What makes an heirloom an heirloom? As with anything else called an heirloom, it's old. Yet there seems to be much controversy as to how old a cultivar must be to be called an heirloom. One school of thought says a cultivar must be over 100 years old, another says 50 years, while still another group uses the year 1945, which marks the end of World War II, and roughly the beginning of widespread hybridizing. Although there doesn't seem to be a precise date or definition for heirloom plants, all of these authorities agree on this: A true heirloom is a cultivar that has been nurtured, selected, and handed down from one family member to another for many generations. Additionally, regardless of interpretation, ALL heirlooms must be open pollinated varieties, meaning they are pollinated by the wind, insects, or animals. This also means the seeds can be saved and will grow true to the parent plant, or "true to type" when replanted year after year.
There's a rich history that goes along with heirloom seeds that have been preserved from our past. I find it rewarding to grow seeds from far away places, brought over by immigrants, sewn into their hems when they came to America. These seeds were very important to them and a part of their heritage. It may have been nostalgia, or it may have been because they didn't want to part with such supreme qualities their plant possessed. Probably both. Some of these seeds have been passed down for hundreds of years and continue in popularity for their superior flavor, color, scent, production, shape and/or texture.
Above Photos Top left-Stock, Matthiola incana. Top rt-Okra bloom "Beck's Gardenville", Abelmoschus esculentus. Bottom left-Squash blossom "Japanese Black Futsu", cucurbita. Bottom rt-Feverfew, Chrysanthemum parthenium, Lower right-Siberian Kale,.
When growing heirloom seeds, whether you prefer flowers, herbs or vegetables (or some of everything), not only will you find a wider variety to choose from, but often, you will find them easy to grow. Many are also disease resistant, tolerant of extreme conditions, and very vigorous growers.
Flavor is another benefit and is what draws many gardeners to grow heirlooms. These are gardeners longing to eat a tomato that tastes like a real tomato, not one of those tasteless ones from the supermarket; or to have an ear of corn full of sweet juicy flavor. Once you begin growing your own vegetables, you will have a hard time going back to store bought, tasteless stuff.
When you discover your favorite varieties, you will want to grow them again, and soon you'll be wanting to save your seeds and share them with family and friends. Growing heirlooms and saving seeds is easy and fun to do. I'm not saying that heirlooms are always perfect, sometimes they can be quite quirky to downright strange. I've given up on seeds, when all of a sudden (after months) they pop up and start to germinate and grow.
Above photos Heirloom squash come in many wonderful and unique varieties.
Sometimes they just plain look odd; but that is part of the fun, I think. The heirloom tomato below looks like lips to me! They're as interesting to look at as they are full of flavor.
One thing is for sure, as so often happens to us gardeners, you will probably be hooked in no time.
Above Photos Summer veggies.
With heirloom flowers, there's also a wide variety of seeds out there. And let me tell you, so many of them are much more fragrant than their newer hybrid counterparts. What you get with these newer, more contemporary varieties in size, doesn't seem to make up for that wonderful perfumed original. The sweet old fasioned scent will add another dimension of beauty to your garden as well. Often times, these flowers are also more graceful and gorgeous than the newer breeds. If you are considering a cottage garden, or something more period oriented, you can find a wide array of period appropriate heirlooms.
Above Photos Left-Love-In-A-Mist, Nigella damascena Right-Sweet William, Dianthus barbatus
If you are growing bulbs, such as tulips or daffodils, there is a wide variety of heirlooms available (though these can be a bit more pricy). Bulbs are also rich with history, connecting back in time, like these beautiful daffodils below, "Rip Van Winkle" that goes back to 1884.
Also rich in history are these beauties grown by our friend, Wren, for over fifty years. They were handed down to her from her grandmother, "who had very green fingers."
Above Photos Top-Amaryllis "Fairy Tale", Bottom left-Daffodil "Grand Primo", Bottom Right-Summer Snowflake.
Part of the reason there is no all-encompassing definition of an heirloom plant, is probably because what seems to define an heirloom for one plant type, such as the daffodil, doesn't work for another, such as heirloom apples. And then to complicate things, heirloom apples and other fruit trees are open pollinated but they do not reproduce true from seed. These fruiting trees are grown from scions, or branches cut from a desirable tree, then grafted onto a sturdy root and trunk stock. You can certainly grow the seeds, but usually, the fruit will not come true to that of the parent tree.
I'm growing a few heirloom apple trees, "Spitzenburg"-NewYork, 1800; "Roxbury Russet"-Massachusetts, 1649 - the oldest known cultivar of apple grown in North America; Granny Smith, 1868.
When it comes to favorites, I'm still finding favorites that I want to grow every year. I keep finding new varieties to try, so my list of favorites will probably continue to change. Plus, I can save the seeds of what I grow each year and most of them will keep for years to come. Down the road, I can plant them again or I can trade them with another heirloom seed saver! But that's a whole other story; one that I will definitely talk about with all of you another time.
Until next time, stay sow happy.
Photo Credits: Thank you to the following for their photo contributions ~
LarryR-Larkspur & hollyhocks; Wren-Amaryllis, Daffodil "Grand Primo", Summer snowflake; Valleylynn-Daffodil "Rip Van Winkle"; Steven-Sweet William; Onewish1-Stock & Love-in-a-mist; Threegardeners-Feverfew; Dave-various heirloom squash
Heirloom bulbs, www.oldhousegardens.com/why.asp