The definition and use of the word heirloom to describe plants is fiercely debated.
One school of thought places an age or date point on the cultivars. For instance, one school says the cultivar must be over 100 years old, others 50 years and others prefer the date of 1945, which marks the end of World War II and roughly the beginning of widespread hybrid use by growers and seed companies. Many gardeners consider 1951 the latest year a plant could have originated and still be called an heirloom since that year marked the introduction of the first hybrid varieties. It was in the 1970s that hybrid seeds began to proliferate in the commercial seed trade. Some heirloom varieties are much older; some are pre-historic.
Another way of defining heirloom cultivars is to use the definition of the word heirloom in its truest sense. Under this interpretation, a true heirloom is a cultivar that has been nurtured, selected, and handed down from one family member to another for many generations.
Additionally, there is another category of cultivars that could be classified as “commercial heirlooms”: cultivars that were introduced many generations ago and were of such merit that they have been saved, maintained and handed down – even if the seed company has gone out of business or otherwise dropped a line. Additionally, many old commercial releases have been family heirlooms that a seed company obtained and introduced.
Regardless of a person’s specific interpretation, most authorities agree that heirlooms, by definition, must be open-pollinated.
The last few years have seen a resurgence in interest in older, more unusual types of carrot. It’s now possible to buy carrots of all shapes, sizes, and colours if you look a little beyond the usual places. And of course, there’s vastly more variety available if you grow them yourself from seed.
However, there’s an important point to make: these ‘new’ carrots are in no way a modern invention or the result of genetic modification gone wild. In most cases they’re simply a return to older heritage varieties that have been kept alive by traditional growers and enthusiasts, although there has of course been continued progress through selective breeding along the way.
An heirloom variety (or heritage, the phrase seems to be interchangeable), is an old cultivar of a plant used for food that is grown and maintained by gardeners and farmers, particularly in isolated or ethnic minority communities of the Western world. These were commonly grown during earlier periods in human history, but are not used in modern large-scale agriculture.
Heirloom plant species are vegetables, flowers, and fruits grown from seeds that are passed down from generation to generation, says Barbara Richardson, horticulturist with the National Gardening Association. Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated, meaning they rely on natural pollination from insects or the wind.
Hybrid seeds are created by crossing two selected varieties, sometimes resulting in vigorous plants that yield more than heirlooms. Heirloom vegetables are old-time varieties, open-pollinated instead of hybrid, and saved and handed down through multiple generations of families. More information on Wikipedia here.
Why choose Heirloom/Heritage Carrots?
Many heirloom vegetables have been saved for decades because they are the best performers in home and market gardens. Storage or ability to transport wasn’t a concern so flavour ruled.
Many gardeners prefer heirloom vegetables because they are open-pollinated, which means you can save your own seed from replanting from year to year.
Seeds saved from heirloom vegetables will produce plants that are true to type, unlike hybrid seeds. If you try to save seed from hybrids, you usually won’t get good results,” says Andrew Kaiser, manager at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.
Also, with heirloom vegetables, you can choose what works best in your garden. If you save seeds from heirloom vegetables over several years, you can gradually select seeds from the plants that perform best in your local soil and climate. This will give you a seed strain that is more resistant to local pests and diseases. Plants are much more adaptable than most of us realize.
Another advantage of heirloom vegetables is that they are “less uniform” than hybrids, which often don’t ripen all at once.
Commercial growers love the uniformity of hybrids because they can pick the crop in one fell swoop. But for home gardeners, a gradual supply of fresh produce is usually preferable to the glut of the all-at-once harvest many hybrids provide.
Many heirlooms have wonderful histories of how they came to the nation where they are now grown. In many cases, these heirloom vegetables have been grown for many centuries all around the world. What a great feeling to be connected through tiny, magical seeds to so many other gardeners from so long ago!
Flavour is not necessarily high on the attributes which modern breeders seek. Modern Hybrid breeders aim to derive cultivars with early maturation, high yield, high beta-carotene content; the ability to set seeds under poor conditions; uniform root size, shape and colour; small tops, tender roots; improved flavour, texture, sugar content and dry matter; resistance to cracking and breaking during harvest, roots that taper uniformly, slowness to bolt; tolerance of poor soil and climate; wide adaptability; resistance to disease, especially leaf blight, black rot, powdery mildew, bacterial soft rot, and and to pests including caterpillars and carrot fly.
Important Note – The chemical constituents of carrot are not there by chance, but perform a function. Many constituents of the orange carrot we now cultivate are also in the white root of the wild carrot, Queen Anne’s lace, from which our carrot was developed. This is true of falcarinol, falcarindiol, and myristicin. Carotene (present in small amounts in Queen Anne’s lace) has been increased by centuries of selection. Volatile oils have been decreased in this process. Plant scientists must continue to monitor all known constituents, nutritive and non-nutritive – as new cultivars of the carrot are developed to keep our vegetables nutritious and safe. Plant breeding for the sake of high yields, appearance, and keeping quality will not be sufficient.