What are heirlooms?

In the general sense of the term, we all know what an heirloom is: an item passed down from generation to generation. An ornate wooden trunk that belonged to your great great grandfather during the Civil War. A hand-carved violin from the Victorian Age. They have a quality too special to be forgotten.

IMG_6610It’s the same with heirloom seeds. The “true” definition is open to dispute, but the term usually applies to fruit or vegetable varieties being grown before World War II. This was a time when agriculture was completely localized and decentralized (can you even imagine?), when regional and cultural differences inspired significant plant variety.

Why grow heirlooms?

For those of us who foster sentimental value in our lives, heirloom seeds play to our love of stories and the past. There’s something intrinsically fascinating about the “olden days” — a way of life long gone. Heirlooms allow us to stay connected to our history. You can buy carrot seeds developed by Massachusetts farmers in 1886, or squash varieties from seeds carried in the pockets of immigrants traveling to America in 1820. Crazy, right?

Planting heirloom seeds also protects biodiversity. Instead of relying on one seed, where a disease could wipe out the entire plant variety, heirlooms ensure that our favorite fruits and vegetables live long into the future.

UntitledOkay, sentimental value, biodiversity — that’s all wonderful and true. But there’s another reason to grow heirlooms. One that proves “heirloom” isn’t just a fluffy term tacked onto the tomato salad on a restaurant’s menu.

So what’s the biggest reason? Taste.

You can’t beat the sweet and tangy punch of a red-green heirloom tomato compared to a bland beefsteak from the grocery store. After all, heirlooms were developed at a time when people took great care and pride in growing their food. And because produce wasn’t being shipped thousands of miles, there was no need for a pear to withstand bruises or be a standard size.

Simply put, taste was king.

Finally, heirlooms are open-pollinated, which means you can replant an heirloom seed years later — and get the same result as the first plant that was ever grown. For a how-to on planting seeds, see here.

In the end, heirlooms have an intrinsic quality that can’t be beat. Like the surreal feeling of holding the very same string of pearls your great great great grandmother wore on her wedding day, with an heirloom plant variety, you’re literally eating something straight out of the past.

So will you grow heirlooms?

Stay tuned for a blog about the pros and cons of heirlooms vs. today’s hybrid varieties.