Hortus Bulborum — Soooo Yesterday

– Posted in: Bulbs

Just call me a relic. That’s right — rub it in — I’m obsolete. And guess what. Some of my best friends are equally archaic. And here comes the confession — my garden is a total museum. If something is old (the older, the better), I automatically yearn to grow it. It’s not hip, it’s not keeping up with the Joneses, it’s not riding the current wave, but it’s me. And when people come to my garden, they are clearly just being polite…because they seemingly love hearing the stories behind the auricula primroses that Flemish weavers grew during the cottage industry era and the Phlox ‘Old Cellar Hole’ dug up by my friend at Perennial Pleasures Nursery from an abandoned homestead.

I realize that the topic was primarily heirloom vegetables in Noel’s post a few weeks ago (I would’ve joined in the fray but I was on the road — lecturing about Garden Stewardship). And I disagree on that point as well. But the post also cast stones at heirloom flowers. So I’m going to take that volley and carry it right into the bulb venue. I’m going to tell you about Hortus Bulborum.

Hortus Bulborum is a garden of has-beens. It’s located on 5 acres in the sleepy little town of Limmen, Netherlands and it’s devoted to stewarding tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, and fritillarias. Hortus Bulborum (www.hortus-bulborum.nl) makes no bones about the fact that it is a musuem. In 1924, Pieter Boschman — a school headmaster — realized that tulips were facing a dismal destiny and decided to do something about it. Ever since, the museum plants tulips no longer actively listed in the trade. Because,  if they weren’t replanted, those tulips would just disappear. Gone. And someday, when someone wanted a Tulipa ‘Gele Prins’ (1780) or T. ‘Mystery of India’ (previous to 1910), finding it would be hopeless.

Tulipa 'Gele Prins' 1780

Let’s get real. Gardening is not necessarily driven by a straight tangent toward selecting the finest varieties. Instead, it has everything to do with fashion. Sure, some tulips weren’t worthy; some tulips of the past were virus-riddled and they deserved to disappear. But more often, tulips just slip out of cultivation due to rainbow chasing. The competitive market has everything to do with the swings of the popularity pendulum. More often than not, tulips that go in and out of vogue are abandoned because that particular color isn’t cool anymore. Or maybe the style of flower is so 1990s and we’ve moved on to 2011. Or maybe the name is boring.

Tulipa 'Mystery of India' 1910

Plant purveyors dance to whatever beat happens to be playing in the streets at the moment. I’m  not saying that’s a bad thing — merchants must make a living. But it’s critical to understand that tulips (and other plants) that disappear from the popular trade are not necessarily inferior in any way. They’re just old. And we all know how modern society treats things that grow old.

Tulipa 'Roccocco' 1944

For sure, tulips have progressed. Great strides have been taken in all avenues of horticulture, I don’t deny it. But when Old House Gardens wants to offer a 16th Century tulip for those of us who are relics, they have somewhere to turn. Or maybe a breeder suddenly needs to use a certain tulip as a parent. If it weren’t for Hortus Bulborum, they’d be out of luck. With 4,200 spring flowering historic bulbs under their wing, Hortus Bulborum is an invaluable resource. They plant 50 bulbs each of heirloom varieties in 2 1/2 acres of gardens (half the property is allowed to go fallow every year). In their garden, the first Dutch sport of a Turkish tulip species — ‘Duc van Tol Red and Yellow’ (circa 1595) is flourishing. In some people’s eyes, it’s so “gone with the wind.” But others of us just want to be able to grow this heirloom flower here and now. And gardening is notoriously fickle. Maybe we should all be museums. Maybe we should all consider stewarding plants that we love — in case they fall by the wayside. Just an idea.

For the record — I grow plants in both my flower and vegetable gardens that are old and new. And I salute Hortus Bulborum and Old House Gardens for making these bulbs available. And by the way, I garden in 1950s shirt-waist dresses. I’m sure that I would cut a sharper image dressed in jeans, like everyone else. But sorry. I prefer soft, gently-used, vintage dresses — pass-me-downs from someone in another generation who was just my size.

