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Aug 19, 2008 01:31 PM

"Heirloom" varieties

When did the term "heirloom" (for varieties of produce and other foodstuffs) come into common usage? I remember first coming across it at Phipps Ranch in Pescadero, where they grow an amazing assortment of hard-to-find bean varieties. That would have been about 12-15 years ago. Lately I seem to hear/see the term everywhere.

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  1. I first heard the term through Seed Savers sometime in the mid '80's. I didn't hear it used else where until maybe 95-97 perhaps, and that was usage by serious gardener friends. Not until the last 7 years did I start hearing it with some regularity in markets or restaurants.

    1. For many decades in the 1900's, vegatables, fruits and animals have been bred for industrial agricultural production. Meaning that they had to produce high yields and ship huge distances, as well as other reasons. Creating food with flavour was not at the top of the breed improvement list.

      Lately, as shopping locally becomes more important, many people are learning that heirloom varieties, that do not ship long distances, are fantastic in flavour and come in huge varieties of shapes and colours (and breeds when it comes to livestock). The wonderful thing about heirloom varieties making a comeback is that we are preserving their genetic diversity to protect against diseases that can devastate our monocultured, genetically identical crops and livestock.

      1. To clarify, I know what "heirloom" means, I'm just trying to get a sense of when the term took off, as it were.

        Actually, I'm not so sure I know what it means. Just looking online, I see several competing definitions, e.g.
        -- plants grown from seeds handed down generation to generation
        -- non-hybridized, open-pollinated plants
        -- plants bred before modern hybridization techniques

        Some people seem to use the term to refer to any variety not grown on an industrial scale. To add to the confusion, I've seen varieties of livestock described as "heirloom" as well.

        3 Replies
        1. re: jlafler

          I'd say the term has been around for quite a while, but took off in the past decade when more people learned about it. I think your three main points are the definition of an heirloom plant. However, just because a variety is not grown on an industrial scale does not, or should not for some people, make it an heirloom variety. For example, most varieties of tomatoes grown in backyards are hybrids developed recently, but that does not make them heirlooms.

          Check out American Livestock Breed Conservancy to learn more about heritage varieties of livestock.

          Just as heirloom plants, these breeds do not do well under industrial farming practices, but do well under traditional methods. Unfortunately, many are on the verge of extinction.

          1. re: jlafler

            jlafler, re those 3 definitions, the second (open-pollinated plants) is something pretty much everyone agrees is essential. The other two seem to say pretty much the same thing: the plants have been around for a while. Sounds good to me, but exactly how long? The third definition is not helpful in this regard. When did "modern" hybridization techniques come into use, and since heirlooms are not hybrids, why should that date matter?

            To make things even fuzzier, many heirloom varieties have real or apocryphal family histories, like: first grown by Charlie X and sold at his road side stand during the depression. So, to some extent it's just a marketing term, and one that pops up more in recent years as people pay more attention to what they eat, and what goes into what they eat.

            1. re: jlafler

              I take heirlooms to mean just generally older plants. It does not mean they were not originally hybrids. If you continue refining a hybrids genetic traits, it may become its own distinct variety after a number of generations. For example, just about every variety of heirloom tomatoes we have today was once a hybrid.

              Open-pollinated plants are not always heirlooms. It just means that they are not hybrids. Their genetics are stable enough to ensure that descendant plants are the same types as the parents (assuming no cross-pollination with other varieties). Hybrids are unstable; their descendants are not guaranteed to be similar.

            2. I first read about heirloom plant varieties in Organic Gardening Magazine in the mid '80s.

              1 Reply
              1. "Heirloom" is a term of the moment that is being thrown around by just about everyone, in many cases trying to be with it I suppose, but if it ever had a hard and fast meaning it has surely gotten lost. Like "natural."

                The original idea seems to have been that there is some sort of dividing line between the old ways of breeding varieties of plants and animals ("good"), and newer ways ("bad"). But of course plant and animal breeding has been going on for centuries, and there really is no particular point at which one can say that techniques came in that caused things to go from "good" to "bad." In most cases those "heirloom" varieties were themselves bred by somebody using selection techniques to emphasize traits deemed desirable. Hybridization and other techniques are generally thought of as one mark of the new "bad" ways of breeding new varieties, but these techniques are old too. In the case of foods, breeding in the last several decades has been done to bring out characteristics advantageous for large-scale production, with less emphasis on palatability, and this seems to be the crux of the issue. Varieties created prior to this period are deemed "heirloom," but it's really a shorthand expression and not valid scientifically.

                I do not believe in fact there is any hard and fast definition that one can apply to particular varieties to say which is "heirloom." Apparently any variety that has been around a while (e.g. before the speaker was born) and tastes good is fair game for being dubbed "heirloom."

                As to when the term came into vogue, obviously it was a gradual process but I agree it has exploded in the last few years---fashion is what it is. If you have a friend in the news business, have them do a Nexis search and graph the results. Report back here.

                2 Replies
                1. re: johnb

                  I think johnb is on the mark except for one thing. "Heirloom" does not always equal "tastes good". Speaking mostly of tomatoes, which I grow 4 or 5 varieties of each year, there are lots of novelty heirlooms that look interesting but don't taste particularly good (I won't be specific -- don't want to start an argument on the side). And there are plenty of hybrid tomatoes that taste great. Several hybrids developed in Japan come to mind. Apparently they value taste a bit higher than we do.

                  I say "heirloom vegetable" is about as useful a term as "classic car".

                  1. re: Zeldog

                    Well put, zeldog and johnb. Heirloom is NOT always better. Just a favorite phrase of the day for the spin meisters. I'm also tired of "oven roasted", "flame broiled", and "flatiron!"