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WITH SCOTT KUNST
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SCOTT KUNST REFUSES to take a dewy-eyed approach to old-fashioned bulbs. Although the former school teacher now devotes all his time and energy to researching, collecting, and preserving heirloom bulbs, and providing them to the public through his mail-order catalog, Old House Gardens, he avoids romanticizing his mission. In his opinion, it's a flower's virtues that make it more valuable to gardeners over the long term than the myths and legends it has accrued along the way. "These are, simply, great garden plants," Scott explains. "They're tough, beautiful, distinctive, and they are freighted with the past.
"Heirloom bulbs are often tougher than their counterparts that have come and gone," says Scott. "That's one reason why they're still around. They can endure neglect, tough conditions, and a variety of climates. The same can be said for heirloom flowers in general. Have you ever wondered why Hemerocallis fulva can still be seen lining country roads? It endures because it's tough.
"Ninety-nine percent of their colleagues are gone," Scott says of the scores of bulbs that have slipped by the wayside, "but a handful of the best still remain." It's more than vigor that has kept a chosen few bulbs popular through the centuries, he points out. "It's often the unique individuals rather than the common, mainstream plants that have survived." One might call these botanicalBabe Ruths. "Babe Ruth was one in a trillion. We've never found anyone else quite like him," Scott says. "It's the same with many heirlooms that have stood the test of time. They survive because their unique characteristics have not been duplicated." That's also what makes them so precious.
Scott illustrates his point with the `Prince of Austria' tulip. "Introduced in 1860, it was sold as orange in the past, but today most people would call it red. Of course, there is nothing rare about a red tulip. But the fact is that `Prince of Austria' is scented—it's the most sweetly fragrant tulip---and that virtue has kept it around." In fact, it was `Prince of Austria' that launched Scott into the bulb-selling business. In 1990, when `Prince of Austria' disappeared from the North American market, Scott felt compelled to take action, and so Old House Gardens in Ann Arbor, Michigan, was born.
Another unique heirloom, less endangered than `Prince of Austria' but still hard to find today, is the hyacinth `Distinction', which was introduced in 1880. "Its flowers are really too small to compete with its newer, larger colleagues," Scott says. "But no modern variety can match its deep maroon color and that attribute has saved it. The shade has been described as beet root, and it runs against the stereotype. There's nothing ho-hum about that hyacinth."
Sometimes, a bulb's unique quality might not strike you as a virtue at first. Take Crocus vernus `Grand Mâitre' from the 1920s. "It may seem like just another purple crocus," says Scott, "but it blossoms a bit later in the season—not what you would expect for a flower that's a classic harbinger of spring. `Grand Maître' overlaps in bloom with the earliest daffodils—beautifully. It's got that special gift, and that's one reason why it's still here."
The special gifts that heirlooms possess are not necessarily the qualities that garden centers or flower-show exhibitors value. "Heirloom bulbs often have a wildflower look to them. They're more graceful and subtle than many modern bulb flowers," explains Scott. "Take the poet's narcissus, for example. Narcissus poeticus, pictured in the English herbals of the 1600s, grows wild in alpine meadows. It has more grace and delicacy than most modern daffodils, `Tête-à-tête' daffodils are terrific in their own way, but their flowers always look to me like they're made of wax.
"Most older daffodils are willowy, graceful. Their flowers bounce in the breeze like butterflies in the garden," he says. "Their petals may be narrower, their cups smaller, their colors less intense—no blazing oranges, for example. But there's something ethereal about them."
Fragrance is often more pronounced in older varieties, too. "Fragrance today is way down on the list of garden virtues, perhaps because it isn't readily apparent in a picture. And it's hard to breed for. At one time, though, a flower without fragrance was considered lacking." Scott points out that "fragrance can still add an exciting dimension to a garden."
Among old bulbs, there is often more diversity. The very old `Duc van Thol' tulip, which dates back to 1620, blooms so early that you can combine it with hyacinths. Other old tulips have unusually long pointed petals, or colors in odd, soft "art shades." `Zomerschoon' is one of the tulips traded for fortunes during the Dutch Tulipomania. Its tapestry of strawberry shades on a cream background put crude modern `Rembrandts' to shame.
