What Makes An Heirloom Valuable?

Baker Family Heirloom Tomato

In this day and age of gardening, the term “heirloom” is very popular. There is some confusion as to, exactly what an heirloom is, and perhaps just as much confusion as to why heirlooms are valuable. There are several reasons we can explore.

Many heirlooms have superior characteristics.

They may be more insect repellent, or have better flavor. Some heirlooms tolerate conditions that “mainstream cultivars” don’t handle very well. The fact that a variety has one of these characteristics could well make it very worthwhile to grow for some people, or it might become a genetic contributor to a new and improved variety.

Related article: David Shields on Why the Ark of Taste Matters

Remember, however, that being an heirloom does not insure that a variety tastes better than another. There are some varieties, even hybrids, which have superior flavor. Sometimes an heirloom survived long enough to be called that, because it could produce when others could not, but that’s not a guarantee of flavor. Other times an heirloom may have made it because it tasted so darned good that folk just kept growing it, even though it didn’t produce much at all. For example: here in Oklahoma many people grow Cherokee Purple tomato, yet, in our climate, it rarely produces a sizable crop. People grow it because they adore the flavor.

Almost all Heirlooms can be Reproduced Indefinitely

This is a wonderful advantage of any heirloom. If it wasn’t so… the heirloom variety wouldn’t exist. Heirlooms are almost always “standard,” or another term would be “open pollinated,” which simply means that they generally breed true from their own seed. This, of course, is true as long as they don’t cross with another nearby plant of the same species. Because heirlooms reproduce indefinitely one can do a number of things with an heirloom:

  • Select and improve on it. Just plant a lot of that variety and save seed from the very best plants.
  • Share seed with others.
  • Make it your own “heirloom,” meaning, with time, you may well accumulate a history with this variety, adding to your gardening and culinary pleasure. Most of us know accounts of things someone’s grandma used to grow. That can be a rich heritage!

    Calico Willow Leaf Pole Lima became my heirloom because I got to add to its story. “The story” is one of the main reasons why heirlooms are valuable. Let’s talk about “the story.”

A major reason why heirlooms are valuable is “their story.”

Every heirloom has a story: how it originated, who grew it and how , where it grew, how was it used and perhaps even how it survived to the present day. Some heirlooms have unique flavor or texture because the were used in special dishes, “back then.” One of the main reasons why heirlooms are so valuable is that they flesh out, or give color, to the cultural history of those who grew them. For instance, Many grow Cherokee Trail of Tears pole bean because it helps them to better grasp the historical event of the Cherokee Trail of Tears. This bean was carried by Cherokee people, over that difficult journey and eventually offered to the world by Dr. John Wyche, a Cherokee and a member of the Seed Savers Exchange. There’s a certain awe to being able to stand by a patch of these beans and think of the ones who originally selected it and carried it to Oklahoma.

Cherokee Trail of Tears Pole Bean
Cherokee Trail of Tears produces Kentucky Wonder Type pods and beautiful/plentiful black seed.

An heirloom vegetable is like a living, reproducible souvenir from the past.

Have you ever visited a historical site and looked at the souvenirs? Many times, especially as a kid, I remember wanting something authentic. But, those arrowheads weren’t real. The nick knacks usually had “Made in XX” (you fill in the blank) on the back. What a disappointment! Yet, when I hold seed to a real heirloom, it’s the real deal!

Three final points:

  1. An heirloom variety may or may not have the qualities to make it desirable, inherent in its makeup. This means that it may be so good you’d grow it, even without knowing the history behind it.
  2. A standard, non-hybrid variety may not have any kind of glamorous history behind it, yet be well worth growing for its own merits.
  3. Hybrids are not usually reproducible, but they can be delicious, nutritious and practical. If you like a hybrid, don’t feel guilty about growing it. It’s okay.

Do you have a favorite heirloom variety? We’d love to know about it and why you choose it.


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