Originally published in Smoky Mountain Living Magazine, Gardener’s Corner (a Q&A series for gardeners by Chris Smith).
The term heirloom is often misused and misunderstood, which is why this is one of the most asked questions at Sow True Seed.
Open-pollinated or OP seeds will produce a plant that will produce seeds that, if saved properly, will grow into the same plant the following season i.e. I can save seeds from my Cherokee Purple tomatoes and expect to grow Cherokee Purple tomatoes from those seeds. This is not true of F1 Hybrids, whose saved seeds will produce a range of different and unpredictable plant characteristics. So, as a seed saver, you should be looking for OP varieties.
So what are Heirlooms? Quite simply heirlooms are open-pollinated seeds that have been around for a long time. The exact definition varies but (in general) OP seeds that have been around since before World War II are considered heirlooms. We could think of them as old OP varieties.
I grow a mix of modern OP varieties and old OP varieties (heirlooms). Heirlooms offer great multi-generational stories that I like to be a part of and the mere fact that they have stood the test of time often means they have some great characteristics. Modern OP varieties are being bred to combat current day challenges, whether that is pest-pressure, disease, climate or something else. I love my heirloom beans, but I also love my modern OP powdery-mildew resistant cucumbers. The great thing is that I can save seed from both of them!