heirloom question

wiringman(ZONE 4)January 7, 2010

what is the definition of heirloom plants.

how does a plant need to exist before it becomes a heirloom.


Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo


there is no definition of heirloom. Everybody uses the term, nobody has ever come up with a binding definition.

Here are some of the attempts at a definition:
A family heirloom is a cultivar that has been passed down through several generations within one family. It has not been for sale and not spread far and wide outside the family, but has been in continued cultivation. The 'Rose Family bean' is such an example. Even though you can now buy this bean from Bill Best's Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Centre. As modern family life changes and people move to towns without gardens, these family varieties are at great risk of dying out with the last person in the family who grows them. By the time a younger family member remembers, it is often too late to find viable seeds.

There is a second definition which states that a heirloom variety must be at least 50 years old, or must have been in cultivation at a time before widespread hybrids started up in the catalogues. This definition includes commercial varieties in addition to the family heirlooms. Some of these old heirloom commercial varieties are still in catalogues today. Many people do not realise how old some of these varieties are. The Landreth seed catalogue contains many cultivars of this type. Sadly a much greater number of once popular commercial varieties have fallen out of favour, for no good reason. They are good varieties, just no longer fashionable. This category is at great risk too. Whilst many more people once grew a certain variety, which they bought year after year from commercial seed sources, this variety can disappear very quickly again. A family heirloom variety is being kept alive because its seeds are being saved from generation to generation. A variety sold by a seed merchant goes to a much wider group of gardeners, but not on the whole to gardeners who save seeds, These gardeners rely on the seedhouse providing the variety and when the seedhouse drops the variety, it becomes at risk. You read quite often in catalogues that xxx has been superceded by yyy and frequently xxx was a heirloom and yyy is a hybrid.

A third definition calls every variety 'heirloom' that is open pollinated (ie not hybrid, not genetically modified.) In some cases to hide the fact that the variety is actually quite newly developed - the heirloom label sells! I have often heard the term applied to Thomas Wagner's Green Zebra tomatoes or to Dr Baggett's Cascade Giant beans. These varieties are so popular that they will surely one day become true heirlooms, but at the moment they are modern, open pollinated varieties. Heirlooms of the future perhaps.

Hope this helps. Bear in mind though that this is my attempt at a definition, others may see it differently.

Here is a link that might be useful: Landreth Catalogue

    Bookmark   January 8, 2010 at 6:58AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Concur. Best explanation I have seen to date.

    Bookmark   January 8, 2010 at 1:40PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
spiced_ham(z5 OH)

Because Heirloom generally means non-hybrid on seed sites, "Heritage Variety" is a term sometimes used to describe old, family developed varieties having some kind of history. But if this term catches on as a sales pitch it won't be trustworthy either.

    Bookmark   January 8, 2010 at 4:05PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

I'm somewhat knowledgeable about plants, but I'm just getting familiar with active gardening culture and propagation. This is a great explanation for me to start with with. Thanks for the question and the answer!

May I cross-post on that other site (DG)?

    Bookmark   January 11, 2010 at 9:14PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
wiringman(ZONE 4)

hooray galina,

you have nailed it well.

when i was a young boy we saved seed from every thing. i am 66 now so i guess we had heirlooms.

i don't know what we called the tomatoes but they we yummy!

i recall the corn was golden bantam.

when we planted peas we dug a trench about a foot deep. we put raw chicken doo in the bottom 2" and then 4" of soil and then 4" or composted cow doo and then soil to plant the peas. when the roots hit the cow doo they grow a foot over night. most people say shicken doo is too hot but because it was do deep when the roots hit that stuff the peas went wild. we used 6'chicken wire for them to climb and they went over the top.

now i am lucky to get 3' peas.

thanks for the input folks.


    Bookmark   January 11, 2010 at 10:09PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

we used 6'chicken wire for them to climb and they went over the top. now i am lucky to get 3' peas.


Yes I can well believe that the peas just loved that rich soil. But there may be another explanation. And again that is variety choice. With commercial pea planting and harvesting by combine harvester came a preference for the shorter varieties. The tall varieties have to be harvested by hand. And this meant that it is now more difficult to find the older, much taller varieties in the seed catalogues.

Now if you could remember the name or describe the type, you might still find the 6ft plus peas from your youth. Alternatively, there are some tall peas available for shelling or for snap pods and snow peas. For example Tall Telephone from Baker Creek seed for shelling and snowpea Golden Sweet.

Heirloom seeds url below have even more tall varieties for example Alderman, Amish Snap, Sugar Snap.

Carouby de Maussane from Cooks Garden seed supplier are 5ft plus tall with 6 inch pods.

Unfortunately the catalogues don't always list the height. I find that the earlier I can start the seeds, the taller my peas grow and I follow the recommendation to start them when the forsythia starts flowering. I do however start them off indoors and transplant a month later. But that is just the way I am doing it. I will follow your recommendation and give them some chicken doodah this year and see what happens.

Here is a link that might be useful: Heirloomseeds

    Bookmark   January 15, 2010 at 7:52AM
Sign Up to comment
More Discussions
Squash identification
Anyone able to ID this squash? Got it from a friend...
Rotten spots on my heirloom tomatoes
My Cherokee purple and my Arkansas Traveler's tomatoes...
black Siam tomato
I am growing a Black Siam Tomato this year and as with...
Bottle brush seeds
Lady in Spain interested in purchasing bottle brush...
Mary Ellen Lynch - CA
'Pregnant Onion' houseplant
Does anyone have any information on this plant? It...
Val - 8
© 2015 Houzz Inc. Houzz® The new way to design your home™