HISTORIC PLANT MATERIALS

Gardens and cultural landscapes have many character-defining features in addition to plants and vegetation, yet plants can be some of the most difficult things to replace in a restoration or reconstruction. Their specific names might not be recorded, and nurseries today usually carry “improved” selections. For example, there are hundreds of dahlia cultivars, but the actual dahlia cultivar grown in a particular garden one hundred years ago may not be noted in surviving documents or available for purchase.

Many old varieties are actually lost. Others are no longer stocked by nurseries, although they can be obtained from dedicated gardeners and horticulturists. Sometimes a replacement from the same time period or that closely duplicates the qualities of an heirloom plant must be substituted, especially in situations where pests or diseases make it impossible to grow the original variety.

Plants that were grown long ago are often called “heirloom” or “heritage” plants or “antique” varieties. These terms may have precise definitions, but many people use them casually or simply say, “old” or “historic” plants.
Whatever term you prefer, it is essential to choose a species, cultivar, or variety appropriate to a historic time period and not a modern selection of the same genus and species. This includes lawn grasses.

PLANT RESOURCES

The following resources can help you find information about historic plants or locate them in retail nurseries:

  • “Contemporary Sources for Heirloom Plants” (Appendix C) in Restoring American Gardens: An Encyclopedia of Heirloom Ornamental Plants, 1640-1940 by Denise Wiles Adams (Timber Press, Portland OR, 2004) is a useful, general reference, however, it is important to remember that nursery businesses come and go, and their plant stock changes constantly.
  • www.plantinfo.umn.edu – sources in North American nurseries for plants and seeds as well as citations in books and articles about plants. This is a free service of the University of Minnesota Libraries, which include the Anderson Horticultural Library devoted to horticulture and plant science (www.arboretum.umn.edu/library.aspx)
  • www.crfg.org – members of the California Rare Fruit Growers network for each other and “Fruit Facts from their web site and journal often has information about old fruit varieties.”
  • www.citrusvariety.ucr.edu – the web site of the University of California, Riverside, Citrus Variety Collection has extensive information on citrus fruits. Not a retail nursery, although they may direct you to sources.
  • www.santabarbaramission.org/la-huerta - Old Mission Huerta Project (a repository and living museum for mission era heritage plants), Santa Barbara Mission Museum Director, 2201 Laguna St. Santa Barbara, CA 93105
  • www.heritagerosefoundation.org - Old roses number in the thousands, and they are probably the most studied and available heirloom plants. An Internet search will turn up many cultivars. The Heritage Rose Foundation sponsors conferences and has information specific to California.
  • www.monticello.org – click on “Center for Historic Plants” for Twinleaf Journal articles; Twinleaf seeds and plants are available through the Monticello Online shop.
  • www.rhs.org.uk – Royal Horticultural Society (London) maintains a database of UK plant and seed sources—some ship internationally.

HELP WITH SCIENTIFIC NAMES

Check the database maintained by The International Plant Names Index: www.ipni.org

Image: Perle d'Or, an Old Garden Rose, in Petaluma. Photo Susan Chamberlin, 2013.