March - Heirloom Plants

What is an Heirloom and why should I care?

Now that large seed companies have jumped on the heirloom bandwagon, and are offering many "Heirloom" varieties, many may wonder just what makes a plant an heirloom. Are they old plants, how are they different from other plants you can purchase, and why should you consider them?
Heirloom Corn in Peru
Heirloom corn in Peru

The definition of an heirloom seed or plant has been widely debated in horticultural circles. It was apparently first used by Kent Whealy of Seed Savers Exchange in 1981. He borrowed the term from John Withee, who had used it on a catalog cover, and in turn had taken it from William Hepler at UNH to describe beans given to him in 1940. The term has generally been used to describe older, open-pollinated plants, that have a long history of cultivation. It is also important to know what heirlooms are not - which means they are not hybrids or GMO's (genetically modified organisms).

At the end of World War II, hybrids began to be an important commodity in agriculture. In order to increase production, ensure standardization and cater to large scale farming, seed companies turned to the hybridization of seeds. In a hybrid, two plants are cross-bred, resulting in a seed that combines the desired traits of each. This could be larger fruit, resistance to disease, a new color, or a host of other qualities. In many cases, these traits are necessary for the higher yields and uniformity that commercial growers need. The grocery store tomatoes are a prime example. These tomatoes can be mechanically harvested and transported, holding their shape and being subjected to rough handling. They arrive at the store looking fine, and taste like --- well, you know what they taste like. Using hybrid seed also ensures the profitablitity of the seed company, since most hybrids produce seed that will not be true to its parent. Growing the seed of hybrids will not result in the same plant, forcing growers to purchase their seed each year.

Some people like hybrids, and in some cases, they are desirable. There are tomato viruses and wilts that can devastate a crop, and resistance to some of these diseases are important in some growing conditions. But home gardeners do not always have to worry about this, especially in the more diversified gardens usually grown by "amateurs".

Heirlooms are considered to be the result of saving seed of a particular plant, and growing it year after year, collecting the seed each time. Each year the plant is grown, it becomes more and more conditioned to its environment. The soil, the zone, the weather - all of these combine to create a plant uniquely adapted to a specific area - a type of natural selection, as you would save the best and hardiest of the plants for the next year. These are what true heirlooms are, and would have been handed down through generation after generation, since it made sense to continue to use a plant that performed well.

Seed companies have figured out that there is a demand for these "heirlooms". Though their seeds may not have been handed down through generations, these are varieites that are open-pollinated and have been around since 1940 or so. Open-pollination means that if you save the seed, you will be able to plant it and get the same plant next year.

An heirloom has a unique genetic make-up, and is the result of many years of evolution. Many also have a colorful history as to how and why they were saved. Those travelling from Europe to settle the new world brought seeds to grow here. The settlers' very survival was dependant on their ability to grow crops in the new world, and these seeds represented to them a reliable food source. Of course, they were also introduced to the native plants here, and merchants began to bring these seeds and plants back to Europe. And so it has been ever since, as many diverse people have immigrated to other lands, bringing their best-loved seeds with them. A little bit of home in a new place can make the transition easier to bear.

Last year at the International Herb Conference in Huntsville, Alabama, I had breakfast at a small diner run by a Korean family. While chatting about herbs, she revealed a condiment that she kept on hand for those who might like to try it. The herbs she used were brought by her mother to this country as seeds years before. She continues to grow them at her home in a small plot. What a treasure to honor her heritage in this way, and to connect with her ancestral roots.

The main reason people turn to heirlooms is for their superior taste (remember the tomatoes?) In the quest for product stability and standardization, many hybrids have lost their flavor. One of the most widely grown heirloom plants is the tomato. When you grow heirlooms, you may not get disease resistance, and the fruits may not last long. They may bruise easily, and they may look oddly shaped. But you will get incredible flavor, and a variety of color and form.

I started growing my own tomatoes from seed about 20 years ago. I would read about a particular variety in a gardening magazine, and could not find the plant at any nursery. The only way to have these plants, which sounded amazing, was to grow them myself. I haven't been back to a nursery for vegetable plants since, and I have expanded to lesser known flowers and herbs.

Now you can buy heirloom plants at many nurseries and garden centers. If you want to investigate the true heirlooms, many of which can be purchased no where else, contact Seed Savers Exchange ( There are over 650 heirloom varieites in their catalog, and members offer thousands more on an exchange basis.

Start small. Try an heirloom tomato or two, or maybe a runner bean. Enjoy your discovery, and feel good about becoming a part of a movement to create the sustainability that heirloom gardening allows. Begin your own tradition, and increase the genetic diversity of plants. If we don't save the seeds, who will?

Happy gardening,