Heirlooms in the Garden

Syringa vulgaris

When it comes to drought-busting plants, tough native specimens and imported new ornamentals from faraway arid climes occupy front rows at garden centers. But there’s another group of plants that should rise to the top of our lists when it comes to sturdy growth, longevity and sheer persistence. Heirlooms–flowers and vegetables that our grandparents grew–have a few standouts that have survived wet years and dry years. They’ll stand by us today during difficult seasons and serve us as well as they served those who brought them to Colorado over one hundred years ago.

Rosa foetida

At the top of that list are a few sturdy roses that pioneers loved. The Harison’s yellow rose may be rare to find today. This is a species rose—designed by Mother Nature rather than humans. It’s also called the Persian yellow, which may be the same rose or a close cultivar. Both bloom briefly each spring. Harison’s yellow probably originated in Iran, or a reasonably close area in Central Asia. The dry climate and harsh winters are nearly identical to our own.

Since original roses in Europe came in shades of red, white and pink, this yellow rose was hybridized with European roses to produce blossoms with an apricot blush, a tinge of salmon or a touch of orange. When pioneers moved west, the Harison’s yellow became a standby. The thorny canes might look formidable year around, but come spring, the vivid yellow blooms would be embraced with fervor.

A close cousin to the Harison’s yellow rose, a cultivar of the same species, is the Austrian copper, which lives up to its name with a brassy orange hue. These species roses can be found on old homesteads, surviving many of our most frigid winters, driest summers, heavy spring snows and early frosts. Regardless of where they originated, Colorado suits them perfectly.


Syringa vulgaris ‘Edward Andre’

Tall bearded irises are far more common to find today than the Harison’s yellow rose. But that doesn’t mean they are popular. Many have been tossed into the trash because they are so ordinary. What once was called Grandma’s flags are taken for granted. Like the Harison’s yellow, bearded iris is believed to have originated in an arid country, perhaps Syria. The tall bearded iris can be found throughout the Mediterranean. The name is Greek and refers to the goddess of the rainbow.

In wetter climates like the Eastern seaboard, iris lovers worry about corm rot and other diseases that an excess of water may bring. It’s our luck that Colorado offers everything the bearded iris adores: a cold winter, wet spring and dry summer. Rarely does a tall bearded iris suffer from any pest or disease in Colorado. That’s not to say that all irises are equal. This varied family produces irises that grow in water, irises that love bogs, irises that are dwarfed, and irises that enjoy the tropics. The tall bearded, sometimes called the German iris, is particularly healthy in our Front Range environment. It won’t produce as spectacularly in the mountains, but it will endure the hardships of the plains. It only asks to be divided every four years.

Finally, old-fashioned lilacs make a stage appearance each spring. The Front Range is blanketed with the heady scent and lavender haze of blossoms. Often a spring snow will strip the shrubs of their blooms, but they remain hardy regardless and will be set to bloom next year. Lilacs are dependable bloomers providing they are not heavily shaded by trees and have not had their buds pruned in midsummer.


heirloomslilacloseup052Like the Harison’s yellow rose and the tall bearded iris, lilacs arrived with pioneers. Although they are called French lilacs, that’s a confusing association. They came from the Balkans, where winters can be harsh, summers dry and rocky soil the norm. Our climate mimics their origins and they have survived for over a century on the Front Range. Napoleon cultivated lilacs in his royal gardens, so they made an entrance to America as a “French” lilac.

Hibiscus syriacus ‘Minerva’

The old-fashioned lilac renews itself by providing a shoot from the roots. Old, woody branches can be pruned to clear out and shape the bush. Not much else is required. And as hardy as the French lilac may be, many of the Asian lilacs are tough, too. They don’t fall into the heirloom status, but they are rugged cousins much like the European lilac, although their scent is spicy and the flowers daintier. ‘Miss Kim’ is a favorite because it will stay small, which is ideal for limited spaces, while the French lilacs may become very tall, up to twelve feet.

