Heirloom plants are most often thought of as old-time varieties of vegetables
that come true from seed. That means that they’re open-pollinated, so (assuming you don’t plant other cultivars that could cross-pollinate nearby) you can save seed from your plants every year for the following year’s garden. In addition to wonderful heirloom vegetables, most cottage-garden flowers and herbs
fall in this category, too. Of course, many plants have been lovingly passed down through the generations as cuttings, and even the hybrids that replaced most open-pollinated plants in commerce now boast some old “heirloom” cultivars of their own. But usually, “open-pollinated” continues to be the hallmark of herbaceous heirloom plants.
Some famous heirlooms have been sold and passed down in families or communities for hundreds of years; others date just to the early 1900s. What they all have in common is that backyard gardeners have prized them for their beauty, flavor, fragrance, or productivity. Because home gardeners thought highly enough of these plants to save seed from them year after year, we can still enjoy them today.
Heirloom fruits and vegetables are often not suited to large-scale production. Many types don’t ripen all at once so they can’t be harvested mechanically. They often don’t keep well during shipping and storage and many of them don’t have a consistent appearance. They may even look a little odd, like some of the warty-skinned melons or striped green tomatoes.
But heirlooms are often ideal for home gardeners. Many heirloom crops have a more pleasing taste and texture than their hybrid replacements, and many spread their harvest over a longer period so families can enjoy picking just what they need for each day’s meals rather than having to harvest a bumper crop all at once. If grown for years in one locality, the heirlooms have adapted to the climate and soil conditions
of that area and may outproduce modern cultivars. Others may be less productive than today’s hybrids, but offer greater disease and insect resistance, which is invaluable to organic gardeners. (On the other hand, some heirlooms are less resistant than hybrids bred specifically to resist particular diseases.) Heirloom plants also add interest to garden and table, with a wide range of shapes, colors, and tastes unavailable in modern cultivars.
Heirloom plants are also a tangible connection with the past. Like fine old furniture and antique china, the garden plants of earlier generations draw us closer to those who have grown them before us. Some heirloom cultivars have fascinating histories. ‘Mostoller Wild Goose’ bean, said to have been collected from the craw of a goose shot in 1864 in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, was once grown by Cornplanter Indians. ‘Hopi Pale Grey’ squash is a Pueblo Indian legacy that was almost lost to cultivation, and remains one of the most sought-after winter squashes. ‘Anasazi’ corn, found in a Utah cave, is thought to be more than 800 years old. And many gardeners have heard the story of ‘Radiator Charley’s Mortgage Lifter’ tomato, a huge, meaty cultivar that helped its discoverer, an unemployed mechanic, pay off his mortgage during the Depression.
Cultivars like these are eagerly sought by both gardeners and collectors, who maintain them for their historic value just as archivists maintain old papers and books.
As fewer seed companies remain in existence and those that survive offer a dwindling number of cultivars, there’s an even more vital reason for growing old cultivars: These open-pollinated heirloom plants
represent a vast and diverse pool of genetic characteristics—one that will be lost forever if these plants are allowed to become extinct. Even cultivars that seem inferior to us today may carry a gene that will prove invaluable in the future. One may contain a valuable but yet undiscovered substance that could be used in medicine. Another could have the disease resistance vital to future generations of gardeners and plant breeders.
The federal government maintains the National Seed Storage Laboratory in Fort Collins, Colorado, as part of its commitment to maintaining genetic diversity, but the task of preserving seed is so vast that the government probably cannot do a complete job on its own. Heirloom gardeners recognize the importance of maintaining genetic diversity, and many feel a real sense of urgency and importance about their own preservation work. Thanks to them, to seed companies that remain committed to offering open-pollinated heirlooms to the public, and to organizations like Seed Savers Exchange that are dedicated to maintaining diversity in the garden, the future of heirloom plants looks bright.
Getting Started: If you’d like to start growing heirloom plants in your garden, try ordering seed from small specialty seed suppliers that carry old cultivars. Also, you can contact nonprofit organizations that work with individuals to preserve heirloom plants, such as the Seed Savers Exchange. Some gardening magazines also have a seed swap column.