What Is An Heirloom Vegetable?
Often when shopping for Savoy cabbage, or the seeds, you may see the term heirloom Savoy cabbage. In fact you may see that term associated with many other vegetables. While confusing at first glance, the meaning becomes obvious…once you learn it.
An heirloom is an item that has been passed down for generations, which is the case for heirloom vegetables….sort of. The individual vegetables do not get passed down for generations, obviously. However, the heirloom varieties are the versions that have existed for generations, before the industrialization of agriculture.
Why does that matter? Well, with the industrialization of agriculture vegetable varieties were chosen based on criteria that were pragmatic for mass distribution. Vegetables were selected for yield potential (grow larger and/or faster), their tolerances to various environmental factors (drought, frost, pesticides, etc…), their ability to withstand mechanical picking, and their sturdiness to survive cross-country shipping. Often these pragmatic qualities were not found in nature, and many vegetables were interbred to create hybrids that would stand up better for mass growing and distribution. Taste, texture, and nutrition became secondary concerns.
Despite changes to taste and texture, one major problem with creating hybrid vegetables is that the hybrids are not open-pollinated. With an open pollinated vegetable, the seeds will grow into identical plants as the parent plant. Hybrids, on the other hand, will not. The hybrid seed will grow into some mutated version of the parent, though most will not even germinate. This means that you have to really on seed manufacturers for new seeds each season. Heirloom vegetable, will grow from the seeds of the parent, so if you grow your own vegetable, you can simply save the seeds from the previous years harvest to plant the next year.
While not always the case, many heirloom vegetables are tastier and have higher nutritional values than their hybrid counterparts. They are also, typically, cheaper than the hybrids, though likely harder to find in a supermarket. If you grow your own vegetables, you may prefer the heirlooms. The open-pollination traits give you viable seeds for the next seasons planting, and heirloom plants tend to vary in their growth so they may not ripen all at once, which would give you a staggered supply over a slightly longer period of time.
Heirloom or not, is a personal choice. While many heirlooms are better than the hybrid versions, some heirloom vegetables are not as good as their hybrids. Some heirlooms only grow it certain regions, and do not do well in other areas. Some are very sensitive to environmental factors which make them difficult, and frustrating to grow. And some hybrids may simply taste better than an heirloom they are based off of.