I’ll tell you what = you wear what you want and fill your garden solely with the newest and latest. And I’ll do my thing. But when you need to find an aromatic Viola odorata ‘Marie Louise’, and the last double fragrant Parma violet is gone because florists are breeding for longer stems right now — don’t come crying to me…




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Darla April 23, 2011, 6:25 am

Great post..my neighbor and I have been speaking of ‘old’ pass a long plants from great grandmothers, aunts and so forth. I also prefer the scent of the older bearded irises to the modern colors with no fragance at all. And plants with a good pass a long story behind them are doubly interesting to me.

Doesn’t it seem as though fragrance is the first to go, Darla? The garden had such a rich aromatic past, and breeders just ignore that trait. I mentioned breeding for the florist trade — I’ve been told that the trait for fragrance is not linked to the trait for a long stem (for bunching in bouquets), so that’s why it slipped away in so many instances.– Tovah

skokisok April 23, 2011, 7:44 am

Thanks for the article, I too enjoy the older varieties of shrubs and flowers. Though I am certainly not anti-progress I consider myself anti-fashionable. It is quite difficult these days to locate older varieties, shrubs especially.
My tools and garden clothes come from thrift stores and garage sales. My wife is concerned of what the neighbors think when I trudge out into the yard in my second-hand attire. My response “It’s good enough for gardening”

I think it’s a balance, don’t you? My garden has plenty of novelties also. Isn’t the Tiger Eye sumac a nice spin on the plain old vanilla version? But none of the new phlox have mildew resistance like my ‘Old Cellar Hole’ and it always gets a smile when I mention the name to visitors. But many of my plants have lost their names over time — they’re just passalongs. But they have great stories. I have a ladies’ swan-necked shovel from a flea market that they don’t make any more and it’s perfect for a small person. What will I do when it breaks? — Tovah

rochelle April 23, 2011, 8:11 am

I love the idea of stewarding plants we love. We all most certainly should. Reminds me of England where private individuals regularly hold the ‘Nation blah blah collection” in their back gardnes. I love the idea that you can go see every crocosmia, (for example), in a random suburban backyard. And why not.

That’s a BIG mission of mine, Rochelle. Why can’t we have National Collections in the US? The Herb Society of America is doing it by taking certain herbs under their wing. Rather than asking one individual to steward ALL the thymes, for example, they spread them out over a chapter of the society. It adds another layer to gardening. — Tovah

Danniel April 23, 2011, 10:07 am

Great post and such an important topic right now. At the Midwest Perennial Conference this spring, we heard one talk about old garden favorites, and then next speaker basically made fun of the whole talk by contrasting the benefits (longer bloom time, mostly) of all of her company’s newest cultivators. it kind of made me squirm, they way she just wanted to throw away the old varieties.
We plant upwards of 10,000 perennials and thousands of shrubs a year, and have for many years. I grow less and less impressed with most of the new stuff. Sure, it is amazing the first year, but many (NOT ALL-some are amazing!) introductions lack staying power.
Roccoco, Mystery of India, and Gele Prins above are all stunning as all get out, BTW.

Wish I had been to the old garden favorites talk, Danniel. But you hit the crux of the issue right on the head — Staying Power. Some of the newbies are here today and gone tomorrow. Some are just ugly in my opinion. Variegated versions of plants that look perfectly lovely in plain green. Plus the variegated new kid-on-the-block can be a weakling (not always, though). LOVE your blog. — Tovah

Byddi Lee - We didn't come here for the grass... April 23, 2011, 10:55 am

What an interesting post. It is a shame to lose old varieties and yet you wonder where on earth we’ll have room to put everything if they keep coming out with hew varieties. There is no shame in being old-fashioned in the gardening world – that’s what I believe.

