What is an heirloom plant?
Discover these beautiful plants.
If you have ever admired a pin or bracelet worn by a friend, you have probably heard the response, Thank you; it's an heirloom. Most dictionaries define an heirloom as an inherited object: Aunt Emma's pearls, Grandma's brooch and something passed from one generation to another with affection and treasured by the receiver. Since it's rare that one's share of an inheritance includes items from a garden, it's logical to ask, What is an heirloom plant?
The Science of Heirloom Plants
Gardeners and garden associations offer the following insights into the heirloom designation. An heirloom plant is open-pollinated, created by the natural visits of bees and birds rather than the human intervention that produces what we know as hybrid plants. Plants grown from the seeds of open-pollinated plants tend to grow true to type. That means that the seeds of a pineapple tomato will produce more pineapple tomatoes, sustaining the memorable flavor this tomato variety has always possessed but also requiring the particular extra care pineapples have always needed. Amateur and casual gardeners may find the extra work required for some heirlooms beyond their capacity.
Especially for the amateur gardener, hybrids have considerable virtue. Usually they contain the best attributes of at least two members of a plant family consolidated in a single, new cross-bred variety. The new hybrid will most likely have larger and more abundant blooms than its parents. Resistance to pests and diseases, greater height, more attractive foliage, longer growing season and the ability to withstand drought or excessive moisture are also attributes that hybridizers work to produce in new strains of plants. Better than ever, Foxfire II or a cross of Blanche and Blanca are frequent reflections of the hard and patient work of hybridizers. Commercial nurseries offer a wide variety of hybrid plants, counting on their reliable performances to please both neophyte and experienced gardeners.
Fruits and Vegetables
Hybrids, rather than heirlooms, represent the bulk of commercially-grown fruits and vegetables. They've been bred for their ability to withstand the rigors of shipping, uniform size and predictable ripening times. These varieties yield a predictable and reliable supply of produce for supermarkets both in and out of season.
Yet recently, more and more purchasers of fruit and vegetables see the shortcomings of commercially-raised hybrids. Farm stands and city green markets have educated a new generation of locavores, people who pursue heirloom produce as part of their efforts to eat and support the growers of fruits and vegetables that have historically flourished in their local region.
Passing Them On
The historical definition of what is an heirloom plant varies from plant to plant, region to region, and even from gardener to gardener. Anyone who has moved to a small settled community and wondered how long they will have to live there before neighbors cease to call their house the old Smith place will understand the concept of variable history. For some garden organizations, 50 years of true-to-type growth qualifies a plant as an heirloom. For others what is required is that more than 100 years of sustained and documented growth is an heirloom plant. What is true of all heirlooms is that they have been passed from generation to generation with affection and pride.
Old Strains of Plants
If old strains of plants require more care, what is so appealing about growing an heirloom plant? Gardeners who succeed have a long list of reasons. For what are commonly called old roses, one of the reasons is fragrance. Growers must put greater weight on other attributes like uniform bloom size or durability in a variety of temperatures when they're hybridizing roses for large-scale commercial production.
The delicacy that prohibits commercial growers from producing large amounts of some other flowers may be the quality most prized by heirloom growers. For fruits and vegetables flavor and variety top the list of attributes that stimulate heirloom gardeners to extra effort. An heirloom vegetable gardener will rave about the flavor of his Brandywine tomatoes and the squash once grown by the Sioux. With luck he or she will support the enthusiasm with a taste or a handful of saved seeds.
Befriending an heirloom gardener is only one way to begin producing heirlooms in your own garden. Local garden clubs, historical societies, green markets and commercial nurseries can serve as sources for what is an increasing variety of heirloom plants and seeds. Seed-saving networks, organic-gardening organizations and specialized nurseries make heirloom plants available in many regions of the country.
Some heirlooms, like jewelry, can come only from family. Heirloom plants are bequeathed by gardeners to all new enthusiasts. The best way to honor their gift is to grow and enjoy the heirlooms they have left to a new generation.