9 Historical Crops You Can Develop in Fashionable Gardens

There is something alluring about ancient plants. Not only have they been living for millennia, but they also survived multiple extinction-level events. Their resilience is evolutionarily beneficial, as they would be extinct without their unique survival adaptations.

Some ancient species grow enormous! Do not fear, though, as new dwarf varieties exist for gardens of all sizes. Plants like dawn redwoods and ginkgos are available in multiple forms with unique sizes, shapes, and structures. 

In your garden, you can group these plants to form an ancient retreat! Whether you live in a cold, hot, dry, or wet region, there are ancient options for you. Discover which varieties are best for your garden below.

Ostrich Fern

Ancient ferns are perfect for shady gardens and yield edible fiddleheads in spring.

Ferns are among the oldest plants in our fossil records, with some fossils dating back to the Mesozoic period over 200 million years ago! The ostrich fern, known scientifically as Matteuccia struthiopteris, is a descendant of these fossils. This moisture-loving ancient plant is perfect for shady gardens, woodland areas, and cottage-style gardens.

Ever heard of edible fern fiddleheads? The ostrich fern produces fiddleheads, considered delicacy in their native range throughout the Pacific Northwest and Western Canada. A few fiddleheads sauteed in butter is a delicious early spring treat.

Chefs, beware, as high concentrations of fiddleheads can be toxic. Think of them as a seasonal treat. Additionally, ensure the fiddleheads you have are ostrich fern fiddleheads, as other ferns produce fiddleheads that are not fit for human consumption. 

To grow this living fossil, plant transplants in shady areas and water well. This plant can also grow from spores. Simply sprinkle some spores on a wet and shady spot in the fall. In the springtime, you should have baby Matteuccia sprouting. 


Close-up of an Equisetum hyemale plant, also known as horsetail, in a garden. Equisetum hyemale presents a unique appearance with its jointed, hollow stems resembling bamboo shoots. These stems are surrounded by whorls of thin, dark green, needle-like leaves emerging from each joint.This ancient and beautiful plant can be invasive and thrives in wet conditions.

Before we get into horsetail and how it grows, gardeners beware: this is an extremely invasive and hard-to-remove ancient plant. It is stunning, and also an excellent container specimen, but it can take over the garden. On the farm where I worked, we would see horsetail growing out from the ground and into the drainage holes on potted trees. If there is water, then horsetail will find it!

The horsetail genus is Equisetum, and it has been around since the same Mesozoic period just like ferns. This Jurassic-era plant thrived when dinosaurs were around! It has a stunning architectural form, with foliage strands extending in whorls along branch nodes, sort of like a pine or spruce tree. 

Fun fact! People throughout history used this plant as a dish scrubber. It naturally has a high silica content, which causes its cell walls to be extra rigid. The rigidity makes horsetail an excellent scourer on tough-to-remove dish stains. 

To grow Equisetum in your garden, consider putting cuttings in a pot without drainage holes. Typically, I do not recommend growing plants in pots without drainage. However, this spreader loves to stay wet. Without drainage holes, its invasive rhizomes cannot spread into other areas of your garden. Keep it neat in a pot, and you’ll enjoy horsetail’s form each year. 


Close-up of a Ginkgo biloba branch in the garden. The ginkgo tree, is renowned for its distinctive fan-shaped leaves. The leaves are deeply lobed with parallel veins radiating from a central point, giving them a delicate and elegant appearance. Ginkgo biloba tree is recognized for its unique, fleshy, foul-smelling fruits, which contain edible seeds. These fruits are small, round in shape, green in color, and grow in clusters.They’re great for urban environments due to pollution tolerance.

I’m biased when it comes to ginkgo trees. They are my absolute favorite! Their history, garden uses, and unique beauty make them excellent choices in small and large gardens alike. Gingko’s scientific name is Ginkgo biloba, and the tree produces a brain supplement of the same name.  

Standard ginkgo trees mature to between 50 and 80 feet tall, but it takes many years to do so. Each autumn, their green fan-like foliage turns golden yellow and makes for a stunning display. The tree’s bark is a light gray color and will grow scaly over time. The Ginkgo genus is so old it is more closely related to conifers than to today’s deciduous fruit trees!

