Heirloom dahlias from 1914: were these varieties better than today's hybrids? Perhaps. Then again, perhaps not...
I’m about to go way out on the proverbial limb, and say something that may shock a quite a few of you: many heirlooms plants are over-rated. Now this may seem strange from someone whose first book, The New Traditional Garden, was all about the glories of old-fashioned plants and historically correct landscapes. And it’s true: I had, and still have, a great and abiding love for antique plants, especially ones with unique and interesting histories. But recently, things in the horticultural world have gotten a bit out of hand. Heirlooms have become the horticultural poster-child of the moment, and for many garden writers, any old plant, regardless of dubious quality, is deemed valuable, while any new hybrid, even if markedly superior, is sniffed at with suspicion. In the same way the hybrid movement began after World War II as a reaction against the size, color and quality limitations many older varieties imposed on growers, now the heirloom movement has become a counter revolution against new hybrid introductions that are perceived to completely lack taste, in both senses of the word. Somewhere in the middle, lies the truth. So what’s the average gardener to believe, and more importantly, what does this mean for your garden?
Well, let’s begin by clarifying some terms. “Heirloom” is used loosely to tag a plant that usually possesses two important characteristics. The first is age: fifty years or more is generally required. The second is to be open-pollinated, which is to say that pollen from one plant can be transferred to the blossoms of the same variety, and the resulting seeds will produce offspring identical to the parents. (Hybrid plants, on the other hand, result from a cross between two different parents, generally under controlled conditions. This is important to understand, because it means that hybrids are often sterile, or, if they do produce seeds on their own, those seeds revert back to the characteristics of their forbears.) This has important financial implications for home gardeners and farmers alike, because if you want a new generation of hybrids, you must buy seeds or plants from a supplier – rarely an issue here in the US, but an overly burdensome expense in many places in the Third World. Thus, the ability to produce and collect your own seed is a major factor in the heirlooms’ favor.
Pro-heirloom forces also point out that it is critical to protect old varieties from disappearing for the sake of bio-diversity, and this is absolutely true. You need only look to the early 70s, when America’s entire corn harvest was threatened by a deadly blight that devastated the hybrid varieties then available. It was due solely to our ability to go back and rebreed new strains from heirloom types resistant to the disease that an agricultural disaster of epic proportions was averted. The plain and simple fact is that we will never know what particular plant genes or compounds may prove useful in the future, and we owe it to ourselves, and to our children to preserve as many of these old varieties as we can. For this purpose various seed banks like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, and seed-saver organizations like Seed Savers Exchange (to which I belong) have been established to guarantee that our horticultural heritage doesn’t disappear. These deserve our unreserved support.
The 'Delicious' apple: anything but.
Over the last few years, however, many in the press have claimed that heirloom varieties are superior to their modern counterparts in every way, especially when it comes to food. At the Edible Garden Symposium at the New York Botanical Garden where I spoke last week, again and again this same proposition was put forth, and it’s here, after many years of growing heirlooms myself, that I must take exception, particularly as far as the home food gardener is concerned. It is most certainly true that many modern commercial crops have been breed for extremely narrow purposes, such as shipping life, much to the detriment of flavor and taste. One needs only to bite into a so-called “Delicious” apple after trying one of the many heirloom varieties to understand that there is absolutely no comparison between this mealy modern tripe and the taste sensation that explodes in your mouth from some of the heirloom varieties. The same holds true for many vegetables and flowers. Until fairly recently for example, tomatoes had been rendered hard, tasteless globes of water to prevent damage in transport; scent had been bred out of roses in preference for perfect blooms on long stems; marigolds had become huge pompom monstrosities (heaven knows why), and the petunia had turned into some sort of carnival flower on steroids simply to extend bloom time. Fortunately, common sense has tamed some of these excesses in the last few years, due in large part, it must be admitted, to a more educated marketplace that has once again had the opportunity to compare side-by side hybrid varieties with their heirloom ancestors, often to the detriment of the modern cultivars.
The famous 'Brandywine' tomato: great flavor, terrible disease resistance.
All this obscures an important point, though: many modern varieties are in fact improvements on older types, and just because something is old doesn’t mean it’s good. Take for example the ‘Bantam‘ heirloom variety of corn I ordered with much anticipation some years ago from Burpee. It came with a remarkably interesting history. Until this particular varieties’ introduction at the turn of the last century, most corn in the country was white. Then along came this yellow variety, which so resembled a delicious cob pre-coated with butter that almost overnight American gardeners began to prefer yellow corn to white. What a fascinating story! How delicious this corn must have been to affect such a sea-change! I could hardly contain my excitement as the tassels slowly filled over the course of the summer. At last, the corn was ready, and into the pot it went. The result? One of the toughest, most tasteless cobs I had ever eaten. Any of the modern types, like their superb ‘Illini’ surpassed it exponentially. The garden is ripe (yes, pun intended) with other such examples: the beloved heirloom Brandywine tomato, probably the tastiest one around, is so prone to disease that it generally peters out a full month before other more resistant varieties, often with a very poor harvest. In the flower garden, I know of few sensible gardeners who would prefer the relatively pathetic bearded iris of a hundred years ago to the modern cultivars, or who would turn their backs on all the new annual introductions that bloom the entire summer without deadheading. Certainly not me! The story is the same with shrubs and trees where endless new types have appeared that far surpass their ancestors.
The moral here, fellow gardeners, is that we shouldn’t be too quick to pass judgment on a specimen simply because of its pedigree – or, lack thereof. Yes, it is absolutely wonderful to have a plant in your garden that was old when the Roman Empire was young, and feel that marvelous sense of continuity that comes with possessing a little bit of living history. And by all means, you should experiment with growing some of the older fruit, flower, and vegetable varieties that will introduce you to an undiscovered world of fragrance, color, and taste. But forget about the garden style-mongers; instead, make your own selections based on the plant’s qualities and characteristics, not just it’s history; and if a newer variety is available that better conforms in size, habit or culture to your site, don’t shy away simply because it’s a new introduction. Take it from me: combine the best of the old and the new in your garden, and you’ll garner a far more interesting, productive, and pleasurable harvest this year than ever before.