With the last winter we just had, Byddi — alas, there are plenty of spaces for tucking new things in (sob). Don’t you think that fashion swings around in all the venues? Bellbottoms, contra dances, klezmer music…I could go on and on. I think the trick lies in remembering what came before so it doesn’t totally slip away. Gardening is a special case, though — for example: all the very old dahlias have vanished because they weren’t preserved. It can be an issue — especially with annual tender bulbs.–tovah

'nora April 23, 2011, 2:25 pm

I’m an historian by training, so I’m protective of weird old heirloom vegetables. They may not be ‘the best’ but they’re distinctive, and if your interest runs to historic cooking at all, they’re vital. Modern cabbage is not the same as mediaeval cabbage. Celery is a very weak substitute for lovage. And so on. So if you have hopes of eating as someone from the past ate, you need those old veggies.

And as for flowers? I like fragrance and disease resistance and I often get much more of that from the heirlooms. The old roses in my garden don’t curl up with blackspot and powdery mildew in July the way the most modern roses do.

I grow ‘Winningstadt’ cabbage (1866) from the Seed Savers Exchange, ‘Nora, and it’s furled like a flower. Truthfully, it’s hard to pick the heads because they’re so beautiful. But when I do, they taste like butter — just melt in your mouth. What I love about heirloom flowers is that they aren’t bred dwarf with zillions of blossoms and no green foliage. Before dwarf was in vogue (for flowers), the garden was a more balanced picture with green leaves serving as a frame.—Tovah

Jess April 23, 2011, 7:57 pm

I think that most gardeners would have everything available to them, if it were only possible. My garden is whatever I like, I pay no attention to old or new, so by default, it’s both. But make no mistake, if I still like you 20 years from now, you will still be there, no doubt about it.

Because I live in a very humid warm location I am a particular fan of old roses.. the only modern rose in my garden is a knockout, because you really can’t argue with those.

Here’s the rub, Jess = if we don’t make a conscientious effort to preserve heirlooms, they might not be there for us to add to our gardens when we crave them. So that’s why gardeners like you who go for the long haul are so important. Your blog is great — but was so sad to see the storm damage in your garden. Is everything getting back to normal now? — Tovah

Cathy April 24, 2011, 6:25 am

Fabulous post and so timely. Most of the roses in our gardens are “oldies”… the average age of introduction is somewhere in the 1950’s and quite a few, like my prized Zephirine Drouhins date to the late 1800’s.

I’ve never been a fashionista – they don’t call me “frumpy” for nothing (I earned it). But the observation that in coming up with newer, more modern varieties, fragrance is the first to go, is oh so telling.

From mid-May to mid-October, our gardens are a cacophony of color and fragrance. More than a few visitors to our gardens have asked why their modern rose, which looks exactly like my old bourbon (or so they claim), doesn’t smell like ours. One person actaully asked us what we “spray” to get our garden to smell so wonderful.

We too, have modern additions in many of our beds but they all bloom in the shadow of what came before. We have a mix in our garden that spans three centuries of horticulture. And while it’s fun to have a reblooming iris burst forth in bloom in August, those heirloom fragrances are something you only capture in spring.

Just as fragrance seems to be lacking in intensity in many modern flower cultivars, I am also unimpressed with the flavor of many “modern” vegetables as well. What a price we pay for progress!

But things do cycle through again. Hubby and I were shopping yesterday and while we were getting a new garden tool at Lowe’s, we saw a display of “Proven Bloomers” roses which prominently featured Climbing Blaze (first introduced in 1932) and Karl Herbst (1950). Both are long time residents of our gardens. They may be in a new package, but they are not “new” roses. And yes, ‘nora, as you observed, they are very fragrant, very disease resistant, and truly divine. “New Dawn”, which has also seen a surge in popularity in recent years, dates to 1930. Rarely is it the old girls who disappoint; it’s the modern teas who break my heart every time.

