In antique stores, we're drawn to old maple rockers, ornately carved oak mantelpieces or delicately hand-painted china not just because of their form or materials but for the sense of history that clings to them and the way they warm the imagination. They make us wonder about the hands that have held them and the people whose lives they have passed through.
That's true of heirloom plant varieties too. To the gardeners who love them, it matters that 'Mortgage Lifter' tomato came from a man who bred his own tomato plants, selling enough of them to pay off his mortgage.
At estate sales, you encounter styles far beyond whatever is the standard fashion today. So, too, heirloom vegetables offer a spectacular range of flavors and shapes. They may be more tart or more sweet, green instead of supermarket red, long instead of the standard oval, ribbed or striped rather than smooth. Often they have a depth and complexity of flavor you would never find at the grocery store.
What is an "heirloom"? The definition is open to dispute. But the term is usually applied to fruit, flower or vegetables varieties that were being grown before World War II.
Back then, what we now call "organic gardening," based on manure and mulch, was standard practice for home gardeners, who accepted risk and variation from weather and disease just as farmers had to.
From the 1950s to the 1970s, hybrids dominated the commercial vegetable market, and the older varieties became hard to find until a growing interest in cooking and food sparked a resurgence of the more flavorful heirlooms.
Heirloom varieties are open-pollinated--meaning that unlike hybrids, seeds you collect from one year will produce plants with most of the characteristics of the parent plant. And that's key to their survival.
Many heirloom varieties were preserved by home gardeners who saved seed from their family gardens from year to year. Other seeds travelled around the world in the pockets or letters of immigrants, which is why, though the tomato evolved in Central America, we have varieties from Russia, Italy, Japan, France, Germany and Kentucky.
But many other heirlooms are commercially-bred varieties from the seed catalogs of the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Since W. Atlee Burpee & Co. was founded in 1876, the name "Burpee" turns up in many an heirloom vegetable catalog.
So if heirloom varieties are so wonderful, why aren't all vegetables like that? Breeders didn't just wipe out old varieties out of sheer perverseness. They developed hybrids for two main reasons: To make large-scale commercial production and distribution of vegetables easier and more profitable, and to make growing vegetables less labor-intensive and more sure-fire for home gardeners who may not have been as sure of their skills as their farmer ancestors.
Flavor may not have been the highest priority for 20th Century breeders, but they created hybrids with a number of useful qualities.
Disease resistance: Many vegetables are plagued by diseases that can wipe out a crop. Hybrids, especially tomatoes and corn, were bred that are resistant to a number of these diseases. When you see codes such as "VFF" or "VF1" in a seed catalog, they refer to diseases the variety was bred to fight off.
Higher yield: Many of the most flavorful heirlooms, such as the beloved 'Brandywine' tomato, don't produce a whole lot of fruit. Hybrids were developed to produce much larger crops per plant.
Uniformity: Commercial growers quickly learned that fruits and vegetables that looked funny wouldn't sell. Conformity was king. So hybrids were developed to have more consistent sizes, shapes and colors. Supermarket tomatoes all became red. Hybrids for the home garden came to reflect what consumers learned to expect at the supermarket.
Marketability: Fruits and vegetables that were all the same size to pack easily, didn't bruise much and didn't go bad quickly could be shipped longer distances. So hybrids made many fruits and vegetables available all over the country and often for many more months each year, even if they didn't taste like their ancestors.
Hybrid vigor: First-generation hybrids tend to grow more vigorously and produce more than plants of a selected variety whose genes have been relatively isolated for generations. But the such hybrids can only be produced commercially, which means you have to buy new seed every year instead of saving it.
Timing: Determinate tomato hybrids--those that grow to a certain point, stop, and produce all their fruit at once--can be picked with big machines, rather than by workers who go out again and again to hand-pick whatever fruits are ripe. That greatly reduced the cost of canned tomatoes.
Today, breeders are trying to find the best of both worlds, crossing modern hybrids with older, more flavorful heirlooms to make old-style taste part of the equation along with disease resistance, consistency and higher yields. There are a number of hybrid versions of 'Brandywine,' for example.
These new hybrids are less risky, but they also aren't open-pollinated, so you won't get consistent results by saving the seed.
So should you choose heirlooms or hybrids? It's a polarizing question.
Some gardeners believe strongly that the flavor of heirlooms is so superior that no growing season should be wasted on anything else. Others feel it's their responsibility to grow heirlooms in order to preserve diversity in food crops so that we don't lose valuable genetic variation we might need down the road. And some gardeners are determined to taste as many different flavors of tomato as they can in a lifetime.
But other gardeners are focused on results. They want what they're used to. They place the highest priority on getting a lot of predictable tomatoes just when they expect them with as few problems as possible. For them, modern hybrids seem a better bet.
Fortunately, there's plenty of middle ground. You can choose one dependable, disease-resistant hybrid variety as a fail-safe and take a greater chance on two or three heirlooms each year. Or you can add one of the new hybrids derived from popular heirlooms into the mix. If you're growing tomatoes in containers, it might be wise to choose a dwarf, determinate hybrid variety.
A diversity of choices for the garden is as good a thing as diversity in the gene pool.