Gardeners should fight against vanishing plants


December 8, 2005


Victoria County Master Gardener


Heirloom gardening is a good topic for this time of year when we gather with family and friends to reminisce. Holidays bring back fond memories of trips to my grandparents' farm in East Texas. We literally drove over the river and through the woods to get there. The old farmhouse, surrounded by a picket fence and broom-swept dirt yard, greeted us. Flowers that dotted the yard never failed to put on a welcoming bloom. Foods, which had been grown and harvested for the season's meal, tasted more delicious than foods I now buy.


Sadly, many of those luscious tasting foods and beautiful plants are lost forever. We preserve old buildings, archive the past and save species from extinction. But how many of us have ever thought about saving plants from the past? We don't think of plants becoming extinct because it is so easy and convenient to buy what we need from the local market.

It is sobering to realize that David Briscoe of CBC Newsworld Online reported in 1999 that more than 80 percent of the varieties of seeds available a century ago are no longer around. That is why an heirloom gardening movement is afoot among those who want to preserve these living antiques.

The practical appeal of heirloom gardening is that it can yield plants of superior flavor, shape and color. The nostalgic appeal is that it can keep alive the cultural history of ancestors. What fun it would be to share an heirloom plant with a child or grandchild and pass down stories of the ancestor who grew that plant.

To ecologists the most important reason for saving old varieties of plants is to maintain genetic diversity. They believe that as fewer varieties of crops are maintained, an increased danger from pests and disease invites ecological disaster. Landscape horticulturist William C. Welch believes that antique plants from Southern gardens have been time-tested in this climate over a long period of time and that makes them ideal choices for our gardens.

What exactly is heirloom gardening? Simply put, it is saving open-pollinated seed varieties that are at least 50 years old. Plants can be preserved by division or cuttings. A few of the many familiar names of these living antiques are bachelor's buttons, daylilies, dianthus, crepe myrtle, pansies, pomegranates and Johnny-jump-ups.

At one time, all plants were pollinated by natural means - by wind, bees, wildlife, etc. Then people came along and started selecting the prettiest "this" and the largest "that" to hand pollinate for a gigantic beautiful flower or a larger, tastier fruit. These - some with 300 years of history - are now heirloom plants.

The heirloom plants aren't favored by large corporations, who control the bulk of seeds available on the market, because - faced with the demand of feeding millions - corporations look for seeds that will do well in a variety of soils and climates and will produce high yields. The plants from these seeds are often not as showy, fragrant or tasty as the heirlooms that are bred for a select area. A prime example is found in the supermarket tomato or in roses that look gorgeous but have no fragrance.

Growing heirlooms may bring back some of the quality you are looking for and they can be started in a variety of ways. The most accurate is through cuttings or divisions. Whether you are dividing up daylily bulbs from one plant, collecting T-buds to graft roses or cutting graftwood from your favorite ornamental, grape, pear or pecan, you can be 100 percent sure to get the heirloom because you took part of the original plant.

Some heirloom plants are grown from seed, but for the average gardener this is somewhat tedious, and to maintain purity may be out of the question. Seeds are generally saved from annuals and biennials. Saving seeds ensures that you get the seeds from "your" plant but it really doesn't insure that the seed will grow true to its mother plant. That is because most plants cross-pollinate with other plants in the area and the result is slightly different. If you want to grow heirloom plants - such as tomatoes, peppers, bachelor's buttons, daisies, etc. - harvest the fruits and flowers, and save some seed, you need to not plant any of these near similar varieties to avoid cross pollination. How far is "near"? It depends on the plant type and the wind and the bees or other wildlife that help in pollinating. In some cases it could be more than a mile.

So, after 50 years of planting and saving seeds, you will have the beginnings of your heirloom garden. If you don't have that long, there are numerous nurseries and Web sites where information can be found about heirloom gardening groups and sources of heirloom seeds and plants. Search your library or Web browser for "heirloom plants."

The Victoria Educational Gardens, at the Victoria Regional Airport, is another place to gather ideas. When you visit, note the Turk's cap, an easy-to-grow heirloom perennial that attracts butterflies and hummingbirds to its red flowers. There are also pansies for seasonal color as well as red heirloom dianthus.

The garden is open to the public and educational tours are offered to groups. What better gift can you give to your posterity this season than to pass along information from the treasured past to help preserve it for the future?