Defining Heirloom Plants
According to Burpee, when defining heirloom plants, “the term is usually applied to fruit, flower or vegetables varieties that were being grown before World War II”. These plants have had generations to develop the characteristics that give their fruit flavor, the plants natural growth habits and, unfortunately, this sometimes leaves the plants susceptible to disease.
Heirloom varieties are open-pollinated meaning that mother-nature does most of the work. Plant a grouping of seeds of an heirloom pepper or tomato and you will collect seeds that will produce plants with most of the characteristics of the parent plants. Considerations should be made for bees coming to your garden after having visited your neighbors’ gardens adding a bit of variance – but that may be good. Heirloom vegetables may produce a “mixed bag” harvest. The harvest may come in less predictably, and fruit size can vary greatly even on the same plant.
One of the main reasons I like to garden with heirlooms is you are growing a plant that is an extension of nature. Heirloom seeds are generations in the making. Nature has established the characteristics not a scientist. When growing with heirloom seeds, harvest some seeds to use next year and for sharing with family and friends to add diversity of choice for everyone’s garden and bring diversity in the natural gene pool.
Most heirlooms are not archaic plants that some adventurer discovered after fighting off hungry cannibals, as Burpee describes it: “Many heirlooms are commercially-bred varieties from the seed catalogs of the 19th and early 20th Centuries.” If you have never attempted to grow heirloom plants, give it a try, you may find flavors and plants you like.