All three heirlooms require minimum care. When planting, p
rovide some compost mixed with ordinary garden soil. Water in carefully and provide leafy mulch. They may require careful watering the first year, but will go for long periods without supplemental water after they take hold. Only irises will require additional care. None of these plants cares much for fertilizer, although they will become robust with a very weak solution of fertilizer. Avoid too much fertilizer, as it promotes leafy growth and invites pests. These are tough plants and they will be happy left alone. If you’d like to visit heirloom gardens, or work from a list of heirlooms, here’s a roster that gives you a glimpse into the majestic gardens our grandparents once tended.

Heirloom Plants for the Colorado Garden

Heirloom Gardens to Visit

  • The Dushanbe Tea House (www.boulderteahouse.com) in Boulder: this rose garden has been planted with new hardy roses as well as old-fashioned heirlooms.
  • The Romantic, Monet and Scripture Garden at the Denver Botanic Gardens (www.botanicgardens.org). The native garden, of course, has heirlooms, as well, although few native American plants were popular 100 years ago.
  • Baca House in Trinidad: a late 19th century vegetable garden behind the house: corn, beans, herbs.
  • Hoverhome, (www.stvrainhistoricalsociety.org) an historic home open to the public in Longmont: aged Catalpa trees, a formal garden, peonies and Harison’s yellow rose
  • Fairmount Cemetery, 430 S. Quebec St., heirloom roses planted by the Fairmount Heritage Foundation; 303-399-0692.

A Plant List of Heirlooms — many of these will surprise you. Flowers you’ve long recognized and loved may be very old.


The following old roses are recommended by the Denver Rose Society for Front Range gardens. This is only a partial list. For a complete list, contact the society through the Denver Botanic Gardens. A sub-group of the society specializes in Old Garden Roses and hosts an exhibit each spring at the Gardens. For more information on herbs, iris, daylilies and other heirlooms, you’ll find a society that centers upon a single love, such as the African Violet Society. In that society will be lovers of heirlooms as well as new hybrids.

  • Species and species hybrids: These are the most basic of roses, ancient plants that have been used to hybridize newer roses. Rose to pink colors: Rosa eglanteria, Austrian Copper, Baltimore Belle, Rosa glauca, Yellow shades: Harison’s yellow, Persian yellow, Fruhlingsgold, Hazeldean, The following are white: Rosa rugosa alba, Rosa rugosa rubra, Rosa Spinosissima, Stanwell Perpetual
  • Old rose categories (these roses are hundreds of years old and were cultivated in medieval gardens of Europe or later mixed with a rose from China). I’ve chosen two from each class of old rose: Albas: Felicite Parmentier (pink), Alba Suaveolens (white), Boubons: La Reine Victoria (pink), Variegata de Bologna (red), Centifolias: Fantin-Latour (pink), Rose de Meaux (white), Damask: Rose de Rescht (deep pink), Autumn Damask (pink), Gallica: Apothecary Rose (deep pink), Desiree Parmentier (light pink), Hybrid Perpetuals were made popular in Victorian times: American Beauty (pink), Frau Karl Druschki (white)
  • Hybrid Teas (mid 19th century): Mister Lincoln (red), Peace (white tinged with apricot), Brandy (apricot), Pristine (white)—hybrid teas often struggle with our harsh winds and excessive temperature swings. Floribunda: Iceberg (white tinged slightly with pink)
  • Miniatures often are hardy in Colorado. The bush may grow large, but the flowers will remain tiny. Two good choices for miniature climbing roses are: Cecile Brunner, Jeanne Lajoie (pink)


  • Lilacs, Syringa vulgaris, French lilac or common lilac (drought resistant); Asian lilacs also may be excellent choices like “Miss Kim”,
  • Rose of Sharon, Hibiscus syriacus, ‘Minerva’
  • Santolina Santolina neopolitana, (drought resistant)


