As we reach adult gardening age, we often think back to the plants our grandparents grew, and we wonder what became of those old heirloom flowers, fruits, vegetables and even landscaping plants. How come we don't see them anymore? Was there something inherently wrong with them, or do we just have "new and improved" variations? Or, did we just grow tired of growing them?
It's actually a little of all three. Specifically with flowers and vegetables, for example, hybrid types have replaced many of the old inbreds. Hybrid plants combine the genes of similar but unrelated strains, and the resulting plants are more vigorous and productive than either parent. Some gardeners will contend that hybrid tomatoes come with some loss of flavor or texture compared with the old heirlooms, but the seed breeders will promise that their new tomatoes are just as sweet (or sweeter) and several times more productive.
It's hard to argue with their data, especially after you've had a plate of those wonderful new tomatoes. But many growers still want the old heirlooms, and they're content with the four or five fruit they get from each plant.
Other gardeners will tell you that modern rose hybridization has come at the expense of durability and fragrance, as growers primarily sought flower color, size and form. That may have happened for a while. I'm not an expert on roses to that detail, but I've been in gardens of antique roses, and just as an amateur's comment, that must be the way heaven smells -- they're just terrific. Of course, many of the old roses lack long stems and cut-flower form, and that's the case to be made for the fancy new hybrid teas.
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Shrubs of old
Some of our favorite woody plants have taken a bit of a different path. Perfectly good shrubs (1) prove their merits, (2) become the beloved go-to shrubs of every garden design, then (3) become overused, and, finally (4) stub their toes on weather or pests. Or we simply get tired of them.
Pfitzer junipers and golden arborvitaes were prime landscaping shrubs of the '50s. Both grew too large for shrinking urban landscapes, and people grew tired of the regular pruning and the occasional need to spray for bagworms. And so, we moved on.
Waxleaf ligustrums were stars of the '60s and well into the '70s. So were green and variegated pittosporums and nana nandinas. But cold spells in the late 1970s, and especially the Great Winter of 1983-84, wiped out our ligustrums and pittosporums. It has taken two decades for us to rebuild that courage, and we'll probably face the same calamity again. If so, we'll move on.
It's harder to single out the fair-haired stars of '80s and '90s landscaping, but wax myrtles and bald cypress certainly became common. Each of these has since gone on to express its dissatisfaction with our soils and climate, and there are those among us who won't be inviting them back into our Metroplex landscapes. People with red, sandy soils may have better results, but these plants have worn out their welcomes in many gardeners' home landscapes.
The next plant that seems to be teetering is the rock star of the aughts: loropetalum. Known better as Chinese fringe flower, this lovely shrub bears purple leaves and colorful honeysucklelike blossoms late each winter. Many types come in many sizes, but too often, they seem to develop severe iron deficiency after a few years. And that's even with heroic bed preparation that includes 12 to 18 inches of organic matter. The jury is still out on this showy shrub.
That might give you some understanding of why certain old plants are no longer sold, but there's another great group that is far more puzzling. It's the plants like glossy abelia, standard nandina, Glendora and Sara's Favorite white crape myrtles, Italian jasmine, Berries Jubilee and Dazzler hollies, and the even-less-known First Lady yaupon holly.
These plants perform admirably in our area and, therefore, should never have been dropped. They were probably discontinued by growers because nurseries had easier and faster types. These are plants we should ask nurseries to grow for us again. We proved with vitex that demand could ensure a steady supply.
Some old things, we learn, still have great usefulness and value.
Neil Sperry publishes Gardens magazine and hosts Texas Gardening noon-1 p.m. Saturdays and 9 a.m.-noon Sundays on WBAP AM/FM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227 or 214-787-1820.