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What is an Heritage or Heirloom variety?

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  • What is an Heritage or Heirloom variety?

    I was just deciding where to put a post for Pentland Javelin potatoes and at first thought to put it in heirlooms, but it seems it is more recent than I thought (1968). Which got me thinking what makes a variety an 'Heirloom'? Is it purely age, availability, handed down?

  • #2
    As defined by T and M, an 'old heirloom' is a cultivar, where they don't want to acknowledge breeding credentials, like when they offered Green Zebra tomato seeds without mentioning Tom Wagner. Or should we believe they actually did not know better at the time?

    Sorry, had to get this one off my chest. Similar things happened with other varieties that were being maintained by the Heritage Seed Library and then turned up in the seed trade without a source mention. At least some of those were actually heirloom or heritage. Many seed companies call something 'heirloom' to make it more interesting. It is about as clear a term as food that is 'healthy'.

    The 'classic' definition of heritage/heirloom is an OP variety that is at least 50 years old. Pentland Javelin would nearly qualify.

    There are similar definition problems with other items, furniture or cars etc. When are they antique? After 25, 50 or 100 years?

    The word 'heirloom' (apart from being more commonly used in the USA than heritage) has a double meaning - it suggests age as well as something that has been 'handed down within one family'. A 'heirloom' variety can just as well be an old commercial variety or it can be a 'family variety' that has never been commercially available (or at least not before the relatively recent heirloom revival with its many micro seed traders).

    I think for all practical purposes an heirloom/heritage variety is - 'old, OP and a good, forgiving amateur gardener variety'. Definitely not GM, F1 hybrid or a type that was bred for large scale agriculture which only performs with matched fertilisers and insecticides.

    This definition clashes with the idea that genetically broader landraces or variety mixes could be heirloom. For example: is Alan Kapuler's sweetcorn Rainbow Inca a perpetual hybrid or a true breeding heirloom?

    The same circle of gardeners who grow and promote OP heirloom varieties (and shunned F1 hybrids at all cost!), are now also embracing the idea of hybrid mixes, which they call 'landraces'. Again, this is not what the definition of 'landrace' used to be. The older definition of landrace (like 20 odd years ago at HDRA lectures) was a variety that was perhaps farmer selected, broadly pure breeding but had some slight variability and genetic breadth in it. Not like modern landraces where you can expect a huge difference in individual plants, but they are all relatively adapted to certain conditions - drought/heat/cold/blight or whatever the breeding criterion might have been.

    Finding a definition that is universally accepted is not possible.

    Last edited by Galina; 13-08-2014, 22:47.