by Gail March Yerke

Betty Adelman of Heritage Flower Farm is not your typical grower. An accomplished municipal law attorney, it wasn’t until she and her husband Lynn bought a Wisconsin Centennial Farm that she discovered and came to appreciate heirloom perennials. When first touring the property, the owner showed them some of the farm’s original perennial gardens and shared the history of the flowers grown there.

Adelman said, “Except for Lily of the Valley, I didn’t really know about any of those older plants.” She was fascinated and began researching, absorbing all she could about their history and floriculture. Twenty-three years later, her specialty nursery grows more than 1,000 varieties of these “antique,” unusual flowers. When asked what qualifies as an “heirloom” perennial, Adelman replied, “I don’t think there is an exact definition, really. I try to do only plants that were collected at least 100 years ago, but we do have a few that are 50 years and older.” Plants are sold both online and at her Town of Waterford retail nursery.

The business began with just 25 varieties. “We didn’t have as much space to grow then,” she said. “Now we have seven acres, three greenhouses, and it’s still not enough.” Besides field and pot production, Adelman and her staff grow and collect seed for propagation from the property’s three acres of display gardens. On occasion, they source small starter plants as well.

With one full-time employee throughout the year and five additional seasonal staff, the farm’s retail operation is open from mid-April through September. Even with today’s challenging labor market, there has been little staff turnover at the farm. “Our seasonal staff starts in early March and helps through the end of October. We offer flexibility,” she said. “If they need to take off a day or even a week, it’s fine.” She also treats her staff to a field trip to a botanical garden each year. In 2021, they traveled to the Morton Arboretum in Illinois.

Like all growing operations, there’s plenty of work to be done before the retail season begins. With 80% of the crop started from seed, part of the year’s production can begin as early as December. “I tell people I work eight days a week for eight months of the year and the rest of the year only six days a week,” she chuckled. While most seed is collected from the field, product is also brought in from one of her favorite seed companies in Germany, Jelitto. “Every year we trial at least 10 new ‘old’ plants,” she said. Plants are selected based on their color and length of flowering time.

More than 675 varieties are offered in an online catalog, shipping from Wisconsin as soon as the ground can be worked in spring and continuing until first frost. Customers are advised that shipping dates are weather dependent. “Sometimes we have to delay the shipping because of the destination temperature. It can’t be too hot or too cold where we are shipping to,” she explained. The nursery uses the USPS Priority Mail service to reach customers in 48 states and Canada.

Betty Adelman working one of her display gardens at Heritage Flower Farm. Photo courtesy of Heritage Flower Farm

When asked about on farm retail traffic during spring and summer, Adelman exclaimed, “We are out in the middle of nowhere here!” Despite that out of the way location, Heritage Flower Farm has been featured in Better Homes and Gardens, American Gardener and American Horticultural Society publications.

When customers visit the farm they are offered more information on their plant purchase through email. Those customer emails, together with online sales information, are used for their email marketing program throughout the season.

Adelman said her business is promoted on Dave’s Garden website. Her flower farm is listed there as a source for 100 of the more popular heirloom perennials. “When we got an order from Oregon, I asked why they ordered from us, 2,000 miles away. They said that it was the only place they could find it!” she said.

For the past two years, one of the more requested plants has been white fleece flower (Persicaria polymorpha). When a Minnesota TV garden program featured it, orders started pouring in from that part of the country. Another favorite is Angelica gigas (giant angelica or purple parsnip), a stunning four- to five-foot plant that blooms in late summer with prolific purple dome flowers. The website not only shares photos and growing information for its plants, but their history as well. For example, A. gigas was first collected by a Japanese botanist, Takenoshin Nakai, before 1917. Official botanist for Korea, he explored the unknown mountains and forests there and introduced its plants to the world. The Korean name for the plant is “Cham-dang-qui.”

Perennials from Heritage Flower Farm have been incorporated into some of our country’s national landmarks, such as Washington Crossing Historic Park in Pennsylvania and the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. They’re also found at the Denver Zoo, botanical gardens of Bartram’s Gardens in Philadelphia and the Royal Botanical Gardens of Hamilton in Canada. Adelman’s nursery received the distinction of Certified Wildlife Habitat from the National Wildlife Federation, an award that recognizes sustainable gardens that support wildlife.

Adelman is currently writing a book on Lewis and Clark’s expedition to collect and catalog plants in the early 1800s. Her book and plant research has included travels to San Francisco, the East Coast and England. It was at the library archives of Harvard, for example, she found the letters of Asa Gray, often referred to as the most important American botanist of the 19th century.

Heirloom plants witnessed America in her infancy and tell us how inventive, early people made them into food and medicine. They remind us of our grandmothers’ gardens. Whether you like them for their sentimental or historical value, they all tell the story of years gone by. If you want to know that story, just ask Betty Adelman.