Every year plant breeders introduce a vast array of new varieties of our favorite annual flowers. Many are new versions of old favorites with different or better flower colors and performance, while others are brand new to the trade.While all these new varieties are exciting, we should still make room for some heirloom annual flowers. Heirloom annual flowers are open-pollinated varieties that have been grown for generations. They often have unique traits that make them attractive, plus they can be better for the environment.
Why Grow Heirlooms?
Heirloom flowers are varieties that are at least 50 years old. They have evolved over time simply by gardeners selecting their favorite versions and saving the seeds year after year. While some may be taller and “messier” than the more compact and tidy hybrid, modern versions, there are many reasons for growing heirlooms.
Heirlooms are open-pollinated, meaning you can save the seeds from favorite versions of your flowers, grow them next year and get the same flower colors and shaped plant. Many more modern varieties are hybrids, where saving the seeds isn’t possible.
Heirlooms also have been around long enough they have co-evolved with many insect species. Bees, beetles, flies and other pollinators know they can get a good pollen and nectar meal from these plants. This is particularly important considering the decline of pollinator and insect populations. This trait can be helpful to a gardener as well. Heirlooms attract beneficial insects and pollinators into your garden. If you plant them next to vegetables and herbs they can help pollination and may protect plants from predators.
Some modern hybrids have been bred to fix gardener’s problems, such as disease resistance. Another example is certain varieties of cleome and nicotiana have been bred to produce no pollen and sterile seed. This reduces the amount of self-sown seedlings each spring that need weeding out, but eliminates these varieties as a food source for native insects.
Heirloom annual flowers often have a distinct fragrance that can fill a room. Think of sweet peas, heliotrope, stocks, four o’clocks, and nicotiana. Some modern hybrid versions of these flowers might have a tamer shape, better disease resistance and flower more prolifically, but they lack the intense fragrance.
Heirloom annual flowers help with biodiversity. In my garden, each year we let our calendulas self sow in the garden and we then thin out the crop in spring. I notice, through cross pollination, we can get unusual variations of calendulas that add to the genetic diversity of this plant in our garden.
Heirloom Flowers to Grow
While many annual flower varieties are labeled open-pollinated or heirloom, you may have to do a little research or ask a garden center employee which annual flowers are heirlooms. Check labels or look for a species name such as Nicotiana sylvestris. Here are some of my favorite heirloom annual flowers.
Sweet Peas – There is nothing like the intense fragrance and diversity of colorful flowers of heirloom sweet peas. Some of my old favorites are ‘ Old Spice‘, ‘ Cupani‘ and ‘ Painted Lady‘.
Nicotiana – While moderns versions of flowering tobacco have been bred to be short, compact and have a diversity of flower colors, I like growing the heirloom versions, too. Heirloom nicotiana grows tall, has jasmine scented, white flowers with long throats and is a favorite of pollinators and hummingbirds.
Verbena – This popular annual often comes in a creeping form with multi-colored flowers and is great grown in containers. I like the Verbena bonariensis. This heirloom grows 4 feet tall with purple flowers that are favorites of pollinators.
Nigella damascena – Love in a mist is a whimsical, annual flower with airy foliage and uniquely shaped flowers. The flower colors include blue, purple, pink and white, and it makes a great dried flower.
Amaranth – The most widely known heirloom flower version of amaranth is love lies bleeding. It features a 4 foot tall plant with cascading burgundy colored flowers with edible seeds. There are also many heirloom versions of amaranth with different colored flower heads.
When selecting annual flowers for your garden, consider heirloom versions. Your whole garden doesn’t have to be filled with heirlooms, but we all should grow some to add variety to our gardens and to help the insect population.
Until next time, I’ll be seeing you in the garden.
About Charlie Nardozzi
Charlie Nardozzi is an award winning, nationally recognized garden writer, speaker, radio, and television personality. He has worked for more than 30 years bringing expert gardening information to home gardeners through radio, television, talks, tours, on-line, and the printed page. Charlie delights in making gardening information simple, easy, fun and accessible to everyone. He’s the author of 6 books, has three radio shows in New England and a TV show. He leads Garden Tours around the world and consults with organizations and companies about gardening programs. See more about him at Gardening With Charlie.
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Would you like to have your garden bursting with color all season long? Do you want lots of floral “pizzazz” for the least amount of effort? Then our easy-to-grow annual flowers are just what you’re looking for! Versatile annuals are a great way to keep the garden in bloom in a cheerful array of bright hues from from spring until frost. And because you’re growing them from seed, annuals are economical as well.
Heirlooms are a perfect choice for the beginner gardener. The seeds of many of these old cultivars have been saved and passed down for generations because of their easy-to-grow habits. They are those wonderful old fashioned flowers that your grandmother grew forever in her garden, or those delicious tasting tomatoes that you might remember eating as a child. But it doesn’t stop there; as you begin to consider growing heirlooms, you will discover many unique and interesting flowers, herbs, vegetables and fruits.
What makes a plant an heirloom? What constitutes a hybrid? And what on earth is a GMO? Heirlooms, hybrids and GMOs have added a good deal of confusion for gardeners and farmers new and old. Here is a short tutorial on their definitions and differences.
Hybrid plant varieties do not come true from seed, and seedlings will produce mostly undesirable fruit and/or off-type flowers. Open pollinated and heirloom varieties have been selected over many generations, and you can plant the seeds to get the same type of plant again