Heirloom Explained

Heirloom fruits and vegetables are popping up on store shelves, restaurant menus and even home gardens. So what does it exactly mean to be an heirloom?

September 6, 2013

Heirloom fruits and vegetables are popping up on store shelves, restaurant menus and even home gardens. So what does it exactly mean to be an heirloom?

An heirloom plant, heirloom variety, or heirloom vegetable, sometimes called a heritage plant, is an old cultivar (some say over 50 years) that is "still maintained by gardeners and farmers particularly in isolated or ethnic communities".  They may have been commonly grown during earlier periods in human history, but are not used in modern large-scale agriculture.

While people have been talking about heirloom vegetables for more than a decade, and heirloom tomatoes are piled high in farmers markets and some supermarkets, they have yet to reach an agreement on exactly what an heirloom variety is. So far, experts in the field agree that heirloom vegetables are old, open-pollinated (meaning they rely on natural pollination from insects or the wind) cultivars. In addition, these varieties also have a reputation for being high quality and easy to grow.

How do heirlooms continue through generations? Just as you’d expect, over time, growers save the seeds of their best plants (just as you would your favorite antiques or family heirlooms) - whether those are the most vigorous, disease resistant, flavorful, or beautiful. With unique shapes, sizes, and colors, heirloom plants often look different from the bulk of fruits and vegetables we are used to.

While heirloom tomatoes grab lots of attention due to outstanding flavor, a wide range of other produce seeds come in heirloom varieties, including 'watermelons, onions, bell peppers, kale, okra, leeks, tomatillos, garlic, carrots, cucumbers, squash, herbs, beans and more,” according to The Daily Green.

So what are some common heirlooms you might find in your local market?

When it comes to heirloom tomatoes, Brandywine, green zebra, Cherokee purple, lemon boy and marvel stripe are delicious and quite common among the heirloom tomato crop.

What about potatoes? Potatoes come in all different shapes and colors. Heirlooms include, the Rose-Finn-Apple, ashes of the soul, black cap, blue, yellow flower and much more.

Summer time is also ripe for heirloom melons, which include: Amarillo oro, banana, Crenshaw, honey rock, sweet passion and more.

The lists for the various heirloom plants go on and on, so get out there and try a new type of tomato, potato or other heirloom today. Fans of heirlooms will argue that many of the best tasting crops come from heirloom plants.

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