What is the definition of an heirloom plant? What makes an heirloom plant an heirloom?
There is no all-encompassing definition of an heirloom plant. This is partly because what seems to define an heirloom for one plant type (such as a daylily) doesn’t work for another (such as an apple tree). It all depends on the horticultural history of each plant type.
Let’s use these two plants as an example. Heirloom apples (or all fruit trees) are frequently defined as those varieties that can be dated to the times prior to ubiquitous use of the refrigerated boxcar. The theory behind this is that refrigerated boxcars brought about the development of fruit genotypes that are focused on surviving the rigors of travel, not focused on flavor. So an heirloom apple could date to well before the discovery of the New World, up until the mid to late 1800’s. But daylily history is very different. Through the early decades of the 20th century, the only daylilies in cultivation were three pretty boring common varieties. This changed rapidly in the 1930’s with the start of daylily breeding. As noted on our Daylily page, there are today over 45,000 named varieties. “Heirloom Daylilies” are now loosely considered to be those that were introduced prior to the 1970’s.
Some gardens, particularly those focused on growing vegetables and annuals, will take the “open pollination” definition, as has the Smithsonian Institution:
“Heirloom plants are open pollinated plants that were once commonly grown from seed. These plants were and continue to be passed down from generation to generation, thus increasing the available gene pool. They come back true-to-type; in other words, the next generation of offspring directly reflects its parenting generation.”
With this definition, the Smithsonian’s heirloom garden utilizes plants that have been in cultivation up until the 1950’s. It is interesting to note that although this definition works for vegetables and flowering annuals, it would never work for apples. All apple trees (even heirloom apples) will never grow true-to-type!
A subgroup of the open-pollination definition is called a “family heirloom.” Family heirlooms are called such because they have been continually replanted, year after year, generation after generation, by the same family. In these situations, we’ll frequently hear them referred to as “Grandma’s potatoes,” or “Grandad’s squash.” A family heirloom could be an old named commercial variety, but the name has been forgotten. Or, it could be an old variety that was developed (or discovered) by the family ancestor, and passed down through the years.
Why Grow Heirlooms Plants?
Heirloom gardening has become extremely popular, because it touches on a wide variety interests. Some of the most common reasons for growing heirlooms are:
Better Flavor and Fragrance. Any tomato lover will tell you that store-bought commercial tomatoes were obviously developed for properties like disease resistance or heavy yields, rather than flavor. And contemporary rose varieties, although beautiful, never seem to have the heady fragrance of Grandma’s roses. The same goes for many other vegetables and flowers. Fans of heirlooms will argue that many of the best tasting crops and most fragrant blossoms come from heirloom plants.
Extreme Variety. When we are not limited to just the “latest and the greatest,” we can draw from a list of plant varieties accumulated over generations of plant development. To use the tomato example again, you’ll be astounded by how many varieties are available. And the list is growing.
Frugality. Before heirloom gardening became popular, seed saving didn’t seem worth it. Naysayers claimed that seeds are the cheapest part of gardening. (Why go to that effort?) But seed prices are creeping up. By saving seed each year of old varieties that grow true to type, an heirloom gardener can develop quite a bountiful garden of remarkable diversity.
Horticultural history. Any gardener that has an interest in antique furniture inevitably becomes interested in heirlooms. Homeowners of historic houses frequently want to adorn their landscapes with historically appropriate plants. And consider this: If you knew your great grandfather planted and nourished a beloved lilac that bloomed gloriously each year with giant bracts of fragrant blossoms, wouldn’t you want a to grow a genetic duplicate of that same lilac? See? Now you’re hooked on heirloom gardening too!
How may I research and compile an historically inspired landscape for my historic home?
This requires both research and judgment on your part. Usually, the age of your home can be established through public records. This will give you the time span during which your home has existed. But the time span you choose to base your garden on is up to you.
If you’ve ever visited historical sites, you’ll recall that some museum directors liked to decorate specific rooms to specific time periods. These “period rooms” have received criticism. Although it’s nice way to categorize the museum’s collection, it inherently results in unrealistic displays. Just as most homes today aren’t decorated around one specific “period,” it’s unlikely that our ancestors decorated their homes in this way. As home décor fashion changed, our ancestors (like us) furnished their homes with a mix of newer or older items that spanned more than one or two decades, or more. (Is your refrigerator still avocado green?). The same went with their gardens.
One approach for your landscape may be to pick a general time span during which your home has lived, and base your garden on that era. If your old house has delicate gingerbread details, you may want to base your garden on Victorian era plants. If your town was active in the Underground Railroad, you may want to focus on pre-Civil War plants. Another approach may be to use only those plants available at the time your house was built.
How may I obtain Heirloom Plants?
One fascinating way of obtaining heirlooms is to hunt them yourself. This Heirloom Orchardist first heard of heirloom hunting back in the 1980’s, when the popularity of heirloom gardens was building steam. In that case, a local historian/gardener was visiting old cemeteries or home sites to find specimens of heirloom roses. After obtaining approval from the land owners, she’d take cuttings, and try to identify her finds once she’d grown them out. It sounds like fun, but it requires a lot of work, dedication, knowledge and time.
Another clever gardener who was interested in his family history, researched the location of his great grandfather’s home. When he drove by the old house, he noticed it had an ancient leggy lilac growing on the grounds. Knowing that lilacs are classic old landscape plants grown by our ancestors, he knocked on the door of the house, and inquired. Sure enough, the current owners confirmed the lilac had existed when they bought the house 40 years prior. He went home with a dug “sucker” of his great grandfather’s lilac.
But heirloom plants can be obtained in much simpler ways. It’s good to befriend heirloom gardeners, because they tend to be very generous. Local garden clubs and historical societies (such as the Smithsonian) are great sources for an increasing variety of heirloom plants and seeds. Many internet sites (such as this one) focus on educating readers about historic gardening, and will direct you towards historically documented heirloom plant sources.
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