‘Moon and Stars’ watermelon, ‘Dad’s Mug’ tomato, and ‘Belgian White’ carrots may not be familiar to you, but ‘Casaba’ melon, ‘Brandywine’ tomato, and ‘Danvers Half Long’ carrots probably are. Their common thread weaves horticulture and history together.
Heirlooms can be recognized by three traits: first, the plant must be able to sustain itself by its own seed. Second, it must tell a story about where it came from and who grew it. Third, the variety must have been introduced at least fifty years ago. Gardeners have always saved seed because they like how a variety tastes and how it grows locally. Seldom was the same bean grown in Vermont as in Texas; that’s ecodiversity. In recent years, more plants have been hybridized and genetically manipulated for market qualities like long shelf life and shipping strength.The surging popularity of heirlooms comes as a response to both the search for better tasting homegrown food, and a serious interest in maintaining diverse plant strains.
Controversy has erupted over heirlooms for several reasons. Fifty years seems arbitrary, (why not 45?) and some hybrids have been stabilized so they grow from their own seed (Sweet 100’s cherry tomato). The question of historic context seems irrelevant to some; critics ask why they should care. And the idea of saving every strain of every plant doesn’t make sense to others. The biodiversity proponents insist that we cannot know now what value the heirlooms should be maintained for their future possibilities. But most intriguing is the growing division between those who grow heirlooms and those who grow hybrids, as if both weren’t desirable.
Gardeners grow heirlooms for taste, ecodiversity, and because of their stories. Colonists brought seeds, settlers grew and improved them, pioneers took them farther; all found other open-pollinated varieties to spread around. When you grow them, you continue that proud tradition. Hybrids meet the needs for abundantly productive and disease resistant plants faced by an urban world that must eat to survive. Give them a hundred or so years, and many will be legendary. Plant a garden for the millenium: seek out local favorite heirlooms, and keep in tune with the latest releases, too.