Heritage Plants of the Wild West

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner


book and pruners

When the American homesteaders settled in the Wild West a century or more ago, they brought with them, or passed along to family and friends, some rather lovely heirloom perennials and annuals.

Many of those beautiful plants can still be found growing today in the west, according to Mary Ann Newcomer, who writes the Gardens of the Wild West blog in the foothills of Boise, Idaho. 

Recently, I sat down with Newcomer to learn more about heritage plants. As the co-author of “Rocky Mountain Gardening Handbook,” with John Cretti, and the author of the upcoming “Rocky Mountain Vegetable Gardening” (released in 2014), she really knows her western plants. 

Here’s what she had to say: 

Question: Why exactly is a heritage plant? 

Answer:  These are the familiar, historical and beloved plants that populated American gardens for nearly two centuries. They are heirloom perennials and annuals grown by American homesteaders in the west. Peonies, irises, old roses, narcissus, daylilies, hollyhocks and poppies brightened gardens of these intrepid folks one hundred and fifty years ago.


tall German bearded iris


Question: What type of characteristics did these heritage plants need to have?

Answer: Essentially, all of them can be described as beautiful, drought tolerant, tough as nails, fragrant and often, medicinal or edible in nature. The adaptable nature of so many of these heritage plants speaks to the pioneers themselves: hardy, resourceful and enduring. 

For instance, that gorgeous, tall German Bearded Iris (shown above) was found growing wild in a field, untended, for 55 years. 

Question: What makes these heritage plants so interesting to gardeners today?

Answer: Many of these heritage plants are sentimental favorites, and they continue to bring new generations of people to gardening because of the good memories associated with them. They have romantic histories, often memorable fragrances, and they are not the least bit fussy.


pretty peonies


Question:What are some of your favorite heritage plants? 

Answer: Lilacs, tall bearded iris, and of course, peonies. The pretty peonies (shown above) were a “pass-along” variety, given to me as a division, years and years ago. 

Question: Why do you like these heritage plants in your garden? 

Answer: It’s very simple. The sight, touch, and smell of them remind me of my grandmother and her garden.  And she taught me to garden. I am just lucky to be able to grow them so easily where I live in Boise’s Zone 6.