St. Croix Garden Club Hosts Presentation on Heirloom Gardens

By Lura Jackson

Of the many plants that grace our yards, there are some that have been cultivated by humans for generations. Favored for their appearance, taste, scent, or yield, these plants have gradually shaped the gardens of America for the past three centuries. In recent decades, the growing understanding of plant husbandry has led to the creation of radically hybridized commercial species, some of which represent a distinct departure from the original plants. On Tuesday, August 19th, the St. Croix Valley International Garden Club hosted a presentation on the differences between heirloom and modern hybridized plants, and the benefits and disadvantages one can generally expect from each category.

Jenny Robish conducted the informative presentation, accompanied by slides of various species. An Ohio native, Robish came to Maine in 1999, graduating from UMM's Biology program before taking on the role of greenhouse manager at Jordan Gardens in Machias for several years. During that time, she developed an appreciation for heirloom varieties, along with considerable skill in tending for them (though like most gardeners, that skill has come at a cost). “The only reason I consider myself a good gardener is because I've killed about a million plants,” she quips. “Gardening is forgiving and fun to learn,” she continues, adding that Maine's winters give the opportunity for gardeners to try something new each spring.

During the presentation, Robish provided the background of what are now referred to as heirloom plants. Heirloom plants are defined as either those that are native to America or those that were introduced to the country between the 1600s and the mid-1900s (including those that have naturally or artificially hybridized during that time). Immigrants traveling here brought their favorite plants with them in their hands and in their suitcases, incorporating the exotic flora into the landscape of the country as surely as the families themselves became part of the nation's foundation. 

The Puritans brought the first European plants to America when they came to the country in the 1600s. Appropriate to their utilitarian mindset, the plants brought by the early settlers were selected for specific purposes, and as such, they were primarily herbs. As more and more settlers came to the country, an array of ornamental varieties soon joined them, including aesthetically delightful species such as the lily-of-the-valley. A long-standing English legend regarding the lily-of-the-valley held that the plant first emerged in the spot where St. Leonard slew a dragon. Since then, the flower’s unique appearance and fragrant scent has been a constant companion in bridal bouquets.

In the 1800s, art and science combined to influence a new understanding of floral hybridization. Florists and botanists began to realize the potential in directing the reproduction of choice plants, and the process of shaping new species began. Johnny Jump-up (the ubiquitous violet) is one such plant that was hybridized 150 years ago, creating the pansies that we know today. It was in the 19th and 20th centuries that the country also saw the introduction of many oriental species as immigrants from the Asian continent began to arrive, bringing their favorite plants with them. Bleeding Heart plants and hostas are among the oriental varieties that now brighten numerous gardens in the Calais area.

By the mid-1900s, plants were being more and more hybridized as commercial growers aimed to create species with larger, showier blossoms or precisely calculated growth potentials for the convenience of the landscaper. Additional traits have occasionally been incorporated, creating novel species such as the Bloomerang lilac (bred in 2009), a variety of lilac that blooms twice (lilac fans, take heed: the second blooming isn’t as grand as the first).

The larger blossoms and predictable sizes of heavily hybridized plants don't come without their disadvantages, however. Many hybridized species have almost entirely lost their scent, often leading florists to apply a perfumed spray to their roses and other familiar favorites. To remedy this, some hybrids have been bred specifically for their scent, such as the David Austin Rose. While many hybrids that are disease-resistant have been created, most of them aren't hardy (frequently failing to survive the winter once planted).

Heirloom plants, by contrast, have an innate hardiness that comes from being naturalized to the environment. “Heirloom gardens are informal, low-maintenance, and in harmony with nature,” Robish says, explaining that wildlife frequently rely on heirloom plants as a food source (particularly bees and other pollinators). Because of the animal-friendly role that flowers have within a familiar ecosystem, interest in native plants has periodically resurged (beginning in the 1800s). A similar resurgence is taking place in Maine today as more and more ecologically-minded gardeners are opting to embrace the fragrant (if generally modest) blossoms native to the countryside. 

Robish concluded the presentation with advice for those planning a garden. “Begin by picking a theme,” she says. Themes include native, heirloom, national, Old Settlers Cottage, or an old fashioned mix, to name a few. She recommends using as a resource for plant research and garden planning, or visiting the Roosevelt Cottage in Campobello or Mount Desert Island for inspiration. After picking a theme, locate a greenhouse, calling ahead to be sure they have the species you’re looking for. “Always use the Latin name when you order,” Robish says, explaining how easily common names are mixed between regions. “Keep in mind the habits of the plant,” she adds, noting that invasive species may prove to be more of a pest than a pleasure in the long term. 

The St. Croix Valley International Garden Club is composed of members from across eastern Maine and Canada. It meets once monthly; new members are always welcomed to attend. For more information, please contact the club at