When I was wandering around my local plant nursery last weekend I noticed some varieties marked ‘Heirloom’. What are these plants, and what’s the difference between them and everything else?
– Mr. McGregor
• Heirloom plants are open-pollinated cultivars – which means the seed is pollinated by bees and wind – not tweezers and men wearing lab coats and hairnets.
• Heirloom plants existed before the industrialization of agriculture – which means they thrived on family farms kept true to form through natural selection – and not on modern monocultural plots owned by corporations.
• Heirloom plants must be at least sixty-years old, which means when they leave a message on your answering machine it sounds like, “… think it was a beep… hello? Is this thing on? I thought I heard breathing – is that you breathing? Hello?”
Meanwhile, Hybrid plants are man-made combinations of a plant species meant to optimize benefits and minimize bad features. These plants grew up in Split-levels, teethed on Jimi Hendrix, and made fortunes in Internet start-up companies.
Since consistency is everything in modern agriculture, the playing field was eventually narrowed to hybrid varieties that surpassed heirlooms due to hybrids’ proven disease resistance and high productivity. These plants can withstand pesticides, drought, temperature extremes, shipping, and fondling.
But there’s a growing trend to reject the hybridization frenzy, owing to the fact that Something is lost in the process. Could that something be disease and bug infestation?
So old school gardeners combined forces to save the nearly extinct heirloom varieties from the precipice, gladly sacrificing Stepford-style production and good looks for the sweet corn grown by our ancestors. Even if that very corn has a higher starch content. Grassroots seed exchange efforts have sprouted into companies that exclusively feature heirloom varieties, many of which are now available online and in garden centers.
And Heirloom plants have names that connect us to our past. The modern hybrid tomato may be a Yubiley 25, but an heirloom tomato is a Mortgage Lifter.
Can you dig that?