The Definition of an “Heirloom” Plant

Red Zebra Heirloom TomatoesSo you’ve heard a lot about how great heirloom plants are, but what is an heirloom plant anyway? An heirloom plant is a cultivar that used to be commonly grown and eaten in human history but is no longer widely available due to today’s practices of commercial agriculture.


Commercial farmers grow monocultural crops, meaning one gardener grows only one variety of a plant. They also grow varieties that will ship easily and look appetizing – attention to flavor is not high on the list; this is why tomatoes from grocery stores are generally all water inside and have no flavor. Growing heirloom plants in home gardens and in urban balcony gardens is very popular today because heirloom vegetable varieties are much more rich in flavor than commercially produced foods. Heirloom varieties, if grown in the same region where they originated, have adapted to the climate and soil and are better able to resist the local garden pests, diseases and weather than commercial seeds purchased from your local garden center.

There really is no strict definition of what an heirloom variety is. Some say they are direct descendants of plants that have been around before the 1950s when hybrid plants were first developed. Others go back to the 1920s and earlier. And just because a plant is old doesn’t mean that it is automatically an heirloom. Commercial varieties are often discounted (not always) and only regional cultivars passed down through the generations are considered true heirlooms. A hybrid plant is never considered an heirloom. Remember to keep plants that do not self-pollinate far apart from each other (not doable in a balcony container garden) or keep them caged or bagged so they do not cross-pollinate and create hybrids.

Why not try go searching for some heirloom seeds and growing these historic plants in your garden this season? Go online and search for groups that trade seeds or get some heirloom seeds from family members or other people you know. Remember that heirlooms do best when kept in the same general location as where the plant was originally grown, but over time, whatever seeds you get may gradually adapt to your growing conditions.

Read about some great heirloom cultivars to grow in your garden>>

Read about how you can save and store seeds>>

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