Large ginkgo trees make superb lawn and street trees because they are tolerant of urban conditions like pollution, heat, and poor soil quality. At planting, ensure you have a male tree. Gingkos are dioecious, meaning they are either male or female trees. Female trees produce an abundance of stinky flesh each year, and I do not recommend planting them in the garden.

For the small garden, try the ‘Troll’ or ‘Mariken’ varieties. They grow to be small shrubs rather than trees and have all the foliage and bark features of a larger specimen. If you have space for a 50+ foot tree, try cultivars like ‘Autumn Gold,’ ‘Princeton Sentry,’ and ‘Saratoga.’


Close-up of a flowering Magnolia tree in a sunny garden. It produces thin, spreading branches at the tips of which grow saucer-shaped flowers of a delicate pink color with rich pink veins.Magnolia trees bloom beautifully in early spring, attracting pollinating beetles.

In the early spring, magnolia trees open up their blooms for a spectacular display. One of the first ancient plants to evolve bisexual flowers, records show trees in the Magnolia genus came to be on Earth 95 million years ago during the Cretaceous period. They evolved before bees, and so beetles pollinate their flowers! This is evident in the tough, fleshy flower structure of magnolias that is resistant to beetle damage. 

In the garden, magnolias make beautiful specimens. With deciduous and evergreen species to choose from, there are many options for the home gardener. 

In the Southern United States, the evergreen Magnolia grandiflora varieties are common. They are cold-hardy to freezing temperatures, but deciduous magnolias are hardier. In areas with frost, try deciduous varieties from the Magnolia x soulangeana and Magnolia stellata species for stunning saucer and star-shaped flowers each spring. 

Magnolias are a little picky. To protect their shallow, fleshy roots, place transplants in an area without heavy foot traffic. Water deeply in the summer, but avoid waterlogging the soil for long periods. You can also grow magnolia from seed for a more rewarding experience. 


Close-up of a red maple tree against a blurred blue sky background. Its leaves, deeply lobed with serrated edges, emerge reddish or greenish in spring, turning brilliant shades of scarlet, orange, or yellow in autumn.These trees thrive worldwide, offering variety for every garden and climate.

The maple family Sapindaceae has been gracing Earth with its presence for over 25 million years. A wide variety of maples grow today, and they have a worldwide presence. From Japanese maples to Norway maples, there is one for every yard. 

Maples, specifically the genus Acer, range from enormous old-growth trees to small shrubs. Many maples thrive in the Pacific Northwest and the Northeastern U.S., and a few species grow in the South with success. 

In dry areas like Southern California, Japanese maple Acer palmatum grows well with protection from intense heat and wind. There are multiple colorful cultivars like ‘Bloodgood’ for a 15-foot tree and ‘Butterfly’ for a small shrub. In cold areas, try Acer rubra. It will grow down to USDA zone 3. 

All plants in the Acer genus have winged fruits called samaras. When they drop, collect the samaras from the ground. You can plant them in the fall or spring, and new seedling maples will sprout. Maples like a bit of water, and seedlings need to stay moist but not soaked. For a specific variety, look to your local nursery for a cultivar that performs well in your area.

Dawn Redwood

Close-up of branches of Metasequoia glyptostroboides, commonly known as dawn redwood, in a garden. It presents a majestic appearance with its tall, pyramidal shape and graceful, feathery foliage. The foliage comprises soft, needle-like leaves arranged in flat sprays that are a rich, deep green.This deciduous conifer thrives in diverse climates, offering unique varieties for gardens.

Scientifically known as Metasequoia glyptostroboides, this living fossil was thought to have been extinct for twenty-five million years! A Chinese forester, Mr. Chan Wang discovered it in China in 1943. Later, specialists from Japan and China studied it and found it matched ancient fossil records from Japan. 

Dawn redwood grows into a stately deciduous conifer with male and female cones. The needle-like foliage turns a dusty brown before dropping in the fall. 

Nowadays, dawn redwood can grow in areas as cold as zone 4. It can also grow throughout California, except in desert climates. Some interesting varieties exist today. One cultivar ‘Miss Grace,’ has a weeping habit, and another, called ‘Gold Rush,’ has bright yellow new growth. 

To grow Metasequoia glyptostroboides in a small garden, try finding dwarf varieties at your local nursery. The species tree is a large specimen of over 90 feet in maturity, and can quickly spread over an area. In dry areas, plant seeds in the fall; in wet areas, keep the cones until spring. The cones need dry air to open up, and they will reveal the seeds in the spring when the weather warms. 

