poppies, two flowers to a plant. Very early introduced. The French taxed them. The British ignored them. The new Americans ignored them, except for flower gardeners. They are a blast of color in the spring. I pull them up right after bloom. Got them from Aunt Erma. These have a double row of petals. I have one plant of a single row,of petals. Got from an old,yard. On a street called Bonham. These are more red.

  9. Mtnlou says:

    We planted tassel flowers in our library demonstration garden last summer and they were THE faves, hands down. Those little pops of bright orange make everything look better!

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