What’s an heirloom? Something handed down. A watch maybe? A diamond ring? Your grandmother’s old clock, which somebody else broke, and you got blamed for? The thing that defines all heirlooms also distinguishes each one: its story. The story might be simple like who gave what to whom but it’s usually a lot more interesting because heirlooms are a gift of value and an act of love. What’s an heirloom? Something you don’t mess around with especially if somebody else already broke it.
What’s an heirloom plant? Now that’s asking a really hard question. Like other relics, heirloom plants are handed down. They have a story, a legacy. Unlike other heirlooms you don’t always get these from family members and they aren’t always gifts. You can buy these old fashioned plants at your local garden center. You can find their stories in books and on websites. Nurseries do a brisk business selling the latest old plants.
Seed and plant sellers use the term heirloom to describe old-fashioned plants grown before 1950. These plants continue to give season after season because you can harvest the seed and replant them. You can’t harvest the seed from modern hybrids they’re sterile but a forgotten patch of heirloom nasturtiums will suddenly reappear in spring. Those creamy orange and red blossoms are a gift from last season, an heirlooms’ heirloom.
Heirlooms are the plants that grew in your grandmother’s garden. They are the same plants that grew in the bungalow garden. These are the plants that graced the cozy cottage nestled in natures embrace. Relaxed plants like sweet smelling verbena spilling onto a pathway or wisteria hanging from an arbor. They had gigantic watermelons too. Remember those? Took two men to move them. We didn’t mind picking out those brown seeds cause you could shoot them at your sisters by squeezing them between your thumb and finger.
Parents used the cutting of the melon as extortion to make kids behave at a picnic, as in “Get outta’ that creek or you won’t get any watermelon!” Today’s parents sometimes have to threaten legal action to get kids to eat those seedless melons from the grocery. If you can remember back to when the promise of eating watermelon was enough to get a kid out of a creek then you can probably remember when heirloom plants were simply called plants.
1950 is the arbitrary cut off date for heirloom plants but the change happened gradually. Humans have bred plants for thousands of years. By 1850 physicians, scientists and Augustinian monks were systematically studying the natural world and publishing their ideas in tracts and pamphlets. There was an eager market for knowledge, after all plants were both food and medicine.
After a hundred years of Industrial Revolution, the Victorian English found themselves with something new, leisure time. Time was a luxury not to be wasted. Pamphlets in hand they threw themselves into gardening with a passion. In America, gardening was one of the few acceptable hobbies in Puritan and Quaker communities. But whether the breeders were amateurs or educated professionals they didn’t understand genetics. Mendel hadn’t finished tending his peas. As a result, heirloom plants are a bit more finicky.
By 1910 scientist were breaking the genetic code. At the time all those A&T universities actually did agriculture research. Seed companies used the research and expanded. In 1930 the Congress made it legal for companies to patent their new plants. Gradually patents made backyard breeders obsolete. 1950 is the cut off date for heirlooms because about that time plants changed rapidly and dramatically.
By 1960, when my family moved to our new home near Mooresville, Indiana we grew the new modern hybrid vegetables. Jetson vegetables. In the 1960’s we’d buy anything that was “new and improved”. With flowers it was a different story. They were mostly holdovers. They were heirlooms after all.
I don’t remember my Mother ever buying a plant but our yard was full them. Plant lovers love to share plants. She got her plant sharing tradition from her southern roots. We had Mrs. Kenworthy’s white peonies, Mr. Mountain’s bright red ones and Aunt Bertha’s brown and yellow iris. Mother’s garden is filled with heirloom plants, heirlooms in every sense of the word. Now I understand why she got so mad when I used to mow them down. “Those were flowers? I didn’t do it. I think Kevin cut those.”
One reason my Mom’s heirloom plants grew so well is that like them we had a limited range. There’s a limit to how far you can drive a ’57 Ford Fairlane with five adults and nine children and still make off with half your hosts backyard. Ever lose your seat to a clump of brown and yellow iris? They have laws against that now.
Why should heirloom plants have a limited range? They don’t all have a limited range but many do. That’s because the plants (mostly the vegetables) were bred by people in far-flung places and thrived in that specific location. They were bred for size and taste but often lacked the vigor to grow when the growing got tough.
Since starting this article I’ve asked about a dozen colleagues about heirloom plants. Their faces light up. Yes they’ve heard of them, they planted some last year! And how did they do? A little crestfallen here, well, not so well. They died. Or they produced a strange growth. Across the board they are eager to try again.
These are all experienced gardeners but they live in California. Many popular heirlooms were bred on the east coast. Out here we have different soils, less rain, lower humidity, even different pests and diseases. We also have spectacular heirloom gardens but with plants well adapted to the California lifestyle.
The popular heirloom tomato ‘Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter ’ was bred for a valley in West Virginia but sold everywhere. This season’s big seller is the Black Krim from the Crimea. Even experienced gardeners have to recalibrate their thinking. Heirlooms aren’t like Big Macs, the same from coast to coast.
Find a plant that will tolerate your gardens conditions and stay on top of it. One plant doesn’t fit all sites and you can’t plant and forget. Know your site. Find heirloom plants that interest you and will grow in your valley. Be willing to invest the time to tend and monitor the plants.
Heirloom plants and bulbs are a perfect fit for the bungalow garden. Used well they create a relaxed, informal look. They punctuate a landscape with splashes of color. The growth of new flowers marks the changing season. “The marigolds sure are looking good. Better clean up the grill for the 4th of July.” [Could use a Labor Day reference here]
What’s an heirloom plant? It’s an old fashioned plant with a story. It might be an annual that rewards your attention by returning year after year about the same time. It could be your great grandmothers vine ripe tomatoes or a melon so juicy you have to change your shirt after you eat it.
If you only remember one thing about heirloom plants remember this, know exactly where there are if you’re gonna mow the grass.