What Are Heirloom Vegetables?

Walk into any gardening store, or visit a farmer’s market, and you’ll see heirloom vegetables everywhere. But, why is there this sudden peaked interest in growing heirloom varieties, and what are they? Does it really make a difference what type of seeds are used to grow vegetables? For the sake of our environment, the safety of our food systems, and our taste buds, it is absolutely an important choice.

Heirloom Seeds: A Definition

An Albino Bullnose pepper plant produces sweet cream-colored peppers with a taste you’ll never find at a supermarket. Thomas Jefferson is attributed with first bringing them to America, but they had been grown and traded around the world for hundreds of years before that

In general, any heirloom, like furniture or silver, is something of value that has been passed on from one generation to the next. The value is ascribed by the family or individual and saved for others to enjoy. In the same way, seeds are saved and passed on because they produce a particularly flavorful fruit or are incredibly productive, or they grow well in a specific climate. While there isn’t one definition for heirloom seeds, some key elements determine if a seed is an heirloom.

  • If the vegetable variety was developed before 1951, it is considered an heirloom. After 1951, hybrid seeds hit the market and changed the way plants are grown.
  • The seed has been passed on through families or groups for generations in local or regional settings.
  • There is a clearly defined history of the seed. A lot of heirloom vegetable varieties can be traced back for hundreds of years.
  • Heirlooms are open-pollinated. The seeds produced from an heirloom plant can be planted to grow the exact same vegetable variety again.

Heirloom seeds are not automatically organic; the words do not mean the same thing. However, many heirloom varieties are grown organically.

Why Are Heirloom Vegetables Special?

One of the biggest reasons heirlooms are so valued is because of their history. To be selected, saved, and passed on for such a long time means that they offer something other seeds do not. For instance, a variety of pepper that grows quickly, abundantly, and prolifically in a generally difficult climate is valuable. Or, it can be as simple as a carrot that is purple instead of the classic orange. The heirloom provides something unique and advantageous.

The majority of heirloom vegetable varieties are treasured because they’ve been tested for decades and even centuries. In many cases, the path to developing these stellar seeds was a long one with lots of failures and mishaps along the way. Many heirloom seeds have been lost over the decades because the seeds weren’t saved. This is a travesty, to say the least. Those lost plants may have been the perfect disease-resistant melon, or pest-resistant cauliflower, or cold-hardy peach. Heirloom varieties are valuable in countless ways.

The Top Three Benefits of Heirloom Vegetables

  1. Flavor – This is the number one reason that gardeners plant heirlooms. If all you’ve ever had is vegetables from the grocery store, you’re missing out. The variety of tomatoes alone is astounding, not to mention size, color, texture, juiciness, and flavor depth. It is the same for every vegetable. Heirloom seeds open up the possibilities for all-new taste experiences.
  • Adaptability – Because these seeds are the result of decades of propagation, the genetics are more robust. Seeds evolve over time, and the longer they are in use, the longer they have to build up their adaptive skills. Many heirlooms build up a natural immunity to regional pests or stresses. Heirloom seeds also can adapt to new locations and climates.
  • Open-Pollinated –  Open-pollinated simply means that the plants are pollinated naturally by bees, butterflies, and birds. When a plant is open-pollinated, the seeds can be saved to produce identical plants. A seed from an heirloom cucumber will produce that same cucumber plant and fruit every single time. Saving seeds also means saving money because you don’t need to buy new seeds every year. All heirlooms are open-pollinated; however, not all open-pollinated seeds are heirlooms.

Heirloom vs. Hybrid: What is the Difference?

Hybrid seeds made their debut in 1920’s but didn’t become entirely commercialized until the 1950’s. A hybrid seed is created by artificially combining two plants of the same species to create an entirely different variety. For example, a corn variety with long ears crossed with a corn variety with abundant kernels and short ears produces a long-eared corn with lots of kernels. Hybrids are an incredible way to harness the best, whether it be taste, disease-resistance, or productivity.

The downside to hybrids, though, and it’s a big one, is that you can’t save the seeds. Seeds produced by the hybrid, if planted, will not grow the same superior vegetable. This means that seeds must be purchased new every year.

In the beginning, hybrids were developed for better taste and longer shelf life. In modern times, hybrids are vastly different. Think of the flavorless tomatoes available in the supermarket year-round. These are hybrids, bred to encompass the “perfect” tomato shape and color. Yet, they completely lack flavor. This tomato is not a superior option; it is designed to be easily mass-produced, survive long transports, and look good on a shelf so consumers will buy it.

Not all hybrids are bad. Many are developed to combat specific diseases or mature faster, so they can be planted in areas with short growing seasons. Or, so they can be brought to market quicker. This is vital for many farmers. For the home gardener though, growing heirloom varieties is exponentially more interesting, nutritious, and delicious.

What Are Heirloom Vegetables? Four Unforgettable Examples to Scratch the Surface

  • Watermelon: The ‘Moon & Stars’ heirloom watermelon features a dark-green rind with whimsical bright-yellow small dots (stars) and larger yellows spots (moon). Flesh of this melon is dark red, extra sweet, and packed with flavor. Fruits grow up to 40lbs. This variety was thought extinct until a gardener in Macon, Mo, contacted Seed Savers Exchange and gave them some seeds. Now, it is a popular heirloom around the country again.
  • Lettuce: An heirloom from the 1700’s and a favorite of some founding fathers, ‘Tennis-ball’ lettuce is pale green with a buttery taste and texture. This lettuce produces small, loosely compact heads and is praised for how easy it is to grow.
  • Pumpkin: The ‘Rouge Vif d’Etampes,’ also known as the Cinderella pumpkin, is a stunning French heirloom. The pumpkins are deep burnt-orange colored, flat, and deeply ridged. This heirloom is perfect for pumpkin stews, curries, and stir-fries.
  • Sweet Pepper: The ‘Albino Bullnose’ heirloom pepper features a less elongated shape compared to modern bell peppers and pale alabaster flesh. The taste is mild, sweet, and subtle in a way traditional peppers can’t match. This variety literally grew its way all over the world – native to Central and South America, ancient trade carried this pepper to Europe and Asia before none other than Thomas Jefferson re-introduced it in America. This dwarf bush pepper is a very popular offering when included in our kitchen counter plan.

When you think of what to include in your garden, consider all the benefits heirlooms offer. From taste to adaptability, these unique seeds are worthy of being treasured. Growing vegetables is never boring with heirloom seeds, and you can count on The Plant Dad to help make discovering heirlooms easy and exciting through any of our professionally designed and curated plans.

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