What Is an Heirloom?

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Gardeners look back at plants our grandparents grew and seek to find them. The popular varieties that are available today are often not what we remember from the past. The term frequently used for these treasures from the past are heirlooms. There is confusion about just what is an heirloom.

I recently asked some gardeners to give their definition of an heirloom. They agreed an heirloom is considered anything value passed down from one generation to another. They did not agree on the time line. Some consider it to be as short as one generation while others consider 50 or 100 years to be more accurate. There are many heirlooms from household possessions like furniture, jewelry, china, quilts, silver to plants and seeds.

Available on the market today are a wide selection of heirloom seeds, heirloom vegetables, heirloom flowers as well as fruits and berries. Heirloom vegetables differ by location because what grows and produces well in eastern NC is not the same as what grows well in other areas. Heirlooms exist because gardeners saved the seeds of their favorite varieties because of the desirable traits. Many heirlooms have been grown, saved and passed down for over 100 years. There are even some with a history of more than 300 years. Old cultivars have been saved from extinction because gardeners sought to save them for another season.

Two of the characteristics noted from vegetable garden heirlooms are their memorable flavor and vigor. Taste is not necessarily the prime factor in modern breeding trials. Emphasis in breeding is frequently on disease resistance, production quantity and uniformity. Hybrids usually have better shipping characteristics and longer storage life. Some heirlooms are known for production over a long season, which is often preferred by home gardeners.

Modern hybrid varieties are meant to be improvements over the old-time varieties now referred to as heirlooms. In some cases, the improvements benefit home gardeners by making widely available varieties that have better disease resistance or earlier production, or a trait such as a more compact growing habit.

Most agree that heirlooms have the best flavor, interest and variety. The best part is that gardeners can have both. You can choose to grow some hybrids for better disease resistance, or for a bush habit. You can also grow heirlooms because they taste great and produce all season long.

Saving and sharing seeds today is a way of participating in the process that has continued for generations.