Facts and Tips about Heirloom Plants

Facts and Tips about Heirloom Plants

"Did you know that 80% of the plants that were available at the turn of the century are no longer available to us?"

As a child I remember sitting with my grandfather on the back porch eating tomato sandwiches. The tomatoes were huge and the air was filled with a tangy, tart smell that tickled your taste buds long before your first bite. As an adult I remember ordering a BLT, in a chrming restaurant in Charleston, SC. When my sandwich arrived I gawked at the tomato that was the size of a slice of bread and as I inhaled I could almost hear my grandfather laughing as that tangy, tart smell reached my nostrils. I looked at the waiter and said "These tomatoes..." He replied, "Oh, yes ma'am we only use heirloom vegetables and herbs here." And just like that, poof, a whole new world of gardening opened up for me.

To be considered an heirloom, the plant itself (be it vegetable, fruit, herb etc.) must be open-pollinated, or able to produce seeds that will come back true year after year. You will find as you delve deeper into the world of heirloom gardening that many heirloom plants come with humorous names and usually a touch of folklore such as the "Mortgage Lifter" tomato or the beautiful flower named "Kiss Me Over the Garden Gate".

There are 4 different classifications of heirlooms:

  • Family heirlooms, the most common and well known. These are seeds that have been passed down from generation to generation.
  • Commercial heirlooms - the open pollinated varieties that were offered commercially until approximately the 1940's.
  • Created heirlooms - the result of deliberate crossing of 2 known hybrids or an heirloom and a hybrid.
  • Mystery heirlooms - the result of the natural crossing between 2 heirlooms where only 1 parent is known

In the past few years we have seen a renewed interest in the plants that our ancestors held so dear, and rightly so, but why? There are several different theories. The first being that the resurgence of gourmet foods and restaurants have been able to bring a new appreciation to the strong flavors and wide array of colors and textures available in these older varieties. The second theory, the new millennium evoked such a mistrust towards future food supply within the public as a whole, more and more interest came to the plants that could provide seed that would come up true year after year, without interference from us or commercial nurseries etc . . . The third theory, after many years of dealing with mass crops of corn, soybeans, potatoes being wiped out by a single blight or bacteria, we have finally begun to understand the importance of genetic diversity.

Jennifer Heer, a good friend of mine, is a Genetic Research Assistant at North Carolina State University. I posed the question to her as to why she felt so strongly towards maintaining heirloom plants, and this was her response:

"Anytime I think about heirloom ANYTHING, I think about genetic diversity (of course). There are all these genes in a plant, and some you like and some you don't and some you have no idea what they do because they are "quietly" important. Important in ways we don't know. If we let some herbs "fall out of favor" and push them to the side or even go EXTINCT, we are losing something that we can't find again and LATER it might be important, medicinally, for drought tolerance, for pest tolerance, etc. It's like fighting to save the world's endangered species, only it's not species, it's GENES and we can't even describe them yet so that makes it even harder."

I, on the other hand, I'm not that complex. My reason for getting so involved in heirloom gardening is simply that I cannot imagine these plants leaving this world. I want my children to be able to experience what it is like to go into the garden and find a delightful "Moon and Stars" watermelon, painstakingly gather the seed after delighting in the sweet taste, and saving those seed to plant next year.

My grandfather grew luffa for years. I remember walking with him on the cold days of October and November and checking the luffa to see if they were dry enough to harvest yet and then watching in absolute amazement when he peeled the skin back and there was a sponge! I thought that these seed had died with him. As I was chatting with a neighbor of mine I mentioned this story and he replied, "Oh, your granddaddy gave me some of those about 10 years ago. I still grow them, want some?" He went out into his garage and came back with a dried luffa just ready for me to collect the seed and replant! Wonderful.

Whatever your reasons may be to want to save these plants, whether it is maintaining genetic diversity, bringing a touch of nostalgia into your garden, or to be able to pass part of your garden on to others, you will be greatly rewarded with the outcome.

In an article written by a member of the Seed Saver's Exchange a few years ago it was stated "80% of the plants that were available at the turn of the century are no longer available to us." When I first read that, I paused and had to read it again. How can that be so? How could we have let 80% of those plants fall to the wayside?

Thanks to many of the commercial growers and associations like the Seed Saver's Exchange, almost 1,800 varieties that existed solely in collections or as family heirlooms are now available again commercially. I have included a few web addresses if you care to learn more.

Seed Savers Exchange: a great organization that is assisting in the cultivation of heirloom plants by growing some of them themselves but also teaching others about the importance as well as the how to's of heirlooming.

Natural Land: wonderful website containing much information on organic growing and the beauty of heirlooming.

Underwood Gardens: a beautiful website with great ideas and commentaries on being a "Gentle Grower" as well as offering heirloom seed options.

About the Author:
My name is Elizabeth Harwick and I have lived in a small sailing community in North Carolina for the majority of my life. My love for herbs and all things gardening began when I was about 3 years old, helping my father plant watermelon seeds. Ours was a very small, family farm and we did not have complex farming equipment. I was the seed-sower. One day when I finally got up the courage to ask why exactly it had to be ME that planted an acre of watermelon seeds (1 3/4" apart) my father looked at me calmly and said "Well, you're closer to the row." Thus, began my garden journey and my lesson that to maintain a garden you must also maintain a sense of humor. Thank you for joining me in my journey.

About this Author