As the saying goes, everything old is new again. So it unsurprising that heirloom vegetables and flowers are having a moment, and for good reason.
The New Oxford American dictionary defines an heirloom as “a valuable object that has belonged to a family for several generations,” which accurately describes these horticultural treasures. Heirlooms are plant cultivars (cultivated varieties) which have been grown for decades, even centuries, and their seeds saved and passed down through families or communities.
These cultivars are often associated with a particular region, cuisine or culture. Heirlooms are always open-pollinated, which means they will come true from seed. Many have unique flavor, appearance, fragrance or color not found commercially.
How old does a cultivar have to be to be considered an heirloom? Some experts say it is those that existed prior to 1951, when the first hybrid vegetable cultivars were developed. Others define it as any cultivar dating to 1940 or before.
Ask a farmer and you might get a looser definition. Dorene Pasekoff and her husband Frank Desimone own Hill Creek Farm in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, where they’ve grown heirlooms, specialty produce and seeds since 2012. “I consider an heirloom a plant that’s open-pollinated and has stood the test of time,” Pasekoff says.
She’s not strict about dates. “I’m a little squishier with that. There was some good open-pollination breeding in the 1970s, which was a while ago now, that I call heirlooms. I think the age thing is misplaced.”
“Heirlooms just taste better, especially those that are locally adapted,” Pasekoff says. By locally adapted, she means to Pennsylvania’s soils and climate, and that the plants will flower and fruit within the length of our growing season.
Heirlooms have a lot more going for them than simply adaptation. They are time-tested, with intense flavors that surpass anything at the supermarket. They are often more nutritious. You can save the seeds and grow the variety in the future (as long as the crop isn’t cross-pollinated), which saves money. And growing heirlooms helps preserve biodiversity and history.
Take, for instance, the Aleppo pepper from Syria. “We’re growing it because of the Syrian civil war,” Pasekoff says. “Farmers there can’t grow them. We don’t want the seeds to disappear, so we and others grow them so seed will be preserved. Plus, it’s a great pepper. It’s doing really well in PA.”
There’s a romance to heirlooms because of these histories. An iconic story is the tomato called ‘Radiator Charlie’s’ Mortgage Lifter. M.C. Byles from Logan, West Virginia owned an auto repair shop, hence the nickname ‘Radiator Charlie’. An enthusiastic amateur plant breeder, he kept crossing the biggest tomatoes he could find until he bred one that averaged 2 ½ pounds with terrific flavor. He sold seedlings for a dollar each in the 1940s, and people came from all over to buy them. He made so much money that in six years he was able to pay off his mortgage.
When it comes to heirloom tomatoes, Pasekoff has plenty of recommendations. “I grow Oxheart types instead of Romas for my paste tomato,” she says. “Oxhearts are so much bigger. I don’t peel my tomatoes, but if you do, go to Oxhearts, because you will do less peeling. You get more tomato and very few seeds. And you can’t go wrong with San Marzanos.”
Another favorite is Zhong Shu #6. “It’s from China, and is exactly what people think of when they think tomato: round, red, tastes like a tomato, good slicer,” she says. “It is extremely disease resistant.”
Heirlooms may not be right for every gardener in every situation. Some varieties are not as disease resistant or drought tolerant as hybrids, and yields may not be as large. Heirloom seeds or transplants aren’t always readily available, and it can be difficult to locate particular varieties. And they can be less reliable and harder to grow. “If you are worried about yields or disease, then go with hybrids,” Pasekoff says.
But not all heirlooms are prima donnas. “Many locally adapted tomatoes are disease resistant”, Pasekoff says. “Heirloom winter squash do really well, resistant to wilts and squash bugs. The ‘Long Island Cheese’ pumpkin, I always get a crop. Tastes really good, and resistant to squash beetles.”
It’s not just vegetables that are heirlooms. Flowers can be, too. The seeds of poppies, pansies, zinnias and dozens of other annual flowers have been saved and passed down through the years. In fact, it was the effort to save her grandfather’s morning glory, a deep-purple flower with red marks in the throat, that in 1975 prompted Diane Ott Whealy to found Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving heirloom varieties connecting a vast network of home gardeners.
Heirloom flowers can help you have a successful garden. Pasekoff has added flowers at the ends of her vegetable rows. “Plant alyssum, dill, daisies, cosmos, zinnias near your vegetables,” she says. “Good bugs like nectar and pollen. They will hang around and pollinate your vegetables if you have flowers.”
Mail order sources for heirloom seeds include Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Truelove Seeds, Seed Savers Exchange and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.