What exactly are heirloom plants? That is a tricky question to answer simply because gardeners differ on the precise definition.
There are two traits that most heirloom plants have in common:
- A long history.
- The ability to breed back true to type (in other words, not hybrid).
Also, many heirloom plants have been developed over the years to thrive in specific environments.
Although it seems as if, based on the above characteristics, defining the word heirloom should be fairly black and white, nothing could be farther from the truth. For instance, “a long history” means one thing to one person and something else to another:
- Over 50 years.
- Over 100 years.
- Before 1951, the time that hybrids became common.
- Before World War II and the era of victory gardens.
The main idea, however, is that an heirloom plant is one which has stood the test of time.
One of the main advantages that heirlooms offer is the fact that they breed true. A gardener can save seeds from his heirloom vegetables and know exactly what he is getting. When he saves hybrid seeds, he may like the results, and then again he may not. In some cases it is not legal to save hybrid seeds, because many hybrid varieties are patented or otherwise legally protected.
But seed-saving gardeners are not the only ones who are attracted to heirloom plants. Some love them simply because they are old-fashioned. Heirloom fruits and vegetables can offer that taste that was only found in Grandma’s garden. Heirloom flowers have a nostalgic look and fragrance.
And, of course, if you just want something a little different than what you can buy at the store, an heirloom offers a great alternative.