There is debate as to what defines an heirloom vegetable. It is agreed that all heirlooms are vegetables that are open-pollinated, meaning they can reproduce true to the variety naturally. Some say it must have been around for 50 years, others more or less. Some varieties are beloved by home gardeners, others are still used commercially.
However you define them, heirlooms have been grown and cherished by gardeners for years. They are not varieties that are here today and gone tomorrow. They are varieties that have stood the test of time. People have made a concerted effort to keep them around. You know that for some reason that variety is still here. People have different reasons for wanting a vegetable, fresh taste, good for preservings, excellent storage properties, color and appearance, keeping quality, and some are just interesting and fun. Whatever the reason, each variety was saved and preserved by someone because it was very special to them.
We have also found that heirlooms just taste better. An Amish gardener we know said that if you put an heirloom up against a hybrid, the brix index will be higher in the heirloom. The brix index is the measure of sugar in the vegetable, and that directly correlates with taste. And where the taste is, so is the nutrition. We believe that our bodies can tell where the nutrients are, and flavor is how we detect the nutrients. The best tasting vegetables will be the best for you.
Because heirlooms have stood the test of time, they have also survived pests and diseases. The strains that were most succeptible would have died off completely. What is left has been exposed to things and has survived. The hybrids are engineered to be resistant to common diseases, but when an unusual strain comes, they won’t be able to survive. But the heirlooms have probably seen those unusual diseases. Maybe they aren’t totally resistant, but they have a better chance of resistance because they have been exposed at some point in their history.
Finally, growing heirlooms is participating in preserving a piece of history. Many of the heirlooms have been carried with immigrants, beloved and cherished. They were carried here because they were special, reminding them of the tastes of home. Other varieties were developed here, for the special wants and needs of the American gardener. Then they were preserved, passed down through the years, grown by commercial seed houses or home gardeners.
So just do it. Grow heirloom vegetables. Enjoy the wonderful tastes, beautiful colors and shapes, and participate in that special part of our American history that is the home garden.