What is this “heirloom” you speak of?
May 8, 2012
ASK THE GEEKS with Garden Center Expert Lisa Briggs
Talk to any gardener worth his or her salt about growing vegetables and you are sure to hear the term ‘heirloom.’ And though these special varieties are the current darlings of the edible gardening craze, no one is quite certain what exactly constitutes an heirloom vegetable. Start the conversation over your garden fence and see what happens. Most experts though, agree on a few key points so let’s tackle them one by one.
The most common trait is age. Heirloom should be old. Just how old is open to discussion. A common theory is that these varieties are those introduced before 1951, which is when modern plant breeders began to introduce hybrids. And while that makes a lot of sense, most seed catalogs seem to focus on varieties that date back to the 1930s and ‘40s, using the Victory Gardens of World War II as a reference point. A lot of varieties are much older, especially those that trace their heritage to Europe, Asia and Africa.
And just as gardeners have differing ideas about how old heirloom varieties should be or where they should come from, they also like to exclude any that were commercially available in seed catalogs, limiting their personal choices to those that are specific to a region or were passed down from one generation to another. Since I am a cheerleader for biodiversity, I like to plant all of those old-time varieties, celebrating especially any seed with a really good story. For instance, ‘Lazy Housewife’ bean was introduced around 1810 and is one of Seed Savers oldest beans. It was given this colorful moniker because it was the first snap bean introduced that was stringless. Or how about ‘Nebraska Wedding’ tomato, the ultimate love apple whose seeds are still given to Nebraskan brides as wedding gifts.
Another commonly agreed upon trait is that heirlooms are ‘open-pollinated.’ This means that these varieties can be grown true from seed and that future generations will be true-to-type. So any ‘Lacinato’ kale that is grown from collected and properly saved seed will look and taste like the original parent plant. More and more commercially grown vegetables are hybrids. Seeds saved from these varieties are unlikely to germinate. And even if it does, the new plants won’t display the same characteristics that enticed you to try it in the first place.
It is worth remembering that open pollination is anything but. Take squash and pumpkins. When left to their own devices, they will pollinate all over the place. You harvest what you planted, but saved seed will result in all kinds of mongrel plants, a few good and many really bad. Members of the Brassica family, like cauliflowers and cabbages will do the same thing.
A third trait is a big one for our gardeners-quality. What draws us to heirloom varieties is variety. We want tomatoes that taste like tomatoes, not something strip-mined in Florida. We want apples that evoke childhood memories. We want a truly juicy cantaloupe. Fruit in the grocery store may look picture perfect, but it often doesn’t taste like much. This is why we plant heirlooms.
To be fair, heirlooms can be a mixed bag. For some gardeners, all the fabulous taste in the world can be offset by pests that were unknown a hundred years ago. Hybrid plants are often disease resistant. And heirlooms can be quirky. Seeds germinate more erratically, some popping up right away, while the rest in the flat take their time. The new seedlings may have some pretty wacky growing habits. It’s okay. Plants are like people and I guess that some just need to express themselves.
But I say, “Go for it.” With a little advice from your friends in the Garden Center, you can find an heirloom variety that is particularly suited for your garden and your tastes. And you never know. In another hundred years, your great great grandchildren might be waxing poetic about the same tomato variety that you choose today. And you’ll be creating your own family stories.