Flowers of the past available from afar Mail order: Scott Kunst, of Ann Arbor, Mich., sells bulbs for plants that were the rage decades or even centuries ago.

November 03, 1996|By Marty Hair | Marty Hair,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

Nostalgia for old plants is in vogue. Growing plants from heirloom seeds or eating antique varieties of apples links us with the lives of our grandparents and great-grandparents.

Perhaps that helps explain why Scott Kunst and seven other people are working six days a week in Kunst's Ann Arbor, Mich., garage, filling orders for bulbs that were the rage decades or even centuries ago.

Gardeners, museums and historic sites order from listings in the catalog of Old House Gardens, the mail-order company Kunst founded in 1993. Shipping of fall orders will continue for several weeks as 50 to 60 orders are filled daily.

Business has increased twentyfold in the past three years, Kunst says, and the company has a current customer list of nearly 2,000. Many people nationwide read about Old House Gardens in magazines and newspapers.

That growth has allowed Kunst to quit his part-time job teaching middle-school English and devote all his time to the bulb business and his lectures on historic bulbs and landscapes.

Besides descriptions of bulbs dating to the 1500s, the Old House Gardens catalog contains insights about the use of bulbs in various eras, such as a list from 1927 on best companion plants.

Elsewhere, it explains how Victorians loved hyacinths. This fall, Kunst reports, two hyacinths in particular -- the dark indigo Marie (1860) and the maroon Distinction (1880) -- are selling well. This delights Kunst, a self-described "hyacinth evangelist."

Other favorite bulbs among Old House Gardens customers this fall are the first pink daffodil, Mrs. R. O. Backhouse (1923), and the Narcissus poeticus, known as pheasant's eye or poet's narcissus, which has white petals and a red-rimmed center and often is the last daffodil to bloom.

The short yellow-orange crocus Cloth of Gold (1587) and the considerably more modern white crocus chrysanthus Snowbunting (1925), which is fragrant and early, also are popular.

Among tulips, orders are up for the bold orange Prince of Austria (1860); Peach Blossom (1890), which is double, white and pink; and Clara Butt (1889), salmon-tinged pink and the most planted tulip of the early 20th century.

The oddity known as snake's-head fritillary (1572), more commonly known as checkered lily or guinea-hen flower, which fascinated gardeners in the 1800s, is selling well.

The bulbs come from various sources in the United States and other countries, especially the Netherlands. Kunst researches the bulbs' authenticity and offers refunds if any turn out to be other than the variety described.

Kunst became interested in antique bulbs while working as a landscape historian and consultant. Trying to restore plantings around old homes, he discovered that many varieties of bulbs popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s were hard, if not impossible, to find.

For example, only a small fraction of the 7,000 varieties of daffodils introduced between 1860 and 1930 remain available today, he says.

Old House Gardens wants to reverse that trend by tracking down old varieties and offering them to gardeners. Kunst calls his company the only mail-order source in the United States devoted to antique and historic bulbs.

In addition to fall-planted bulbs that bloom in spring, the catalog includes:

Antique spring-planted bulbs such as cannas and gladiolas, tuberoses and dahlias. These may be ordered as late as January HTC for shipping in April.

Kunst's suggestions for foiling critters that love to munch on bulbs and their foliage. The tactics include burying the bulbs inside an inverted plastic berry basket or dipping them before planting in Ro-pel.

The catalog, which costs $2, is available from Old House Gardens-D, 536 Third St., Ann Arbor, Mich. 48103-4957.

Pub Date: 11/03/96

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