Extension Educator, Horticulture
Heirloom describes something warm and grandmotherly. Something kept in a cedar chest that seldom sees daylight until the caretakers move. Heirlooms are often on a carousel of rediscovery, repacking and disregard for another decade or two. However, heirloom seeds are a living, breathing link to our past and may also be a pivotal key to our future.
Which plant varieties are considered heirloom is open for debate. However many people agree they are plant varieties available before 1951 when commercial hybrids became available. Heirlooms may be commercial heirlooms from well known W. Atlee Burpee to the hundreds of now defunct companies that once provided seed in the 1800's and early 1900's. Or they may be family heirlooms. Seeds passed down through generations.
Most immigrants to North America did not come with treasures of gold in their pockets, but treasures of a botanical nature – seeds. Seeds so important they were sewn into the hems of dresses or into the brims of hats. Immigrants experienced a full spectrum of emotions from fear to hope to delight; emotions that vacillated with every ocean wave during their long voyage. They had the security of seeds from their familiar garden plants as they planted a new life.
Native Americans knew the rhythm of rain and the cycle of the seasons. From torrential rains to thirsty soils plants had to survive and produce in order for their caretakers to survive. Native Americans saved the seeds that grew best and provided the most for their corner of the world.
Another common attribute of heirlooms is open-pollination. With open-pollinated plants the seeds produced from the promiscuous pollinating of bees yield plants that are fairly similar to the mother plants, the grandmother plants, and the great grandmother plants. Not the exact copy of grandmother but close enough you could pick the grandkids out of the yearbook. Gardeners can save seed from year to year of open-pollinated plants.
In contrast with hybrids people manipulate crosses between plants of often highly diverse genetics in order to get certain traits such as disease resistance, flower color, plant size or vegetable taste. If seeds are saved from hybrid plants the next generation of plants would be wildly different compared to their mother plant.
Heirloom or hybrid plants that naturally cross-pollinate such as members of the squash family (summer and winter squash, pumpkins, cucumbers and melons) add another wrinkle to saving seed but that is another story.
Heirloom seeds are beyond garden whimsy. Heirlooms contain a diversity of genetic material that can be lost if we rely solely on hybrids. Genetic variation with its possibilities of adaptability is essential for long term survival of the plant as well as us. As areas of the world become hotter, drier or wetter, our food plants will need the variety of genetic information to adapt to new climates or survive from attack of new diseases or pests. Fortunately groups such as Seed Savers Exchange and Seeds of Change are working to keep a living legacy of seeds.
Heirloom plants often have fascinating histories. For example 'Dr. Wyche's Yellow' tomato according to Seed Savers Exchange (a non-profit, member supported organization that saves and shares heirloom seeds) the late Dr. John Wyche owned Cole Brothers Circus which overwintered in Oklahoma. He fertilized his gardens with elephant manure and scattered lion waste to keep out deer and rabbits. Luckily that is not a requirement to grow this one.
Names are sometimes not so politically correct as in 'Lazy Housewife' snap bean named because it was the first snap bean that did not require removing the string.