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Which heirloom and heritage plants are in your garden?

“On a fine May afternoon Caroline sat out in her garden admiring the Aesopus tulips.”

– Margery Sharp, “Four Gardens,” 1935

Last week I introduced Caroline Chase Smith, the protagonist in Margery Sharp’s fourth novel, “Four Gardens.” I began the column with a passage from the same scene toward the end of the book as this week, in which an older Caroline relaxed on her rooftop enjoying her tulips.

As Caroline sat admiring the pretty pink-and-white streaked flowers, her neighbor leaned out of a window and called, “I say! Would you mind telling me the name of those tulips?” Caroline tells the young woman and even spells the name out for her: “A-e-s-o-p-u-s.”

“Thanks awf’ly” said the girl. “It’s for my husband. He’s taken such a fancy to them…”

As Caroline was left wondering about her neighbor, it’s presumable that the young woman relayed the message and may have even obtained some Aesopus tulips for her husband and herself to plant and admire. In such a friendly, informal way, the Aesopus tulips accomplished their life goal — to perpetuate their kind.

I spent time searching online for Aesopus tulips, but could find no commercially available cultivar called by that name. Based on Sharp’s description of the streaked petals and edges “delicately fluted like the lip of a seashell,” I think they were a type of parrot tulip (Tulipa gesnerana dracontia), a cultivated variety that became popular around 1930. Their ruffled appearance is similar to a parrot’s feathers, hence the common name, but it certainly isn’t a stretch to say the wavy texture of the flowers is also similar to a conch shell.

Interestingly, parrot tulips were derived by reproducing original tulip plants that had developed abnormally curly flower petals and breeding them over several generations. A recently introduced pink-and-white cultivar called ‘Blushing Parrot’ is a cross between an older variety of fringed tulip, such as Aesopus, and a newer tulip variety. Unfortunately, Aesopus tulips may have been lost as commercial breeders scrambled to introduce thousands of “new and improved” cultivars to the market over the past several decades.

Yet I hold out hope there are still some Aesopus tulips growing somewhere in the world. Perhaps some “Four Gardens” readers back in the 1930s were inspired by Sharp’s book to find and grow Aesopus tulips, just like Caroline Chase Smith’s neighbor did. They gave some seeds to their children, who passed them along to their children … and now there are heritage Aesopus tulips growing in the great-great-grandchildren’s backyard and greatly admired by their proud tulip tenders.

I learned there are many old variety, or heirloom, tulips available today. (Heirlooms are usually considered to be cultivars introduced before 1950.) Old House Gardens, an online retailer of heirloom bulbs, provides a useful list of more than 50 tulips introduced between 1595 and the late 1940s that can still be grown in gardens today. Check out the list at www.oldhousegardens.com.

Many heirloom tulips are available from Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm in Woodburn, a four-hour drive from Medford up I-5. The farm’s 38th annual Tulip Fest is going on now until May 1. For more information, visit www.woodenshoe.com.

Besides tulips, many other heirloom varieties of flowers, herbs and vegetables can be grown in our garden. In fact, there are more than 3,000 heirloom tomato varieties. This year I’m growing a Russian beefsteak heirloom called Black Krim.

Several local seed companies offer heirloom seeds. A helpful list of Oregon seed companies is available on the Cultivate Oregon website under “Resources” at www.cultivateorgeon.org.

Why grow heirloom plants, in particular? There are several benefits. First, by growing heirlooms, gardeners prevent old varieties from disappearing. Just like species of pollinating insects and birds, every species of plant lost marks yet another loss of biodiversity in an era that is now referred to as the sixth mass extinction, caused by human activity.

Second, heirloom vegetables are more nutritious than hybrids that are developed for high yields and longer storage. Heirloom vegetables often have less water content and thinner skins, which increases their flavor and fragrance.

Third, heirloom seeds are open pollinated, which means the seeds can be saved and the plants grown next season will have the same characteristics as their parent plant. Hybrids, on the other hand, will produce seeds with characteristics that revert back to only one of the original plants that were crossed.

The stability of open-pollinated, heirloom seeds make them ideal as heritage plants, which are handed down by seeds or cuttings within a family or ethnic/cultural group. My Papaw Crutchfield used to grow Cherokee Purple tomatoes, a favorite heirloom variety among North Carolina gardeners. I sure wish I had seeds from some of the plants he grew back in the 1940s, but I still grow Cherokee Purple tomatoes and other vegetables from my Southern heritage: turnip and mustard greens, squash, okra – I even tried black-eyed peas one summer.

I’ve had particular success growing an heirloom okra called Bowling Red. In addition, my North Carolina ancestors grew tobacco on their small farms, so I grow a fragrant, white-flowered heirloom tobacco plant called Nicotiana alata as a tribute to my farming ancestors. I save okra and nicotiana seeds for my daughter, so she can grow them too. After all, heritage plants can begin during any generation.

Which heirloom and heritage plants are growing in your garden?

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. She is founder and gardener of the Bard’s Garden at Hanley Farm in Central Point. Learn more at www.literarygardener.com, and email Rhonda at Rnowak39@gmail.com.