Stemming from the past There's blooming interest in antique flowers


Susan Dowell's garden is a time machine filled with the sights and scents of bygone eras. Old-fashioned peonies, lilacs and lilies of the valley surround her Monkton home. One whiff of those fragrant antiques sends her spinning back through time, says Mrs. Dowell, who used to caress the blossoms of those flowers as a child in her grandmother's garden.

Tim Fortney gets a rush every time he digs in the cool, dark loam around his "new" home, a 17th-century manor house near Crownsville. Each spade of soil unearths more buried treasure -- rare varieties of phlox, crape myrtle and sturdy old asters that have survived years of neglect. Mr. Fortney hopes some day to restore the entire garden to its original form.

On warm summer days when her heritage roses are in bloom, Olivia Rodgers likes to putter outside "and get drunk on their fragrance." Mrs. Rodgers, 84, of Catonsville, calls the heirloom plants "a throwback to my childhood. I may not live in a 19th-century house, but at least I've got flowers that are that old."

Welcome to the '90s, where low-tech landscapes are gaining favor. Tired of growing high-strung hybrids and odorless ornamentals that succumb unannounced come winter, many homeowners are turning back the clock to find simpler, stronger plants for their gardens.

Folks are examining their roots to find better ways to spruce up their yards, says Jim McWilliams, owner of Maxalea Nurseries in Baltimore County's Stoneleigh community. "People want the standbys, the plants that seem warm to them, that they can smell and enjoy," he says. "They're asking for hollyhocks, primroses, bleeding hearts and foxglove. They'll look at our lavender and say, 'I remember my mother picking this, and I'd like to have a memory of it in my garden as well.' "

Raising heirloom plants "gives me a sense of family continuity," says Mrs. Dowell, who rescued some of her oldest perennials from her grandmother's home in Massachusetts. "I feel a linkage to plants that have been treasured for many, many years."

Most antique flowers are hardy, pest-free and easy to grow. Many old beds continue to bloom beside abandoned and crumbling homes. Gardeners ask: How much care can such plants need?

"Grandma's garden is on the comeback" all across America, says Alan Summers, president of Carroll Gardens, an upscale nursery in Westminster, Carroll County. "It's partly a nostalgia thing. But people also want more fragrance and lower maintenance in their gardens -- and where they're looking is in older plants."

Ancients such as columbine, cosmos, calycanthus and cleome are creeping back into vogue, Mr. Summers says. "There is incredible interest in hydrangeas, which were so unfashionable 20 years ago. And now? Just watch Martha Stewart [tout them] on TV."

Sales of antique plants, mostly roses, have quadrupled in 10 years at Nick Weber's nursery in Ashton, Montgomery County. Here, one can choose from 500 varieties of rugged old roses, some dating back thousands of years. This one was a favorite of Thomas Jefferson; that one of the Empress Josephine.

"The old globular roses, with their hundreds of petals and heavy fragrances, can knock your socks off," Mr. Weber says. "I look at these flowers and think, 'My ancestors shared the beauty of this same sight, 150 years ago.' It boggles the mind. How many living things can you say that about?"

Olivia Rodgers can't imagine life without her hoary old rugosa roses, which, for her, keep the world at bay. On warm spring days, she sits quietly among the sprawling shrubs, breathing in their nectar while watching for hummingbirds.

The birds come into the garden to eat at the feeders Mrs. Rodgers has put out, and for the shelter offered by the wild roses.

"I like to hear the whirring of their wings," she says. "If I'm very still, they'll come within a foot of my face and look at me, wondering if I'm real."

The roses, she says, are "a throwback to my childhood -- very thorny and very fragrant, unlike newer hybrids."

The antique-plant craze has "come out of nowhere," says John Peter Thompson, director of perennials for Behnke Nurseries, a sprawling, 11-acre garden center in Beltsville, Prince George's County. "Five years ago, the interest wasn't there. Now, old varieties make up 5 percent of our market."

The push for heirloom gardens has led nurserymen to reintroduce a number of classic old roses, some of which have been unavailable since World War I, says Mr. Thompson. Their resurrection comes as no surprise to him.

"There is an 80-year cycle in American history, and we're heading into the Victorian era in politics, culture and gardening," says. "Yuppies are restoring Victorian-era homes and creating Victorian cottage gardens filled with carnations, coneflowers, astilbes, hostas and irises.

"People are looking for plants they didn't want in the 1950s and '60s. The pendulum swings in taste."

Nowadays, visitors to Annapolis' 18th-century William Paca Garden bring clipboards as well as cameras, to list the antique plants they'd like to grow: ranunculus, perhaps, a buttercuplike perennial that was popular during the 1700s, or the Austrian copper rose, another old favorite that is fast gathering steam.

"People are tired of growing the latest thing in the catalogs," says Lucy Coggin, director of plant collections at the Paca Garden. "They've tried the new white flower that used to be blue, and the new double flower that used to be single. It's intriguing to travel in the other direction for a change."

Heirloom gardens may also pique young interests in horticulture, Ms. Coggin says.

"Mention hollyhocks and people's eyes glaze over as they remember how, as children, they caught bumblebees in the large blossoms, tightened the flowers around the insects and carried them around, buzzing like crazy. That's what kids did before video games and other complex forms of entertainment."

Foxgloves, she says, evoke similar memories: "You plucked the flowers, placed them on your fingertips and paraded around wearing little finger puppets. And guess what? It works just as well with late 20th-century small fry."

Of course, not all heirloom plants trigger fond thoughts, says Mr. McWilliams, the nursery owner.

"There are people who come here, look at an old shrub and say, 'Oh, gosh, my father made me trim that bush as a child. I don't want that.' "

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