I've gotten several emails from folks who are either confused about what heirlooms are, or who just wanted to know.
First, let's talk about open-pollinated plants. These are plants that breed true-to-type from seed the plant produces. In other words, if you save seed and plant it, in the absence of other varieties of the same species that could cross with it, the new plants will look just like their parents and be genetically the same.
All heirlooms are OP plants. But not all OPs are heirlooms. New OP varieties are developed every day.
The general definition of heirloom is any OP vegetable variety that has been grown for at least 50 years.
Some think this is too loose, and want to confine it to varieties that were not commercially available. For ones that were, they use terms like "heritage" "historic" "old fashioned" and "traditional." Personally, I think they do a disservice, because there are many heirlooms that were introduced as commercial varieties that are now only available through seed savers.
Perhaps the best definition is given by Ben Watson, who uses three criteria:
1. The variety must be able to reproduce itself from seed. That is, it is a standard or open-pollinated variety.
2. The varity must have been introduced more than 50 years ago.
3. The variety must have a history of its own. Perhaps the vaieity was brought to America by immigrants, or saved and improved over the years by a single family or a religious group such as the Amish. Perhaps it figured importantly as a staple or ceremonial crop for indigenous peoples.Or it has simply become well-suited to the climate and growing conditions of a particular region.
Personally, I especially like part three, because the history is important to me. This makes them, as my friend Julia says, "the ones with the wonderful certifiable type of provenance, which gives them that real spark of life that makes them more than just a seed."
If you want more on this, try and find a copy of last February's Mother Earth News, and see my article, "Nostalgia You Can Eat."
Sometimes tracking down the history can lead to some interesting ironies. Take Bullnose peppers. Amelia Simmons refers to them in her 1796 "American Cookery," (said to be the first American cookbook, by the way). In the mid-19th century, Bullnose was a very popular commercial bell pepper.
However, Simmons' Bullnose were small, and had some heat, especially in the ribs. The 19th century bell pepper was large, and sweet.
What happened is that they kept selecting for size and sweetness, but never crossed it with anything else. In other words, there are physical differences, but _not_ genetic ones. Yet the two peppers are as different as day and night.
First off, Rutgers is an OP variety. While it is technically an F1, it's misleading to use that term with it, because doing so implies that it's a hybrid. It is definately considered to be an heirloom by everybody I know. The Garden State Heirloom Seed Society certainly lists it that way.
Second, there is a lot of confusion about Rutgers. It was developed at Rutgers University as an improved version of one of Campbells' proprietary varieties. The folks at Rugers claim it was developed and introduced in the late 1930s. However, at least one seed catalog listed it as early as 1932, which means development and trialing had to have taken place in the late '20s. Probably around 1928.
Rutgers was developed as a market variety. As such, it has a lot in common with hybrids. That is, disease resistence, toughness to withstand the rigors of shipping, uniformity of size, shape and color, etc. But, also in common with hybrids, it is not one of the best tasting 'maters being grown. I find them okay for canning and for saucing, but not much on the table as a fresh tomato.
Such interesting info. I want to be clear about one point.
So an OP vegtable plant that has been bred for certain marketable qualities and once had a letter denotation such the Rutgers you mentioned, can eventually be considered Heirloom if it fits the criteria you mentioned? So hybrids of today, if passed down etc., could one day be an Heirloom? Seems creepy when I think of it that way, maybe I'm wrong! I will certainly try to find that Mother Earth News, I have subscribed off and on. The site you mentioned in another post is great and your article is good too. Thanks for so much insight, I am groovin' now! I have planted seeds from Native Seeds Search and hope to plant more. I like the whole idea of Heirlooms and the history and use is my favorite aspect. I especially find interest in the indiginous crops and uses and the fact it seems easier to find organic seeds this way.
Well, Laff, you've openened a can of worms for sure. And it's the very reason I mentioned this to Byron.
Whenever you cross two varieties of the same species, the result is a hybrid. The new plant can be stabilized to breed true to type---which is how new varieties were all developed previously.
Colloquially, however, we use the word hybrid, and especally the designation F1, to apply to non-open pollinated varieites. Even botonists use this verbal shorthand.
Hybrids of today, as a rule, cannot be passed down becasue they do not breed true to type. If you save seeds from them, they revert back to one or both of the parent stocks, and even beyond to "grandparent" stock.
Even if you could save the seed from F1s, and it bred true to type, it would be, in many cases, illegle because hybrids often are patented.
But you are right about one thing. Any open pollinated plant, if you continued growing it for 50 years, would be designated an heirloom.
The key word here is open pollinated. Although there are differences in defination about what an heirloom is, nobody disagrees about that.
Something of value worth passing down is, indeed, a general definitionof "heirloom." Implied in all out discussions, however, is that we are talking about heirloom vegetables. So, while the general definition applies (they certainly are somehting of value worth passing down), there are more precise definitions as well.