What is an heirloom vegetable?
With the resurgence in popularity of “heirloom” vegetables over the past decade or so, I receive a lot of questions about what separates them from regular vegetables. In this edition of Full Circle Explains, I’ll break it down as simply as possible.
There are three cornerstones of heirloom cultivars: age, pollination type and quality.
Heirloom Cultivars are Old
Unfortunately, it’s not quite as simple as “heirlooms are at least XX years old,” because the use of the word to describe fruits and vegetables is fiercely debated among agricultural circles.
One side of the argument believes there is an actual date point in history that delineates heirloom varieties from their modern counterparts. Further divided, this group doesn’t agree on when that date point is. Conservative heirloomists—I’m not sure if that’s a real word—claim that true heirlooms must be at least 100 years old; and while this seems like a long time, it’s not a stretch by any means, as some heirloom varieties are believed to be pre-historic. On the other end of the spectrum, a generally accepted time period by many modern gardeners is the late 1940’s, with anything created after 1951 not considered heirloom.
The completely other side of the argument believes in a more fundamental definition of the word heirloom, and interprets these varieties as those that have been carefully nurtured, selected and handed down within families for many generations, regardless of age.
Whichever side of the debate you find yourself on, heirlooms are old.
Heirloom Cultivars are Open-Pollinated
Open-pollination is pollination by insects, birds, wind or other natural mechanisms—without human intervention. As opposed to some hybrid varieties, which can be sterile, heirlooms can be grown from seed in successive generations and will perfectly propagate the species (this is called “true to type”).
Because heirlooms are open-pollinated, they are often not suited for large-scale production: they don’t ripen at the same time and cannot be mechanically harvested, they don’t keep well during shipping and storage and they don’t have a consistent appearance.
Heirloom Cultivars are High-Quality
The saying, “they don’t make ‘em like they used to!” certainly applies here. What has recently drawn many gardeners (and consumers) to heirlooms is the high quality. The best heirlooms have amazing flavors and are tender, sweet juicy and delicious.
The bottom line is that decades of breeding to produce modern hybrids have sacrificed taste and nutrition for durability. Developing shelf-stable, easy-to-transport produce caused other qualities to be diminished, which is why it can be difficult to find heirlooms outside of Farmers Markets.
Similarly, commercial growers have spent years attempting to increase the yield of each plant. This process spreads out the available nutrients between more vegetables, creating produce that is typically less nutritious than comparable heirlooms.
Hybrid vs. Genetically-Modified (GMO)
I briefly mentioned hybrids a few moments ago and I think it warrants further explanation. Hybrids are different from GMOs.
Hybrids are created through cross-pollination between different varieties in an effort to produce offspring that maintains the best traits of both parent plants. This carefully controlled pollination can increase size, yield, disease resistance and flavor. This is a natural process, albeit facilitated by human intervention.
On the other hand, genetically-modified plants are the result of scientific engineering, a process during which a plant’s DNA is altered in a way that cannot occur naturally—sometimes including the insertion of genes from entirely different species. This is not a natural process, although it is not inherently bad in theory. A discussion for another day…
As an independent farm, Full Circle grows several heirloom varieties and partners with farmers across the West Coast to provide members with access to some really cool heirloom varieties (Purple Cherokee Tomatoes anyone?). Grocery stores don’t usually carry heirlooms so your next best bet is the local Farmers Market.
If you’d like to grow your own, try specialty seed stores or nonprofit organizations that specialize in preserving heirlooms. And remember, these plants represent a vast and diverse pool of genetic characteristics that will be lost forever if they are allowed to become extinct.
I’d love to hear about your experience with heirlooms. Share your thoughts in the comments.