  • Christmas Rose, Helleborus niger
  • Balloon flower, Platycodon grandiflorus
  • Lupin, Lupinus, (needs moisture)
  • Delphinium (needs moisture and staking from winds)
  • Hollyhocks, single bloom, Alcea rosea (subject to rust and needs staking)
  • Salvia nemorosa, ‘Blue Hill’ and ‘Maynight Sage’ (good drought resistance)
  • Lavenders (Lavendula angustifolia): French ‘Grosso,’ English ‘Hidcote,’ (smaller version with deeper color) and ‘Munstead’ (recommended for xeric landscapes)
  • German (Bearded) Iris, Iris Germanica, (recommended for xeric landscapes)
  • Lamb’s Ear, Stachys byzantina, ‘Common’ (recommended for xeric landscapes)
  • Obedient Plant, Physostegia
  • Coreopsis verticillata ,’Moonbeam’ and ‘Grandiflora Sunray’ (good drought resistance)
  • Pincushion flower, Scabiosa caucasica, ‘Fama’ and columbaria, ‘Butterfly Blue’
  • Sweet Williams (biennial), Dianthus barbatus, tall variety
  • German Statice, Limonium latifolia
  • Geranium sanguineum, ‘Bloody Cranesbill’ (magenta)
  • Speedwell, Veronica, ‘Sunny Border Blue’
  • Phlox paniculata, ‘David’, unlike many phlox plants, resistant to mildew
  • Lady’s Mantle, Alchemilla mollis also good for a shade garden
  • Black-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia fulgida, ‘Goldstrum’
  • Dianthus gratianopolitanus, ‘Bath’s Pink’ (good drought resistance)
  • Daylily, Hemerocallis, species (the orange heirloom has some drought resistance)
  • Gayfeather Liatris spicata, ‘Kobold’
  • Aster, ‘Frikartii Monch’
  • Foxglove, Digitalis (biennial), ‘Excelsior’ hybrids
  • Prairie Mallow, Sidalcea, ‘Party Girl’ (good substitute for hollyhocks)
  • Peony, Paeonia lactiflora, ‘Karl Rosenfeld’ (red), ‘Festiva Maxima’ (white) and ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ (pink)
  • Sweet Pea, this requires trenching in cool soil with moisture
  • Columbine, Aquilegia vulgaris

Bulbs: Most bulbs like good drainage and not too much water. That makes them suitable for the Front Range. They will benefit from being planted a little deeper than the package suggests because our winters can be hot one day and freezing the next.

  • Gladiolus, plant in spring for summer bloom, bulbs must be dug each autumn and stored, just like dahlias. They do require more water than most bulbs.
  • Lilium candidum, Madonna lily
  • Tulips: Darwin varieties will last longer than other varieties but do try the species, which are tiny, ancient and drought resistant. Squirrels may dig them up, so place a heavy rock over the species tulips until spring.
  • Dahlia, “Bishop of Llandass,” red with burgundy foliage is recommended (dahlias must be planted in the spring and dug in the fall; they cannot survive our winters)
  • Narcissus: ‘Hawera,’ “Sir Winston Churchill”, poeticus ‘Actaea’ (good drought resistance, especially species)
  • Snowdrop Galanthus elwesii
  • Grape Hyacinth Muscari neglectum (good drought resistance)
  • Crocus (good drought resistance)
  • Allium Sphaerocephalon, drumstick allium (good drought resistance)
  • Allium aflatunense, flowering onion (good drought resistance)

Annuals that are drought resistant but need moisture in the spring, which is when Mother Nature provides it to the Front Range. Once established, they’ll hold their own.
Calendula Calendula officinalis (drought resistant, self-seeding, once used as a substitute for saffron)

  • Sunflower, Helianthus (drought resistant)
  • Snapdragon, ‘Black Prince,’ a deep burgundy color
  • Cosmos, ‘Sensation’ and ‘Sonata’ (drought resistant, self-seeding)
  • Larkspur (self seeding)
  • (biennial) Foxglove, Digitalis purpurea
  • Cornflower, Centaurea byanus (drought resistant, self-seeding)
  • Love-in-a-mist Nigella camascena
  • Nasturium, Tropaeolum majus (companions well with vegetable gardens)
  • Cleome, spider flower, ‘Violet Queen’
  • Verbena bonarinsis
  • Johnny-Jump-ups, Viola (self-seeding)

