THERE WERE GARDENERS here before us — way before us — and they cultivated a much wider assortment of plants than we can find today in most of our nurseries and garden catalogues. In 1886, the D.M.Ferry company offered 135 varieties of hyacinth. How many are there today in our common bulb catalogues? Just a few.


I’d never really given it much thought until I ran across the website of Old House Gardens, a small company that sells antique heirloom bulbs. It was founded by landscape historian Scott Hurst, who in 1983 bought a derelict Queen Anne house in Ann Arbor. Discovering forgotten peonies and tiger lilies in his backyard, he realized that many bulb varieties, growing in old gardens and graveyards across America, were in danger of becoming extinct.

‘Black Beauty’ lily, left


Unlike most of the bulbs we order from catalogues and plant at this time of year, 99% of which are from the Netherlands, many of the historic bulbs sold by Old House Gardens are native and regional, from small growers in 14 states and their own urban micro-farms in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Some date back hundreds of years, and there are many good reasons to grow them.


  • tough and vigorous — they’re survivors, after all
  • unusual, offering colors, forms, and special qualities unmatched by newer bulbs
  • bred for gardens, rather than in greenhouses for pot and cut-flower production like most modern bulbs 
  • graceful and wildflowery — many of them are once-wild plants (no longer wild-collected, of course) or just a generation removed
  • fragrant, adding another sensual dimension to your garden
  • regionally adapted, thriving in difficult climates where many modern bulbs fail
  • period appropriate to Colonial, Victorian, Arts and Crafts and other styles of old houses
  • rare, endangered, and in need of our help, since the only way to preserve these living artifacts and their genetic resources is to grow them

Beyond all that, they’re gorgeous. For lots more info, to order a print catalogue, or sign up for a free e-mail newsletter from Old House Gardens, go here.

‘Cloth of Gold’ crocus, above