Heirloom vegetables are tasty, high-yielding, diverse, well-suited to home gardens and local conditions and have been around for a while, in some instances hundreds of years.
They sound quite sophisticated but heirloom vegetables are really quite simple. They are just varieties of vegetables that have been grown over time from seed, which in turn came from plants that were themselves grown from seed, and so on until a heritage variety evolves to have bred characteristics.
The collection and sowing of heirloom seeds is supported by a range of commercial and not-for-profit organisations around the world. It is a reaction to the sameness and widespread use of industrial varieties of vegetable crops.
The idea is to savour and maintain the wealth of diversity that exists in the vegetable kingdom. After all if these seeds aren’t grown, and then re-grown the variety will die out.
Heirloom vegetables are defined as those that have been in existence since before industrial varieties were widely introduced after WWII.
The American-based Seed Savers Exchange was founded over 37 years ago by Diane Ott and Kent Whealy.
It began when Diane’s terminally-ill grandfather gave her seeds of two garden plants, Grandpa Ott’s morning glory and German Pink tomato. Grandpa Ott’s parents brought the seeds from Bavaria when they immigrated to America in the 1870s.
This explains the essence of heirloom vegetables and why they are considered precious. And that’s because they have stood the test of time.
Why would varieties of tomato have been lugged across the Atlantic ocean if the tomatoes weren’t easy to grow, bountiful and tasty?
Heirloom seeds have been grown and nurtured by local gardeners in homes or villages over many years because they are well suited to the local conditions, or have a resistance to regional pests or disease, or simply that they have vibrant and unusual colour.
Or it could be they distinguish themselves by having superior taste, better yields and extended harvest periods that suit home gardeners who don’t want everything to ripen at the same time. Whatever it is, there is something special about them.
They aren’t monoculture industrial crops that are bred to withstand harvesting by machines, long-term storage and long-distance transport, while possibly sacrificing flavour.
For people who didn’t inherit seeds from their grandparents there are many groups who will put them in touch with people who have seeds to swap, or will help to get their own heirloom vegetable garden going.
In Australia the Seed Savers Network has been working to improve food varieties since 1986, by establishing and supporting local seed saving networks. In just one year they grew 130 varieties of tomatoes and passed them around to their network of gardeners.