What makes a vegetable an heirloom? | #gardening

What Do You Need to Know About Heirloom Vegetables?

Heirloom vegetables are a popular option for home gardeners today. “Heirloom” marked on a seed packet is probably second only to “Organic,” in terms of popularity. But have you ever wondered what it really means?

Simply put, an heirloom variety is an old-fashioned version of a vegetable or other plant that you’ve always known and loved. Heirloom vegetables are the plants your grandparents and great-grandparents would have grown in their gardens. They existed before biotech companies were patenting seeds, and before anyone had heard of GMOs. Heirloom vegetables link us back to a time before anyone thought to ask if something was grown organically – before we’d even heard the word “agribusiness.”

Many people grow heirloom vegetables because they prefer the old-fashioned taste over the flavour of today’s commercial varieties – most of which have been bred for traits such as uniformity, a single determinate harvest, and the ability to withstand the rigours of shipping over long distances. Two other traits that mark an heirloom variety are its history and the fact that it is “open pollinated.”

What makes a vegetable an heirloom? | #gardening #veggies
Heirloom vegetables link us back to a time when everything was organically grown
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(Image made from a photo by Dumbony/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Unique Vegetables – with a History!

An heirloom vegetable is a variety of plant – called a cultivar – that has a fairly long and stable history. Unlike a more recently developed hybrid, the heirloom has looked and tasted pretty much the same for decades, and sometimes even centuries. And unlike the vegetables you buy in the grocery store, an heirloom variety generally has one or two unique features that make it stand out from the rest. It might be a red, yellow, or purple carrot. It might be a tomato whose skin and flesh are green when completely ripe. Or perhaps it’s a red-skinned pumpkin or a purple-podded bean.

Most of the heirloom cultivars were grown before the 1950s, and many of them are even older than that. Cherokee Trail of Tears beans, for example, were grown as early as the 1830s. Green Hubbard squash was introduced to the American seed trade in the 1840s but had been grown in North America since 1739. The Montreal market melon was widely cultivated in the 1880s and was later saved from the brink of extinction in the late 1990s. Oftentimes, the stories behind these heirloom varieties are even more interesting than the plants themselves!

Heirloom Vegetables Are Open Pollinated

Besides a long history, the other thing that makes a plant an heirloom vegetable is open pollination. This term is a bit misleading, but what it means is that the seeds can be saved from one season to another. Plants grown from the seeds of this year’s crop will grow true to type.

That means if your tomato is a large, pink-fleshed beefsteak and you save its seeds, that’s what the seeds should produce again next year. Open pollinated crops will reliably produce the same results year after year, allowing the grower to save – and trade – seeds from one harvest to the next.

“Open Pollinated” is another designation you’ll sometimes encounter when buying seeds or plant starts. This label can be applied to any hybrid that has been stable long enough to reliably reproduce true to type, as well as to any cultivar that has an established history of successful seed saving.

The main difference between a variety marked “Open Pollinated” and one marked “Heirloom” is age. Heirloom vegetables tend to have been around longer, though just as with words like “vintage” or “antique,” there seems to be little agreement about just how long a history a plant must have before it earns the status of an heirloom vegetable.

Original content © 2015, 2016 Kyla Matton Osborne, aka #RubyWriter

This is an expanded version of an article I originally published on the now-defunct site Elite Writers in January of 2015. It now appears on my food blog, 24 Carrot Diet. If you are reading this content anywhere else, it has probably been stolen. Please report it to me so I can address any copyright infringements. Thank you!

8 thoughts on “What Do You Need to Know About Heirloom Vegetables?”

  1. What a wonderful primer on heirloom vegetables. We have so many beautiful heirlooms here in Oregon, and when I can, I love to plant a few in our vegetable garden each year. Heirloom tomatoes are second to none!

    1. The ironic thing with heirloom vegetables is that we’ve gotten so used to just having one kind of everything, that we now tend to assume if a vegetable departs from that one standard description it must be GMO. I remember seeing a packet of Rainbow Carrot seed on Amazon a couple of years back, and several people were writing nasty comments about how it must be GMO because carrots only come in orange. Actually, the very first carrots in the world were purple or yellow. Orange is a relatively new colour, as these things go. And it, like all the other colours, was developed before we had the technology to splice genes.

    1. We don’t get too many different varieties in our local farmers market – although the greenhouse does sell a few heirloom tomatoes like Brandywine!

  2. Woohoo! I’m delighted to find another whole-food/real-food writer! Where have you been all my foodie-writing life? : ) Excellent, succinct article on difference between heirloom vegetables and most of today’s supermarket varieties.

    1. Kathryn, I’m very glad Lorelei steered you my way! I suspect we have a lot in common! It’s going to be fun to see what all of it is 😀

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