I'm really looking forward to my irises coming up this spring, primarily because my 90-year-old grandmother dug them out of her garden last fall and gave my mother and me about eight different varieties.
Those same flowers were once in the garden of my great-grandmother, who lived to be 95.
The line might end there, or these irises might go back even further. Either way, as they grow, living history will unfold before my eyes.
In a world of genetically engineered foods and cloned animals, it's refreshing to know exactly where heirloom plants come from. It feeds our craving for nostalgia.
Preserving history, flavor
Heirloom gardening preserves the pure history of a plant. If you saved your seeds from your flowers and vegetables this summer and planted them next summer - and if you did that for 50 years - you would have heirloom seeds.
Heirlooms, which are open-pollinated plants, reproduce themselves generation after generation. Still a little confused? M. Dianne O'Connell, a horticulturist and instructor at both Meramec Community College and the Missouri Botanical Garden, knows a little something about the subject.
"Heirloom gardening is comprised of herbs, vegetables, bulbs, flowers, shrubs, vines and trees. They are plants or seeds that have been handed down from one generation to another," she says. "Heirloom plants must be open-pollinated and in cultivation for at least 50 years. Open-pollinated means that if the seeds produced from the plant are properly saved, they will produce the same variety year after year. This is not done with using hybrids."
And hybrids are everywhere. Almost every plant at the nursery is a hybrid. Most foods you buy at the grocery store are hybrids, organic or not, meaning our food's flavor has taken a back seat to account for timing and color.
Most heirloom enthusiasts swear to the unmatched richness in flavor, sweetness and juiciness of their vegetables and fruits. So if you're concerned about genetically engineered foods, you might seek out heirloom goods.
"The tastes are unique to each vegetable, since each growing season is different than the last. There are so many to try and experiment in your garden, and the garden centers are now starting to meet the new demand," O'Connell says. "We as consumers have become obsessed with the look of a vegetable, and through the production process we have not allowed the blemished look to our stores. Heirlooms are not about shipping techniques that are now demanded in our consumer world."
Heirloom seeds have special features that distinguish them from hybrid seeds. The variety of seed should be able to produce itself; antique seeds are always self-pollinated, therefore producing plants with the same traits sowing after sowing. Hybrid seeds, conversely, are unable to replicate exact traits year after year.
To be considered heirloom, the variety of plant or seed must have been introduced at least 50 years ago, although some argue that 100 years is more appropriate. The particular cultivar, or variety, must have a special history, perhaps tracing the origins to a particular region or to seeds saved by farming families who can recall their beginnings.
The trend of heirloom gardening is growing - and not just among garden aficionados. It's also gaining ground with those who simply dabble in the dirt. In fact, The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., opened an heirloom garden in 2002. It's filled it with hollyhocks, flowering tobacco and sweet peas, among other plants.
O'Connell loves the bond fostered through heirloom gardening.
"Heirloom gardening connects one with the past," she says. "It also provides plants with the ability to add fragrance to a garden that has been lost to the hybridization of plants. The garden usually takes on a more 'cottage' look and is less structured.
"Using heirloom gardening techniques allows the gardener to express their individual style more easily."
I eagerly anticipate watching my little slice of family history grow, and I hope one day I can pass it down to others. Next time you visit your grandparents, be sure to have a shovel in tow so you can start your own heirloom garden.
Where to find heirloom seeds
¢ www.rareseeds.com, (417) 924-1222 ¢ www.seedsavers.org, (319) 382-5990 ¢ Quarterly magazine called Heirloom Gardener ¢ M. Dianne O'Connell, a horticulturist and instructor at both Meramec Community College and the Missouri Botanical Garden, recommends the following heirloom vines to add height to a garden: Dutchman's pipe, Akebia quinata, trumpet vine, bittersweet, hyacinth bean vine and cypress vine.