Thanks for making me feel not so dowdy!

Your visitor asking what you “spray” your roses with said it all, Cathy. I worked in retail for 25 years and do you know that some of the school children who came to tour the greenhouses DIDN’T KNOW HOW TO SMELL A FLOWER? That’s right — they had never before touched their noses to a flower and inhaled. It was a totally new concept to them. Other children thought that “smell” was only negative. I have a ‘Zephirine Drouhin’ (1868) in front of my office and it’s the only rose that has survived winter reliably here. Besides scent it has another priceless trait — it’s thornless! Perfect for in front of a door. While the locomotive of fashion hurls itself forward, we can’t be throwing these ole Mommas from the train. — Tovah

Cathy April 24, 2011, 4:31 pm

Re the Zephirine Drouhins, so true Tovah! We have one on a trellis bench in front of the house and the other on a gated trellis into the tree grove out back. And without a doubt, these are the Grande Dames of our garden!

Although we haven’t wintered roses here successfully, I’m trying my luck with the David Austin own root roses this year. Did you know that David Austin has a “hired nose” on staff to key out the EXACT fragrances of the roses? He’s retired from the perfume trade. So when they say “hint of myrrh”, they’re not just whistling Dixie. For the fragrance, they describe ‘Darcey Bussell’ as “hints of green” — I’m wondering how green smells.—Tovah

Cathy April 25, 2011, 12:54 pm

Funny you should mention David Austin roses. Ive had poor luck with them in the past, but after joining the New England Rose Society and speaking with some members about them, I’ve been inspired to try again. I just ordered four of them. Crossing my fingers!

I didn’t know about the “hired nose” but I do know that they are truly fragrant roses and I hope that the second time around is a charm!

Ditto for me with the Austin hardiness issues (although even all the ‘New Dawn’s died in our region one winter), that’s why I’m hoping that the own root route will be the trick. — Tovah

Jess April 26, 2011, 11:05 pm

Re: the garden destruction, I have calmed down and realize that indeed the foxglove will be back next year. (with stakes though). There are worse things that could happen in life, I just got a little carried away stomping my feet!

Thanks for the compliment!

I can sympathize. At first it seems as though all is lost. A few years ago we had a huge hail storm on Father’s Day and all the hostas (plus many other plants) turned to mush. I figured I’d lost the batch. But all was forgiven the following year. Life goes on. — Tovah

UrsulaV April 27, 2011, 7:12 pm

Hooray for weird old plants!

I’m a native plant enthusiast myself, and sometimes I get kinda frustrated with the developer’s desire to “improve” everything–yes, the variegated Jacob’s Ladder is lovely, but I just want the normal stuff, damnit, I’m trying to fill a wooded corner, and your Propagation-Forbidden stuff is kinda at odds with my intent. And while I am deeply delighted by the eighty million varieties of Heuchera, I confess, I think they’re probably stretching when they claim that the microscopic color shift between this one and that one merits such exorbitant price tags…and some of the new coneflowers are just plain depressing.

Besides, I’d argue for purely aesthetic reasons that the world is a better place for having vegetables named “Mortgage Lifter” and “Painted Serpent.” What is it with modern tomatoes and boring names?

I’m with you, Ursula. And don’t you just love when something is patented, but it is the spittin’ image of the species? And you try in vain to acquire the species, but it’s no longer in the trade…And how can they justify naming a tomato ‘Big Boy’? Geez. As for me, I’m sending for some ‘Drunken Woman Fringed Headed’ lettuce — just so I can say that I’ve got her on the property. — Tovah

UrsulaV April 28, 2011, 3:47 pm

The fact that there is a Drunken Woman Fringed Headed lettuce makes me unbearably happy.

Available from my seedsaving friend Sylvia Davatz of Solstice Seeds, email her for a catalog = sdav@valley.net. — Tovah

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