The value of heirloom varieties sometimes goes beyond the science

By Lloyd Thompson
WSU Chelan/Douglas County Master Gardener
July 21, 2022

Large heirloom rhubarb plant.
WSU Master Gardener columnist Lloyd Thompson inherited this heirloom rhubarb plant from his father, who got it from his own father roughly 60 years ago. Thompson’s wife makes rhubarb crisp using a recipe she got from her mother nearly 40 years ago. – Provided photo/Lloyd Thompson

Lloyd Thompson – WSU Extension Chelan/Douglas County Master Gardener – Provided photo

For years, I have been growing, harvesting and watching plants while trying to figure out which varieties perform the best.

The biggest discussion and change I have noticed in the last 10 years or so has been the interest in heirloom varieties and their availability. I see claims that heirloom varieties of vegetables and flowers have better production, better flavor, more nutritional value, better fragrance and a host of other claims.

The issue I have is finding reliable research data supporting the claims being made. I see lots of discussion about the benefits from growing heirloom plants but not much information to back up those claims.

To be sure, there are real benefits from using heirloom plants. Heirloom vegetables and flowers have been around at least 50 years in order to even be considered an heirloom variety. If these plants didn’t have something going for them, people wouldn’t have been saving the seeds every year so they can replant them again next year.

If we lose those heirloom plants, we lose a vast library of genetic potential and diversity. The traits that an heirloom plant variety contains may be the genetic solution for a future pathogen or adverse growing environment that would otherwise be lost. Hybrids are crosses between two different varieties and depend on the use of heirloom, or open pollinated plants, for their genetic diversity and hybrid vigor. Fewer open-pollinated heirloom varieties reduces the possibility of potential beneficial hybrids in the future.

The biggest reason I like heirloom plants is the chance to discover a plant I like better than what I can get in the produce department at the grocery store. Open-pollinated plants tend to be a little slower to mature, and even on the same plant the crop may not all ripen at the same time. This is tricky if you are a farmer trying to harvest a crop because the cost of going back over the field to harvest multiple times is more expensive than using a hybrid, which shortens the harvest window and allows the crop to all be ready at the same time. It saves both time and money for the grower. As a home gardener, I like the wider window so I can enjoy the vegetables, fruit, or flowers for a longer period of time.

But perhaps the best part of enjoying heirloom plants is the story behind them. I have a rhubarb plant I got from my dad, which he got from my grandfather, which he got from my great-grandfather some 60 years ago. That’s as far back as I know on the history of that particular plant. I tell the story every year as we enjoy homemade rhubarb crisp that my wife makes, using a recipe she got from her mother nearly 40 years ago.

We inherited a beautiful peace rose, an heirloom flower, when we bought our house in 2014. The rose was planted by the former owner, who resided in the house since the 1960s. She recently passed away, and lived well into her 90s.

The fragrance and blooms from the rose plant are amazing, but, again, it’s also the connection to the past that I find rewarding. The story behind the plant connects our family to the previous owner’s family. One of my sisters had the former owner’s sister as a teacher in the second grade. My other sister went to school with her grandchildren. I picked up scrap steel from her son-in-law’s business to use for teaching welding at Eastmont High School.

The story goes on, but the point is heirloom plants can connect generations together as it takes generations for a plant to become an heirloom variety. So while I didn’t find the research I was looking for when writing this article, I think I will talk my wife into making me a rhubarb crisp while I cut some roses for the dining room table.

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