Ground Covers

  • Thyme: woolly thyme, thyme minus and mother-of-thyme, Thymus serpyllum‘Coccineum’ (fuschia red), but many thyme varieties love Colorado weather
  • Veronica allionii, ‘Allioni’
  • Sweet Woodruff, Galium odoratum
  • Alpine Strawberry, Fragaria vesca

For the Shady Garden

  • Bleeding Heart, Dicentra spectabilis (this plant requires considerable moisture)
  • Coral Bells, Heuchera sanguinea, ‘Firefly’
  • Monkshood, Aconitum
  • Lungwort, Pulmonaria, ‘Mrs. Moon’
  • Heart-leafed Bergenia, Bergenia cordifolia
  • Hosta, ‘Golden Tiara’ (moisture required)
  • Lamium, ‘Shell Pink’ and ‘Pink Pewter’
  • Daylilies, Hemerocallis: ‘Catherine Neal,’ ‘Ruby Throat,’ ‘August Orange’
  • Japanese Anemone: ‘Honorine Jobert’
  • Herbs—these all are drought-resistant with the exception of basil:
  • Rosemary, Rosmariunus officinalis
  • Chives, Allium schoenoprasum,
  • Basil, Ocimum basilicum
  • Thyme, Thymus vulgaris,
  • Parsley, Petroseliunum crispum
  • Mint, Mentha spicata
  • Sage, Salvia officinalis

Orchard Trees: most of these trees will not bear fruit because the Front Range usually suffers a late frost. They are ornamental only and sometimes grown on Siberian rootstock. There are a few old heirlooms that do bear fruit. Look for the Lodi apple tree if you can find it. It was the best apple for applesauce nearly 100 years ago along the Front Range.

  • Apple: Whitewinter Permian, also Lodi (green)
  • Apricot: Sungold and Manchurian
  • Cherry: Northstar, Montmorency sour cherry
  • Peach: Reliance, Siberian
  • Pear: K’anjou and Bartlett
  • Plum: Stanley and Santa Rosa
  • Grapes: Concord varieties grow best—concords are indigenous to North America.


  • Crookneck Yellow squash,
  • Chioggia (an Italian candy stripe) and Golden beets,
  • Rhubarb,
  • Rainbow Chard,
  • Early Black Egg eggplant (Asian heirloom),
  • Red Russian kale,
  • Lettuces: ‘Deer tongue’, ‘Red oak leaf’, ‘Little Gem’ Romaine, Rouge d’Hiver,
  • Melons: Moon and Stars (Amish),
  • parsnips (nearly every kind is heirloom),
  • Green peas: ‘Little Marvel,’
  • Peppers: Chimayo (New Mexico heirloom), Hungarian Wax.
  • Potatoes: All Blue (Peruvian), Yellow Finn.
  • Radishes ‘D’Avignon’ (French),
  • Winter Squash: Blue Hubbard (New England), Buttercup (North Dakota), Jarrahdale (Australian), Rouge Vif d’Etampes (French), Butternut (1944, but still considered an heirloom), Delicata.
  • Pumpkins: Small Sugar, Sweet Dumpling.
  • Tomatoes (these can be tricky because they require a long season and mild weather; start off with the miniature versions first or resort to a cold frame to extend the growing season), Brandywine (Amish), Costoluto Genovese, Striped German, yellow pear (small and easy to grow), Black Krim, red pear (also small, easy).

If you have a tiny garden and would like to try heirlooms, I recommend Crookneck Yellow Squash, Red or Yellow Pear tomatoes, any of the lettuces (Red Sails and Romaine are heirlooms), D’Avignon radishes, either of the beets and Rainbow Chard.

For more advice on heirloom vegetables, “A Celebration of Heirloom Vegetables,” by Roger Yepsen, Artisan, 1998