Growing Heirlooms – Old Fashioned Annuals That Rock!!

Bachelors Buttons are an old favorite with the most intense blue color
Most old-fashioned annuals arrange beautifully as they have long stems: here is Nigella, Agrostemma, Poppies, and Amni Majus

With all the new intros of flowers, people forget the old-fashioned flowers that our grandmothers grew and enjoyed. ‘Flowers with a past’, or ‘flowers with history’ intrigue me even in the face of the preference of perennials in recent years. So many people when they hear that a plant is an annual turn up their nose and dismiss it as not worth the time and money to plant. But I love annuals and they bloom all summer long, unlike perennials that bloom for just a couple of weeks.

Corn Cockle or Agrostemma is an English cottage garden flower rarely seen here in the US
Corn Cockle

Pushed to the side for many years in favor of newer, supposedly better cultivars, I always remember growing old fashioned annuals as a child and seeing them in my parents garden. I couldn’t wait to squeeze the snapdragon flowers to make the “mouth” open like a dragon when I was little. Or being fascinated by the pansy faces that I grew and pressing them between the pages of a phone book.

Pansy flower
Etain Viola
Simple violas and fern in tiny vase


Rarely seen anymore, Balsam flower is extremely easy to grow
Rarely seen anymore, Balsam flower (Impatiens balsamina) is extremely easy to grow; Find them at Burpee Seeds

I have never stopped growing these neglected blooms and invite other flower lovers to embrace them as well. Neglected but not forgotten, all these flowers should be planted and enjoyed by another generation.

Edible Nasturtiums are easy to grow

Heirloom annuals are plants that have been cultivated for at least one hundred years, and some for much longer. Unimproved flowers that hybridizers haven’t got their hands on, antique annuals bloom profusely all season long and set seed so that you can collect them to flower for another year. Even better, many reseed to continue growing for the next season. Balsam flower reseeds like clockwork in my garden. Many are tall and graceful, not short and stocky hybrids that fit into containers and smaller gardens that are more prevalent today.

Sticky cleome is native to South America and looks spidery, hence its common name, Spider Flower
Sticky Cleome is native to South America and looks spidery, hence its common name, Spider Flower; Find them at Burpee Seeds

Difficult to have something in bloom all season long, a perennial border is just shouting out to have annuals inserted in empty spots so you can have a constant parade of blooms.

Cosmos at Falkland Place in Scotland
Beautiful ruffled Cosmos at Falkland Place in Scotland
Sweet Peas at Falkland Palace in Scotland
Sweet Peas at Falkland Palace in Scotland
Closeup of Sweet Pea
Closeup of Sweet Pea

Perennial purists who will not allow an annual to cross through their garden gate are missing out on the dizzying palette of flowers that bloom and die in one season. Perennial is a term that can be interpreted several ways. I have some short-lived perennials that only last two or three seasons, like lavender or Gaillardia. The drainage issue always does these perennials in for me in the mid-Atlantic. So, the term perennial could mean – lasts for many seasons, like a peony… or perennial for a few seasons, like some of the new Echinaceas. Echinaceas don’t seem to last very long at all and yet they are called perennials.

I love all the new Echinaceas, but they seem to last only a couple of seasons
Poppies are one of my favorite annuals
Poppies are one of my favorite old fashioned annuals
Annual poppy
Annual poppy
Blue poppy
Blue Poppy
Poppies arranged simply

When most perennials are on their last gasp in late summer, many annuals are still running strong with little care. A bit of dead heading, sometimes staking, and an infusion of fertilizer is enough to keep them in good form all summer. Some annuals like Poppies, Love in a Mist, Bells of Ireland, Clarkia, and Larkspur are definitely cool weather plants finished by June. See my post on Cool Season Annuals.

