Heirloom varieties are plants that have been around for many decades. They are easy to grow and produce high quality produce. There are three distinct characteristics amongst the heirlooms.
They are all old, open-pollinating types that are generally very easy to grow and have great vegetable production and excellent taste.
The age requirement for a variety to be called an heirloom is still debatable. Some authorities say that a cultivator must have been introduced prior to the year 1951.
This is the year in which plant breeders introduced the first hybrids. An heirloom variety must have pure lines with no genetic engineering.
In general, they are the naturally found cultivars selected for certain traits over the course of many plant (and sometimes human) generations. Many examples are over 100 years old, with some that are speculated to be over 400 years in age.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to trace the ancestry of many examples as they may have originated North America, Europe, Africa and Asia or may have roots in multiple geographical areas before being bred for their certain characteristics.
There is really no way to know the actual age because no records were kept and if they were many languages are difficult to translate.
Many examples that are considered heirloom varieties were very popular in their day, which is the reason that these particular examples survived.
As plant breeders developed new varieties that became popular, many of these old varieties almost became extinct.
Thanks to the many gardeners who saved their seeds, and organizations like Seed Savers, these varieties are now flourishing at nurseries all over the country.
Many eamples are named after a family who grew a large garden, or ran a local grocery store. One example is the Hubbard squash.
The name came from Mrs. Hubbard who first found the variety which grew to become a very popular breed of squash.
The next condition for a vegetable or flower to be considered an heirloom is that it must be open-pollinated. This simply means that the plant pollinates in its natural state and that a seed picked from the plant will grow just as the mother plant did.
Many plants these days are bred from two differing parents to produce a hybrid and the seeds will not grow true to the original. This is one trait of an heirloom variety that is not debatable.
This allows for a gardener to collect the seed and save it for the following planting season.
In the past, gardeners depended on the harvesting and saving of their own seeds for the next year as there were no nurseries to buy seeds from. This also ensured they would get those same great tomatoes year after year!
Occasionally an open pollinating plant will produce an off shoot, or a plant that does not bear the same characteristic.
Gardeners need to be careful to remove these to ensure the line is kept stable and seeds are collected from only the pure plant lines.
Cross pollination among heirlooms is also possible, so if you are planning on saving the seeds you need to be very careful to isolate the plants from other cultivars as well as other plants in the same family.
The third characteristic for an heirloom variety is the general quality of the plant. They are often known for the rich flavor of the vegetables from an heirloom plant. The plant usually bears well, and the size of the produce is large and rich in color.
Cultivars that have been bred for mass production tend to lose some of the rich delicious flavor of the original as they have been selected to keep well under storage an and not bruise easily when being transported rather than for taste.
Many people love planting heirlooms because the produce reminds them of the vegetables they ate as a kid. It can take them back to their childhood days when they remember gardening with their mom or dad and the juicy flavors that came out of their vegetable patch.
The one drawback of heirloom vegetables, fruit trees, and even flowers is that many times they are more susceptible to diseases that the modern day cultivars have some resistance to. Sometimes an heirloom variety will grow a bit different, take more space, or need more time to develop to maturity.
These are all reasons why I believe it is ideal to include modern day varieties in your garden along with a few heirloom varieties that you love – this is especially true if you’re in an area known for a particular disease such as fire blight or powdery mildew. You will be guaranteed a tremendous harvest and you will be very well pleased with the work you have done!
Gardening is a hobby for many these days. Because we are not dependent on our gardens to produce enough for the entire family, we can experiment and find out what works best for our conditions and our preferences.
There may be some gardeners that just love the taste of the old heirloom varieties and are willing to work a little harder, while many want to choose the best examples known for disease resistance, production and compact size.
All factors should be considered when planting your garden, but I would challenge you to try at least one heirloom variety of your favorite vegetable to expand your gardening skills!