This article provides an overview on heirloom plants. After a brief definition of the heirloom concept, we discuss the benefits of growing and using heirloom plants as food. Thirdly, we provide an example of a heirloom plant variety. Finally, we provide some information on where to start in your heirloom plant growing journey!
What are heirloom plants and how are they different from other plants
Though there is no exact definition, we consider that plants can be qualified as “heirloom” if the cultivar (plant variety) has been developed over a few generations by individuals, per the Merriam-Webster definition.
“a variety of plant that has originated under cultivation and that has survived for several generations usually due to the efforts of private individuals” (Heirloom Definition & Meaning – Merriam-Webster)
In the context of plants, “heirloom” generally refers to plants from pre-industrial age. This is in contrast to more recent cultivars that have been developed by large, quasi-industrial farming conglomerates – either hybrids or GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms).
Secondly, these plants have to be open-pollinated. This means that the plants are naturally pollinated by insects (such as bees), birds, and the wind.
In the modern era, industrial practices have led to the over-standardization of plants by selecting only subsets of plants that would maximize profit and efficiency for a global food market. How is this different from the pre-industrial era: haven’t our ancestors optimized precious food resources as well? It is true that over the centuries, mankind has “optimized” agriculture by breeding the most productive plants to maximize production as food was scarce and famines were frequent! Optimization is fine and is perfectly human, as long as this optimization preserves diversification of needs and of ecosystems.
In the pre-optimization era, diversity was linked to the diversity of the local areas or terroirs, leading to a great diversity of heirloom plants that were very well adapted to a local population and to a terroir / family area. In the post-industrial era, only a few large corporations produce a substantial percentage of the world’s agricultural needs. With the development of refrigeration and relatively inexpensive transportation, agriculture became a vast global market where only a couple of standard plants become sufficient to feed a very substantial amount of the planet.
This has led to the elimination of 75% genetic diversity (Heirloom plant – Wikipedia).
Today’s modern agriculture has even accelerated this genetic optimization process by genetically modifying plants with the creation of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO).
What are the benefits of heirloom plants?
- Growing your own heirloom plants has massive benefits to your #1 asset: your health!
The American Heart Association recommends eating 4 to 5 servings of fruits and vegetables daily (Fruits and Vegetables Serving Sizes Infographic | American Heart Association). Vegetables help increase life expectancy and reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases such as high blood pressure. Fruits and vegetables provide necessary fibers, nutrients and vitamins.
By having many different types of plant varieties in your daily diet, you maximize the diversity of nutrients that your body absorbs. In addition, by diversifying the flavors of varieties of these heirloom vegetables and fruits you increase the fun of eating different foods! Healthy eating should not be in contradiction with tasting rich and savory foods.
- It also helps promote more sustainable and diverse ecosystem
The industrial revolution and the globalization of agriculture has led to the concentration of a handful of major agricultural leaders, reducing diversity of cultivars and increasing GMO agriculture. Promoting heirloom plants promotes biodiversity. Growing your own garden makes your family and your community more resilient. Communities that have vegetable gardens also help promote insect and pollinator diversity, which helps in turn make the food chain more resilient and stable.
- A couple of heirloom plants that we love
- Aunt Ruby’s German Green Tomato
One example of a heirloom tomato is Aunt Ruby’s German Green Tomato, as pictured below. This beautiful heirloom tomato takes its original roots from Germany and was then even improved by Ruby Arnold of Greenville, Tennessee. The fruit is ripe when touches of yellow colors develop on its delicious and thick skin. The tasty fruit can be savored in versatile manners: in salads, soups or even fried! This fruit can grow easily to 1 pound! This plant really enjoys sunny areas but needs to be sufficiently watered throughout the summer.
Originally from Germany, these were perfected by Ruby Arnold of Greenville, Tennessee. The skin will develop yellow highlights when it is perfectly ripe. A little known fact is that green tomatoes make the best fried green tomatoes! In addition, this tomato was the winner of the 2003 Heirloom Garden Show’s taste test.
Aunt Ruby’s German Green Tomato Seeds, © 2022, Ethos Seed Company
- Purple Ruffle Basil
This is a magnificent purple basil that was officially recorded as heirloom cultivar in 1984. This heirloom variety was bred by Ted Torrey. The plants are easy to grow and this basil can handle the summer heat quite well. You can make very nice pesto out of it or eat it fresh with great tomatoes. This basil grows to about 8 centimeters in length and 6 centimeters in diameter. This basil plant can reach up to 60 centimeters in height. Basil is rich in flavor and in nutritional value.
Purple Ruffle Basil © 2022, Ethos Seed Company
- How to grow heirloom plants?
© 2022, Ethos Seed Company
The first step to grow heirloom plants would be to find a good reputable provider of heirloom seeds.
One independent and small-business that sells heirloom seeds online is the Ethos Seed Company (https://ethosseed.com/). They sell heirloom vegetable seeds, herb seeds and flower seeds. The website also provides very useful tips and information about gardening and growing vegetables. This small business is woman-owned which is a great thing to encourage as well.
It has a diverse selection of seeds with the “staple” selections that include the following categories: tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, beans, carrots, squash, cucumbers and many more! It also includes rare seeds such as lunix lettuce seeds or Vates Blue Scotch Curled kale seeds.
Once you have ordered the seeds that you would like to plant, get ready to start a beautiful garden, and prepare for the right planting season. If you are not sure what to do, you can always connect with your seed provider who would be thrilled to help.