Are the concrete chicken, big urn, and home-made toadstools in my garden antiques, heirlooms, or just old? Not too many folks get bogged down in semantics, but there are subtle differences in those terms.
Got an email the other day from someone who was reading a book about plant collecting and wanted to know the difference between heirloom and heritage roses. Got me thinking about stuff I have from now long-gone gardeners.
Granny, a country gal from the hills of central Mississippi, was already old when she gave me a big, heavy wine-colored urn to put in my garden. It has ever since been a visual mainstay in half a dozen of my gardens, and currently holds down a corner of my “burgundy bed” of black cannas, bloodleaf Japanese maples, and other reddish colored plants and flowers.
Not long after Granny she died, while others were divvying up her earthly possessions, I helped myself to her weathered concrete chicken. It had been a wedding anniversary gift from my grandfather because it was all he could afford, and for as long as I could remember it stood sentinel over her summer zinnias.
One winter day I had asked her why she was looking so wistfully out the window, and she replied that the old chicken, standing alone in a small circle of mulch save for a couple of clumps of monkey grass, reminded her of her zinnias. It was a heart/mind thing I’ll never forget.
Her garden club mother-in-law hated the faded faux fowl, calling it tasteless, low-brow. At the time, I just tossed the tension off as two women with different tastes.
But years later while cleaning leaves from beneath my great-grandmother’s copse of ancient cedar trees, I uncovered a small circle of crude concrete toadstools, long buried and forgotten. Ironically, the only difference between it and Granny’s chicken was that one was mass produced and store-bought, the other homemade.
I have them all in my garden now. Since they were passed down from family, they are heirlooms, a word that originated from “inherited tools.” And because in the world of garden collectables anything over fifty years old is considered an antique, the chicken and toadstools are antique heirlooms.
Heritage, not to put too fine a point here, connotes a connection, be it historic, cultural, or family. A modern object like a flag can represent heritage.
So, regarding my emailer’s query, there’s no real difference between heritage and heirloom roses; they are just descriptive words to indicate memorable plants shared and passed around, usually over generations.
To throw in one more, the official term "old garden roses" refers to those which were grown, sometimes for centuries, before 1867 when La France, the first modern hybrid tea rose, was introduced. So, The Fairy, a still-popular shrub rose from 1932, is an antique, but not an OGR.
Had enough of this? Back to the chicken. All great gardens, from Versailles and its hundreds of oversized naked statues, to my neighbor’s small flowerbed with its little gnomes, have some sort of art or embellishment to personalize them. Regardless of provenance, such hard features, including birdbaths, urns, formal columns, benches, and yes, even concrete chickens and toadstools, are important year-round accents that create focal points to draw the eye and to bridge the seasonal comings and goings of plants.
Regardless of what anyone else thinks about them, to this day, when I look at the antique, heirloom chicken and toadstools, I see neither crafty nor tacky. I see sweet reminders of my ancestors playing in their gardens. What they represent is my garden heritage.
Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the Gestalt Gardener on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to email@example.com.