In the world of gardening, heirloom plants hold a special place, representing not just a variety of flowers, vegetables, and herbs but also a connection to our horticultural heritage. These unique and often rare plants have captured the hearts of gardeners for generations, offering a glimpse into the past and promising a bountiful harvest for the future.
Heirloom Plants: A Connection to the Past and a Treasure for the Future
Heirloom plants are varieties of plants, typically flowers, vegetables, or herbs, carefully preserved and passed down through multiple generations of gardeners and farmers. Their history sets heirlooms apart from modern hybrids, as they are often associated with specific regions, cultures, or families. These plants are open-pollinated, meaning they naturally reproduce and maintain their unique traits from one generation to the next.
One of the most famous examples of heirloom plants is the Brandywine tomato. It first came to my attention when I worked at Martin Viette Nurseries in the 1990s. Our phone rang off the hook with people curious about this heritage variety of tomato, carefully preserved by the Pennsylvania Amish. Since then, I’ve grown many heirloom vegetables, especially “Lincoln” peas (circa 1848 variety) and numerous lettuces. I love them and cherish their connection to history.
Examples of Heirloom Plants
I mentioned Brandywine tomatoes, which are probably the most famous. Here are a few more examples.
Scarlet Runner Beans
These vibrant, red-flowering beans are both ornamental and edible. They’ve been cultivated for their striking appearance and delicious pods. Scarlet runner beans are a prime example of an heirloom vegetable with dual utility.
Heirloom herbs, such as Mammoth dill, have their unique charm. Gardeners prize Mammoth dill for its flavorful leaves and seeds. I love it for its culinary uses, as well as its appeal to pollinators like butterflies and bees. It reseeds easily, too, especially if it’s happy with its location, so you often get a second crop in year two without any effort!
Why Grow Heirloom Plants?
Heirloom plants provide a connection to our cultural heritage and agricultural history. Growing these plants allows us to preserve the knowledge and traditions of our ancestors. It keeps alive varieties that may not have commercial appeal but have unique attributes. If variety is the spice of life, growing heirloom herbs, vegetables, and flowers adds much color, variety, and flavor to life (and the garden!)
Unique Flavors and Colors
Heirlooms often offer flavors and colors not found in modern hybrid varieties. They can introduce a sense of adventure and diversity to your garden and table.
One thing that few people consider is that the varieties of fruits and vegetables available at most supermarkets are very limited. Commercial growers choose varieties that not only grow reliably but also ship easily.
Take lettuce, for example. My local supermarket carries four varieties: Romaine, Iceberg, Red Leaf, and Green Leaf. “Gourmet” mixes and micro greens are available in bags or boxes, and that’s it. Nothing more. However, by some estimates, over 1,500 varieties of lettuce are cultivated worldwide. Not all are heirloom or open-pollinated, but can you imagine the taste? The texture? The color? Growing heirlooms offer much more than the same old thing on your plate!
Biodiversity and Suitability for Organic Gardening Practices
Planting heirlooms contributes to biodiversity in the garden. With modern agriculture focusing on a limited number of commercial crops, heirlooms help maintain a diverse range of plant genetics, which can be crucial for long-term food security.
Suited For Specific Regions
Heirlooms are often well-suited to specific regions and climates. By growing these plants, you can discover varieties that thrive in your local conditions and reduce the need for chemical inputs.
Resilient and Perfect for Organic Gardening
Many heirlooms have stood the test of time due to their natural resilience. They’ve evolved to resist pests and diseases without the need for extensive chemical treatments. They are well-suited to organic gardening practices.
By growing these plants in your garden, you enrich your horticultural experience and contribute to preserving our botanical heritage. Heirloom plants are more than just seeds; they are living links to our ancestors and treasures to be cherished and shared for generations.
Seeds for Heirloom Plant Lovers
Here are some of my favorite heirloom plant seeds. Baker Creek Seed company offers one of the best selections for mail order purchases too. Please note that I am an Amazon affiliate and earn money from sales through these links.
- Seed Needs: Scarlet Runner Bean Seeds
- Survival Essentials: 144 heirloom varieties packaged for long term storage (I’ve grown some of these and they are packed for storage)
- Open Seed Vault: 15,000 Non GMO and Open Pollinated Seeds
Books of Interest About Heirloom Plants
- Heirloom Seeds: Preserving and Growing by Amna Fadel
- Kentucky Heirloom Seeds by Bill Best
- Saving Seeds, Preserving Taste: Saving Seeds in Appalachia by Bill Best