Monkey Puzzle Tree

Close-up of Araucaria araucana, commonly known as the monkey puzzle tree, in a sunny garden. This evergreen conifer features a symmetrical, conical crown adorned with dense, spirally arranged branches covered in overlapping, leathery, triangular leaves that radiate around the branches, giving it a distinctive spiky appearance.This ancient conifer from Chile is an ideal specimen tree for sunny, spacious locations in zone 7.

With fossils matching the shape of this tree from over 160 million years ago, the monkey puzzle tree is one of the oldest living conifers. It is native to Chile and incredibly cold-hardy compared to other conifers in the Southern Hemisphere. This species is botanically known as Araucaria araucana. It looks like the quintessential ancient plant, with sharp, green plates for leaves and a geometrical form. Mature trees are a sight to behold. 

In the U.S., this tree grows in areas as cold as zone 7. Araucaria araucana loves the sun and will mature to over 80 feet tall and 30 feet wide. Situate it in an area with enough room to grow and sun to soak up. The monkey puzzle tree is not a good shade tree, but it is an excellent specimen tree. 

Giant Rhubarb

Close-up of Gunnera plants in the garden. The plant has massive, deeply lobed leaves of bright green color. These leaves, supported by thick, prickly stems, feature prominent veins and a coarse texture, giving them a prehistoric allure. The plant produces flower spikes, towering above the foliage and bearing tiny, inconspicuous flowers.This leafy plant thrives in rich, moist soil in shade.

Another dinosaur-looking plant is the giant rhubarb in the genus Gunnera. The most common is Gunnera manicata, a stately herbaceous plant with giant spiked leaves towering above cone-like structures at the base. Matching fossils from over 95 million years ago, this is the plant to put in your garden that your friends will ask you about. 

This leafy plant loves rich soil and thrives in compost. It also loves to be wet and does best in a shadier part of the garden. Give it some space so that it can spread its 8-foot-wide leaves above the ground. When happy, it will spread slowly to create a stunning backdrop. 

Gunnera is hardy between zones 7 and 10 and will die back completely in cold winter areas. In mild winters, the green leaves will remain from season to season before dying back when new growth occurs. Look to your local state for advice on planting Gunnera, as it can escape cultivation and invade streambanks in favorable conditions. It is banned in parts of the world.

Sago Palm

Close-up of Cycas revoluta, commonly known as the sago palm, in a sunny garden. It presents a striking and symmetrical appearance with its crown of glossy, feather-like fronds emerging from a stout, gnarled trunk. These dark green fronds, composed of numerous stiff, leathery leaflets arranged in a spiral formation, lend the plant a distinctive and tropical aesthetic.Ensure careful initial placement for optimal growth and drought tolerance.

Not a palm, Cycas revoluta is an evergreen plant more closely related to conifers. Sago palm’s long, frond-like leaves grow spiky points and long ridges. This tough plant is dioecious like ginkgo, and the female plants bear jewel-shaped seeds of orange-reddish color. Although native to Japan, it can grow in a wide range of conditions and is easy to care for.

Sago palm is a super-slow grower and will take decades to reach ten feet. Hardy to 15°F (-9°C), it grows in most desert and tropical areas from zones 9 to 12. Grow plants from pups on the main plant or plant seeds in free-draining soil.

These low-growing evergreens are drought-tolerant once established. Sagos do not transplant easily, so be sure you pick the right spot to begin with. Water them well the first year, then cut back on irrigation so that their roots grow deep in search of moisture. 

Final Thoughts

Ancient plants grace us with their presence today. The fact that living fossils grow and thrive in our world shows the planet’s evolutionary success. 

Having a dinosaur garden is an excellent way to honor these plants. Enjoy the stately maturity of a monkey puzzle tree, and put a dwarf ginkgo below it just because you want to. Japanese maples, giant rhubarb, and ostrich fern all love wet, shady conditions and would make a perfect trio. 

No matter your climate, space, or soil, there is an ancient plant for you. Many of these plants are low maintenance after establishing themselves and will reward you with flowers, cones, and foliage for years to come. Enjoy your ancient garden and the mystery it brings!

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