What Does “Heirloom” Mean?

Heirloom plant species are vegetables, flowers, and fruits grown from seeds that are passed down from generation to generation, says Barbara Richardson, horticulturist with the National Gardening Association. Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated, meaning they rely on natural pollination from insects or the wind.

Generally, heirloom plants are grown on a small scale using traditional techniques, and are raised from seeds that are at least 50 years old. Over time, growers save the seeds of their best plants—whether those are the most vigorous, disease resistant, flavorful, or beautiful. With unique shapes, sizes, and colors, heirloom plants often look different from commercial hybrids, which make up the bulk of supermarket fruits and vegetables. Unlike heirlooms, these hybrids are bred to produce uniform-looking and -tasting, high-yield crops at low cost. Most seeds from hybrids are sterile and cannot be passed down.

Heirlooms have become increasingly popular as organizations like Slow Food and Seed Savers Exchange continue to promote the genetic diversity of plant species. You’re likely to find heirloom tomatoes, melons, carrots, potatoes, and more at local farmers’ markets and many grocery stores.

But heirloom doesn’t just apply to plants; heirloom animals like turkeys—often referred to as heritage breeds—are prized for their flavor.

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