Heirlooms in the Garden - by Linda Hillegass

(Our guest in the NEIGHBORHOOD GARDEN today is Linda Hillegass, an avid flower gardener, co-owner of Lee Booksellers in Lincoln, and author of “Flower Gardening In The Hot Midwest” published by University of Illinois Press: Urbana and Chicago:2000.)

          I’m as ready to try the latest introductions as the next gardener, but as I get older and my garden matures, I find that some of my favorite plants aren’t the tissue-cloned hot new hybrids, but the old reliables, many of which have come to me as heirlooms. 

          Every garden has its legacies from former owners, neighbors, or gardening ancestors.  My friend Laurie’s grandmother grew Hosta plantaginea, digging and dividing it until it lined her front walk.  Laurie recalls the fragrance of its white blooms drifting over late summer evenings.  When her grandmother died, Laurie dug one of the Hostas to remember her by, along with a clump of the old mauve Phlox, though she thinks grandma had better luck keeping that mildew-free.

          Joni has her mother-in-law’s Peonies, dug by her brother-in-law from the old house and given to all the brothers and sisters.  “It’s a guy thing,” says Joni.  “Men are always sentimental about their mothers’ peonies.”  She also has Boltonia which was given to her as “grandpa’s daisies” by a friend whose grandfather grew them, enjoying their profusion of rayed white flowers in autumn without knowing their true name.

          My own garden demonstrates that gardening runs deep in my family, with roots that travel back over more than a century.  When my paternal great grandparents left Germany about 1880, they brought along a rose which has passed down the generations.  No one knows its name, this old fashioned shrub rose with its dark blue-pink quartered blooms, its delicate light green foliage, and its rampant suckering habit.  The suckering is a nuisance, but it has made it possible to hand the rose down from Schmid to Dechert to Hillegass, and we forgive this trait for the scent and the associations.

          On the other side of the family, my great grandfather, an immigrant from Scotland, had a nursery in Fairbury, Nebraska.  His legacy is a ‘Festiva Maxima’ peony.  I remember it in my grandmother’s flower beds on the farm, and in my mother’s town gardens.  Now it blooms at my house on stems too tall to stand up unaided and too flimsy to support the mammoth flower heads after a rain, but oh, the fragrance.  When I put my nose into its red-streaked white blooms there is a headiness of the past.

          Tall bearded iris have always been my mother’s passion—obsession really.  On a summer visit to her home in Bayfield, Wisconsin, the two of us wallowed among her 65 raised beds of iris, intoxicated by the dazzling display at the peak of the season.  When I returned home, she sent along ‘Stepping Out’ which literally stops traffic on my street when it blooms at the front of my house. 

          Many of my heirloom plants are those generously shared by friends.  I remember as a child that my mother would refer to this or that person as “a garden friend” of my grandmother’s.  I thought that it meant some lesser form of friend.  It wasn’t until I had a garden and garden friends of my own that I realized that garden friends are in fact a very superior sort.  They understand our language, share our enthusiasms, and unselfishly plunge the shovel into earth to share the plants themselves.

          Aileen was one such friend.  Northern maidenhair fern, wild woodland tulips, Japanese painted fern, and so many more plants make me smile when I look at them and remember the masterful gardener, generous spirit, and kind heart that provided them to me.

Copyright May 21, 2005