Heirlooms: Not Just Your Average Family Jewel

By Allyson Koerner 

You may be asking yourself, “What in the world is an heirloom?” 

Well, according to Dictionary.com, an heirloom is “a family possession handed down from generation to generation.” Some think of heirlooms as family jewels, books or artwork, but have you ever thought of an heirloom as a seed? 

Just like family jewels, seeds can be passed down from generation to generation. As a result, heirlooms can exist in the form of vegetables, fruits, meats and flowers. 

Yet the definition of an heirloom varies from person to person. Seed Savers Exchange (SSE), a non-profit organization that specializes in preserving and collecting heirloom seeds, defines an heirloom as any garden plant that has a history of being passed down within a family, just like pieces of heirloom jewelry or furniture. 

According to John Torgrimson, a media correspondent for SSE, some say a seed has to be at least 50 years old to be considered an heirloom.

Cauliflower, Early Snowball, First grown in 1888 Photo Credit: Seed Savers Exchange

Cauliflower, Early Snowball, First grown in 1888 Photo Credit: Seed Savers Exchange

For Sara Gasbarra, the children’s program chair at Green City Market (GCM), an heirloom is something more than 100 years old cultivated a long time ago.

Helen Mount (Viola/Pansy) Photo Credit: Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Helen Mount (Viola/Pansy) Photo Credit: Johnny’s Selected Seeds

“The ones that weren’t easy to cultivate back then, they are the heirlooms,” Gasbarra said. “They are not really cultivated anymore in mainstream farming and have become popular, because they are rare and unusual.” 

According to Susan Anderson, a product technician for Johnny’s Selected Seeds, “heirlooms can be 40 to 50 years old or handed down from generation to generation; there is no selection process to it.” 

The uniqueness and rarity of heirlooms has started to spark interest among communities, Gasbarra said. Heirlooms are becoming more popular and can be found at farmers markets, in your average retail stores like Home Depot and Whole Foods and even online.

Sweet Pea, Grandiflora Mixture Photo Credit: Seed Savers Exchange

Sweet Pea, Grandiflora Mixture Photo Credit: Seed Savers Exchange

Tomatoes, such as Brandywines, are the number one talked about heirloom, Anderson said. However, many others exist including squash, pumpkin, lettuce and potatoes.

Brandywine Tomatoes Photo Credit: Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Brandywine Tomatoes Photo Credit: Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Heirlooms can date all the way back to the Mayflower, Gasbarra commented. GCM is lucky to possess the Mayflower bean that traveled on the Mayflower. 

Just like animals, heirlooms can become extinct. Creating awareness about heirlooms is one way of preventing extinction. 

 “Seeing them [heirlooms] on the shelves in stores helps and generates interest to keep them around,” Gasbarra noted. 

GCM promotes heirlooms through its Heritage and Heirloom Project where local vendors at farmers markets put up signs providing information about heirlooms they sell. GCM even has a sponsored community garden containing 100 percent heirlooms. Gasbarra noted this is a great way to promote and keep the interest of heirlooms without them going extinct.

Herb, Bee Balm, used by Native Americans and Replaced black tea during the Boston Tea Party Photo Credit: Seed Savers Exchange

Herb, Bee Balm, used by Native Americans and Replaced black tea during the Boston Tea Party Photo Credit: Seed Savers Exchange

“I think it’s really important to preserve the gene pool for future generations to make sure we keep all the genetics alive and all these vegetables successfully grown to keep them around so they don’t get lost,” Anderson said. 

To make sure heirlooms stay preserved, Anderson suggests giving seeds to organizations like Johnny’s Selected Seeds or SSE that can store them in a safe environment.

Costata Romanesco Italian Zucchini Photo Credit: Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Costata Romanesco Italian Zucchini Photo Credit: Johnny’s Selected Seeds

“In my personal experience, I think the most exciting thing is to learn the story and background about heirlooms,” Gasbarra said. 

Kids can even enjoy heirlooms too, Gasbarra commented. “They [heirlooms] are so unique, gorgeous and taste amazing that kids want to try something that looks fun.” 

To learn more about heirlooms check out the USDA’s Guide to Heirloom Varieties.

Share