Heirloom Flowers


Indian Chief 1929

I know, I know, I’m hipped on the subject of heirloom vegetables and fruits. I’m the same way about heirloom flowers. Part of it’s my fascination with history, but it’s also because heirloom flowers have so much to offer. What brings this up is a recent foray to my neighbor one place over. When she bought her place it came with a neglected garden full of all sorts of interesting things. In particular, she has beds loaded with old iris plants and offered to share.

Mystic Melody 1949

Southland 1934

In my experience, iris are one of the toughest plants there is. At our old house, I would dump excess thinnings out in the back forty. Said dumps usually took place in the early spring, which meant the dumpees went through a blazing summer and about six months without any water. I didn’t plant these iris or give them any care, just tossed them in piles on top of bare ground. Invariably, within two years I would have thriving clumps of heavily blooming iris.

Natchez Trace 1964

The iris at my neighbor’s place were probably planted over the last 30 years or so. Apparently the grandfather of the man from whom she bought the property was an iris fancier; his daughter carried on the tradition. She also had other bulbs like narcissus, rosebushes and a scattering of perennials like lychnis, or rose campion. The latter was one of Thomas Jefferson’s flowers at Monticello and has been grown in Europe (it’s native there) for centuries. The gray, hairy stems earned the plant the nickname of Dusty Miller and the flowers are a deep fuchsia red. It self-seeds readily, as do many heirloom flowers.

Edith Wolford 1986

So what are heirloom flowers? Originally, those in the horticultural world defined an heirloom as a plant discovered or registered before 1938. In some cases, there are so few surviving old varieties that they are much younger than that. Gladiolus are one example – most of those available are 60 years old or less; none survive from earlier periods like the 1800s, when hybridizing of these flowers first began. In roses, the term “old garden rose” generally refers to an heirloom variety. The other term used for heirloom flowers is “antique flowers,” although I think that’s a little misleading. In furniture and household goods, antique means more than 100 years old. Younger than that, it’s a collectible.

Coral Magic 1979

Like their fellows in the vegetable garden, heirloom flowers offer a lot. One of the most noticeable is the scent. Modern roses, for example, may look gorgeous, but many have no scent whatsoever. Another is growth habit. Unlike hybrid teas, which win the good little soldier award for their neat, upright growth habit, old roses are often blousy, rambling collections of stunning colors and scents. Rosa Gallica has been around since the days of the Roman Empire. The pink and white stripes of Rosa Mundi – named for Rosamund Clifford, mistress of King Henry II of England, have been gracing gardens since the 12th century. Souvenir de La Malmaison grew in the gardens of Napoleon’s Empress Josephine. These roses are often grown on their own rootstock, which means you can easily grow more by cutting off a bit of root and growing it on. Many also produce hips, which are rich in vitamin C and can be made into an immunity-boosting syrup.

Beverly Sills 1979

Good sources of heirloom flowers can be found on line. Old House Gardens and Van Enlgelen offer primarily bulbs and tubers. Select Seeds, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and Seed Savers Exchange offer such goodies as Black Hollyhocks (1629), Love-Lies Bleeding Amaranth (1810 seed list, but probably back to the 16th century) and Painted Lady Sweet Peas (1797). For heirloom roses, check out Roses of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, the Antique Rose Emporium and Heirloom Roses. In the meantime, I will be tucking such iris goodies as Indian Chief (1924), Southland (1934), Mystic Melody (1949) and the luscious Beverly Sills (1979) into my garden. Thanks, Carol!

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Breeding Age


“Research over a number of years has indicated that, economically the optimum age at first calving is between 23 and 25 months of age.” The Dairy Site

Making decisions based on economics when you are dealing with a biological function like pregnancy is short-sighted (IMHO). I think that’s particularly true when you’re talking about breeding age in a house cow. A dairy cow that is well cared-for can produce well into her teens. In commercial dairies, most cows have only two or three lactations because they are culled around age five or six. I suspect beef cows can also live and produce that long, but you aren’t likely to find much information on that subject because in today’s industrial farming system the cows are usually culled well before that. The assumption is that if you just give them enough food and get them to the right body weight before breeding, everything will be hunky-dory. Hmmm – I’ve seen plenty of teenagers who are the same size as adults. Does that mean they think and act like adults (insert loud laughter here)? Of course not, because their brains, organs and hormonal systems haven’t reached maturity yet. Why are cows different?

Strawberry and calf.

The accepted advice from the “experts” is that you should breed a heifer when she reaches puberty, which is usually around 12 to 14 months of age. That means that a heifer bred at 12 months will calve at 21 months – just shy of two years old. So the expectation is that this heifer should be able to continue growing (she’s probably only between 55% and 65% of her adult weight at breeding age) while providing enough nutrition to her calf in utero and then lactate for at least six months while also maintaining her own body condition. She will then have to handle the stress of birth, lactation and the resumption of her normal ovulation cycles in order to rebreed in a timely fashion. At about the same time she delivers her calf, she will be losing her two-year-old teeth, which makes it harder for her to graze in even a lush pasture.

Now, in humans, for whom there is no “economic benefit,” any GP or OB will tell you that women who have babies too early are more likely to have complications and that babies born small tend to have life-long health issues. Having seen that first-hand in my clinical practice, I have always opted to wait until a heifer is closer to two years old before breeding. Younger cows are more likely to have fertility problems after calving and produce less milk. Their calves are smaller and lighter than those of heifers bred when they are older. Despite the fact that their calves are smaller than average, in my experience those are the calves you have to pull.
Yes, it’s more expensive to feed a heifer a few more months before breeding. But in the long run, it’s better for her growth, better for her first and future calves and better for her overall health and longevity. Biological processes can’t – or rather, shouldn’t – be hurried.

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Wolves at the Door


There’s nothing like a singing wolf to make the hairs on the back of the neck stand up.


Well, it’s official. We have wolves on the ranch.
There have been some unconfirmed sightings over the course of the last year. At least one was by a woman who does have some familiarity with them, so we figured it was only a matter of time. A few nights ago, a neighbor brought a recording of wolves singing at a ranch about 15 miles away for my husband to hear. The next day, hubby went out to feed and found distinct tracks of a big male and a female wolf that were made last night after the rain. In other words, perfectly clear and fresh, no chance it could have been anything else. While wolves have tracks similar in shape to a dog or coyote, they are huge in comparison, with much larger, longer claw marks. We haven’t seen scat yet, but I expect it won’t be long.

The recording was made less than a day before hubby found the wolf tracks on the ranch, which means we have at least one pack and one additional pair in the area. He says there are at least three wolves in the recording. It’s mating season, which may be why they were singing. The pair that showed up on the ranch could be the ones sighted a few months back, as the territory size is about right. He also saw some tracks while on a search and rescue operation about six weeks ago, which may be the same pair. Wolves base their territories (they are highly territorial and will kill or drive off unfamiliar wolves) on the feed sources, but the minimum is usually around 13 to 15 square miles.

Aside from some interesting night-time noises, having wolves around doesn’t make much of a change at the moment. We already pen our sheep, chickens, cats and dogs up at night and the wolves are unlikely to tackle an adult horse or cow. Calving season may be a problem – the singing pack is in an area where local ranchers are calving. There are plenty of deer around, not to mention rabbits, wild turkeys, geese and those pestiferous ground squirrels, as well as smaller rodents. However, they’re also competing with the cougars and various other predators such as coyotes, bobcats, eagles and hawks. We’ll have to see how things go…

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