EVERYTHING COMES AND GOES
Scott is quite aware that fashion is alive and well in the garden. "Style changes in the garden just as it does in clothing or architecture," he says. "There are times when bell-bottoms are popular, and then there are times when bell-bottoms are totally passé. Attitudes change. There were times in this century when Victorian houses with all their gingerbread were considered to be in incredibly bad taste, but now we love them again."
How does that translate to bulbs? In the floral realm, cannas have been punted back and forth. Imported from subtropical America into Europe in the 1500s, cannas received a hero's welcome, reaching their zenith when the Victorian bedding pattern was king. Valued for their statuesqueness as well as their handsome foliage and vibrant flowers, cannas made a perfect bull's eye at the center of circular beds surrounded by rings of equally brilliantly colored annuals. But they were sacrificed in a blink of the eye when annual gardens were superceded by the pastel perennial border. "Cannas have been scorned for the last few decades," Scott says, "but the British garden guru Christopher Lloyd and many others are now re-popularizing them. Their time is clearly coming again."
When that time comes, Scott Kunst will be ready. One of his proudest "finds" is `Semaphore', which he tracked down in France to a family farm that has specialized in cannas for generations. He describes it as having "narrow bronze leaves, and slender flowers a radiant, golden saffron orange."
Cannas are not the only bulbs that have suffered the buffeting of fashion; many other once-popular flowers are out of fashion at the moment. For the last 40 or so years, gladioli have suffered from a stigma, possibly because they were too often found in funeral arrangements. But, according to Scott, "the first hybrid glads were created in 1837, and Victorian gardeners—including Monet and Gertrude Jekyll—loved them. Sadly, of the thousands that have been introduced since then, the oldest survivors in North America date only to the 1920s to 1940s." He is currently working with the Old Timers Guild of the North American Gladiolus Council to remedy the situation.
THE ENTHUSIAST NETWORK
Where does Scott Kunst find his older varieties? A good route is via other collectors. One of his most fruitful friendships has been with the holder of the National Collection of hyacinths in Britain. Once a potato farmer, his life is now devoted to hyacinths. He's in contact with a collector in Latvia who has many hyacinths long lost in the Netherlands. And so it goes, one enthusiast helping another.
As Scott Kunst sees it, one advantage of Old House Gardens is that it is a small company. "I can offer a variety when only a hundred bulbs are available; larger companies must have much more stock." And so he is able to get rare bulbs to other gardeners who value their special qualities, ensuring that those varieties will not disappear despite mass-market pressures and the swings of fashion. "I hate to see a great old variety go extinct," he says. "They'll linger somewhere in the alleyways, you can be sure. But they belong in our gardens. They're amazing."
A COMPILATION OF
TOVAH MARTIN AND SCOTT KUNST
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Native from Spain to Afghanistan, Crocus vernus was introduced into Europe by Clusius at the end of the 15th century. By the 1600s, the early herbalists Gerard, Besler, and Parkinson documented white, purple, and striped forms of the plant that we've come to know as "Dutch crocus." By the Victorian era, Crocus vernus had reached such a zenith of popularity that entire carpet-beds were devoted solely to the flowers in spring. Meanwhile, gardeners forced them indoors for winter entertainment. Crocus vernus `Purpureus Grandiflora', introduced in 1870 and boasting rich purple blossoms, is the oldest purple Dutch crocus still available commercially. In the early 1900s species crocus gained a following with the popularization of the golden yellow Crocus angustifolius 'Cloth of Gold'. It was followed by several species such as Crocus chrysanthus `Snowbunting' (1914) and C. chrysanthus 'Zwanenburg Bronze' (1931). Species crocus are smaller and more discreet than their Dutch counterparts, but they blossom several weeks earlier in the spring. For that virtue, they've earned the nickname "snow crocus."
Crown imperials are native to southern Turkey, and first appeared in cultivation in Vienna in 1576. From Vienna they traveled to Holland and then, rather rapidly, to Britain, where the herbalist John Gerard already had "great plenty" by 1597. Held atop three-foot spikes, the flowers are big, brightly colored, and tulip-shaped, and nod downward. They're quite a sight. Early crown imperials, Fritillaria imperialis, were orange. However, a bright yellow version, `Lutea', was introduced in 1665. According to Scott Kunst, `Lutea' was considered a rarity in America in 1739.
