What Does "Heirloom" Mean and is it Worth it?

man holding produce in field
Heirloom tomatoes

Many people are familiar with the term “heirloom” in reference to those oddly shaped tomatoes or purple carrots at the farmers market.

But that’s just the tip of the heirloom iceberg! There are thousands of heirloom varieties of vegetables and fruits. Some of the better-known ones include Brandywine tomatoes, Hubbard squashes, Moon and Stars watermelons, and French Breakfast radishes.

What are heirloom plants, and are they any better than their hybrid counterparts?

Heirloom varieties are older cultivars that are open-pollinated. This means that If you save and process the seeds from your favorite heirloom tomato, when you plant them the following spring, the same cultivar will grow “true to type.” In contrast, commercial seeds, which are generally produced through hybridization, will not produce offspring that look like the parent generation.

What’s the big deal?

  • Have you tasted them? Many heirloom varieties are superior in taste and more vividly colored than their hybrid counterparts.
  • Ideal for home gardeners. Varieties that are adapted to a specific region or climate often produce more than non-specialized commercialized seed in that area. Many are also more resistant to disease, insects, and other pests.
  • Preservation of genetic diversity and food security. As the number of seed cultivars continues to dwindle, the pool of genetic characteristics is drying up. Genetic diversity of our crops is an invaluable asset for the security of our food system.
  • Control over our food supply. Seeds of commercialized hybrid plants cannot be regrown, and thus we rely on seed companies (which are quickly being consolidated into just a few) for seed distribution. Not so with heirloom varieties!
  • No genetic modification. Guaranteed.

Be a part of the heirloom revolution! By purchasing heirloom seeds for your garden and choosing heirloom fruits and veggies, you increase demand for heirloom seeds. This leads to increased supply as well as continued preservation of those heirloom cultivars for many generations to come.

— By Renna Khuner-Haber, Bastyr dietetic intern, and Amy Frasieur, MS, RD, core faculty in the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Science at Bastyr University.

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Heirloom tomatoes

What Does "Heirloom" Mean and is it Worth it?

Be a part of the heirloom revolution! Heirlooms taste better, are adapted to local growing conditions, and can improve the security of our food system.

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