The Q&A Archives: Defining Heirlooms

Question: Please define the term "heirloom vegetables" and why they are so special.

Answer: Heirloom vegetables are those old, open-pollinated varieties that have stood the test of time. The best of them are among the finest vegetables ever known. They would be well worth growing for their mouth-watering flavors alone, but they also have other important qualities. Heirlooms are living artifacts. Popular in living history exhibits, these old-time varieties offer a glimpse of life in earlier times. Heirlooms are also a reservoir of genetic diversity. Traits encoded in their DNA may someday prove critical to feeding the world.
And there is more. Heirlooms invite passion. There is just something about all their wonderful shapes, sizes, colors, and flavors that sparks a sense of wonder. Take heirloom tomatoes, for example. They can be big, small, fluted, smooth, red, orange, pink, purple, yellow, green, white, striped, round, pear-shaped, determinate, indeterminate, potato-leaved, and more. They also vary in traits you can't see--taste, hardiness, adaptability, and the like. While tomatoes may be the most popular heirloom, many other vegetables are just as diverse. Peppers come in all kinds of colors, sizes, and shapes. So do corn, beans, kale, eggplant, squash, lettuce, potatoes, and nearly all the other crops.
Today, seed companies and seed savers offer literally hundreds of heirlooms. Some are standard varieties that have never been superseded. Others were popular once, but disappeared from the seed trade. Many of these would have been lost, but seed-saving gardeners kept them alive. Still other heirlooms never made the big-time. They were regional or family favorites, passed down by generation after generation of gardeners rather than sold by seed companies.
Heirlooms have their special places in the gardens of many dedicated gardeners. Perhaps you'll grow some, too. Burpee's Heirloom Catalog is loaded with flowers and vegetables of all kinds. Request a copy online at, or by phone (800) 888-1447.

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