Some historians claim that snowdrops are native to Britain; others feel that Galanthus nivalis arrived from Italy in the 15th century. Nicknamed because they blossom very early in the spring, when their grass-like leaves jut up above the melting snow, snowdrops have small, pure white, nodding blossoms with green markings. The fragrance is delightful. St. Francis is said to have embraced snowdrops as an emblem of hope; the early herbalist Gerard thought they were related to violets. At present, several variations of the species are readily available.
Native to Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon, Hyacinthus orientalis was worn as a headdress by bridesmaids in Greek weddings and was mentioned in Homer's Iliad. However, the sturdy plants with thick spikes of inflated flowers didn't arrive in Europe until 1560. Although the Elizabethans found the intense aroma "melancholic," double white, blue, and pink varieties were available by 1613. Apparently, their esteem increased quickly so that by 1730, 2,000 hyacinths were in cultivation. When the Victorians began forcing bulbs in the mid-1800s, hyacinth popularity soared propitiously. The bulbs were also employed in 19th-century carpet-bedding patterns. In fact, according to Scott Kunst, the D. M. Ferry catalog of 1886 listed more hyacinths than tulips or daffodils.
The grape hyacinth that we now call Muscari botryoides was originally grown as Hyacinthus botryoides and was in cultivation by 1576, originally collected from Spain. It is named for the grape-like clusters of deep purple flowers. The ancient herbalists, however, seemed dispassionate about the color. In fact, Parkinson seemed to prefer the white `Album' form.
Several members of the narcissus family figured strongly in history, the first being Narcissus tazetta, grown by the ancient Greeks. Valued for its multi-headed bunches of small yellow and orange, fragrant blossoms, it is not reliably hardy but later became popular for forcing. By the 1880s, N. tazetta var. orientalis, also known as the Chinese sacred lily or Lien Chu lily, won the hearts of bulb-forcing Victorians. As for narcissi used outdoors, N. poeticus, the pheasant's eye narcissus, was mentioned by Theophrastus in 320 B.C.; however, the original form does not seem to have survived. The most commonly sold N. poeticus hybrid, often billed as "Old Pheasant's Eye," is actually a fairly recent hybrid known as 'Actaea', dating only to 1927, according to Scott Kunst. Daffodils were grown in English gardens as early as the 1500s, but they didn't enjoy great popularity until the 1860s, when the first hybrids became available. The famous, bright yellow `King Alfred' first appeared in 1899. The cultivar now available by that name is actually a beefed-up version of the original.
Tulips were cultivated and coveted in the Middle East in the 12th and 13th centuries, but they weren't grown commercially in Europe until the mid-1500s. By the time the herbalist John Gerard wrote about the bulbs in 1597, seven types were available, including a red, a yellow, and a streaked variety. A virus spread by aphids caused the famous striped, streaked, and feathered "Rembrandt" tulips and also instigated the famous Dutch "Tulipomania" craze. Not only gardeners were bemused by the exotic coloration of the tulips; businessmen as well invested heavily in tulip speculation, and the bulbs became a hot trading commodity for reasons totally non-horticultural. Eventually, the tulip market collapsed and the virus weakened the strain so that few Rembrandts survive today. Scott Kunst has managed to make available 'Lac Van Rijn' (1620), with red pointed petals and white edging, and `Zomerschoon' (also 1620), with ivory petals flamed in red—both preserved by the Dutch national bulb museum. Frilly-petalled parrot tulips date to the 1600s. The earliest still available is `Fantasy' (1910), with pink petals and apple-green markings. Darwin tulips, which were developed from antique Flemish varieties, became popular in the early 20th century,
|INTRODUCTION: Saving Our Floral Heritage||4|
|CLASSIC BULBS: An Interview with Scott Kunst||6|
|A Compilation of Classic Bulbs||11|
|OLD GARDEN ROSES: An Interview with Peter Schneider||16|
|An Encyclopedia of Old Garden Roses||23|
|VINTAGE CLIMBERS: An Interview with Christie White||32|
|A Selection of Vintage Climbers||37|
|ANTIQUE ANNUALS: An Interview with Peggy Cornett||42|
|The Best Antique Annuals||49|
|PERENNIALS OF TIMES PAST: An Interview with Rachel Kane||56|
|A Compendium of Old-Fashioned Perennials and Biennials||63|
|The Fabulous Phlox paniculata||71|
|PERIOD FLOWER ARRANGEMENTS: An Interview with Ellen|
|THE HISTORY OF HOUSEPLANTS||86|
|A Collection of Heirloom Houseplants||91|