Purple Larkspur makes a fine foil for pink Poppies
Cool season Bells of Ireland
Cool season Bells of Ireland; Find them at Burpee Seeds
Unusual on the east coast, Clarkia is an annual that does better on the west coast
Love in a Mist (Nigella)
Dried seed pods of Nigella or Love in a Mist

Cultivated for thousands of years in the Americas, Zinnias are a true antique classic. According to Burpee’s website, “Zinnias are undemanding annuals that simply need full sun, warmth, and well-drained soil rich in organic matter. If soil is poor, incorporate lots of compost or leaf mold”. Like many old-fashioned annuals, Zinnias do better sown directly into the garden instead of being transplanted.

Zinnias, Amni Majus, Bells of Ireland, and Rudbeckia
Zinnias draw butterflies

Plumed Celosias are bursting with new cultivars but I really like to grow the unique Crested Celosias. I love the brain-like texture of the velvety bloom and it dries beautifully.

Good for drying, crested celosia has a fascinating bloom
Good for drying, Crested Celosia has a fascinating bloom

Blue Lace Flower
Blue Lace Flower

Blue Lace Flower, Trachymeme coerulea, resembles a purple Queen Anne’s Lace and would look good in a cottage style garden border. Coming from Australia in 1828, you can find this plant reseeding year after year into beds without any special care. Great for cutting and bringing into the house like many heirlooms, arranging with any of these long-stemmed flowers is a delight.

Larkspur and snapdragons from the garden make a fine arrangement
Larkspur and snapdragons from the garden make a fine arrangement
Annie's Annuals is a nursery that specializes in Heirloom annuals; this is one of their demo gardens
Annie’s Annuals in San Francisco is a nursery that specializes in Heirloom annuals; this is one of their demo gardens

All of these heirlooms draw pollinators in droves to their open faced flowers, with easily available pollen and nectar. To see more plants and flowers that attract pollinators, go to  Plant These For Bees.

Plant These For The Bees poster available on Etsy
Mexican Sunflower is a butterfly magnet and easy for butterflies to nectar from
False Queen Anne’s Lace or Ammi majus is a great filler flower for arrangements
Amni Majus used as a filler along with daylilies, larkspur, coneflower, agrostemma,and shasta daisy
A great cottage border of heirlooms –  Zinnias and Verbena
Love Lies Bleeding or Amaranthus

Heirloom Annuals

Here is my listing of  favorite Heirlooms. But there are many more that you can try.

False Queen Anne’s Lace, Ammi majus


Love Lies Bleeding, Amaranthus

Spider Flower,  Cleome

Snapdragon, Antirrhinum

Larkspur, Consolida


Corn Cockle, Agrostemma

Sunflower, Helianthus

Globe Amaranth, Gomphrena


Balsam, Impatiens balsamina

Sweet Pea, Lathyrus

Four O’Clock, Mirabilis

Pansy and Viola


Flowering Tobacco, Nictotiana

Love in a Mist, Nigella

Poppy, Papaver

Dusty Miller, Senecio

Mexican Sunflower, Tithonia

Blue Lace Flower, Trachymene coerulea


Verbena, Verbena bonariensis

Calendula, Pot Marigold

Blue Floss Flower, Ageratum

Cockscomb, Celosia,


10 Replies to “Growing Heirlooms – Old Fashioned Annuals That Rock!!”

  1. You are truly a gardener after my own heart! I LOVE all the old-fashioned annuals. I grew Grape and California poppies successfully this year. I have full sun, but a couple part sunny corners. When I can, I put seeds in to give a POP of color. You presented me some new options, also.
    Thanks, Jan

  2. Great article! I too used to play with my Mom’s snapdragons & make them talk! Love those larkspurs, will look for them. My mom had a plant she called “Burning Bush” & I would love to have some. It was a perennial, I think. Fine soft green foliage that turned red in Fall. I never see it around anymore.

    1. That is Kochia trichophylla, which is an annual. I remember that too! You never see it anymore!

  3. This is a good reminder of the old but good flowers. By the way, your blog is great, especially during this time of quarantine. Feeds the brain for future activities in our gardens. Thanks Claire.

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