Thursday morning, I took time out from my gardening activities to go along to Arbor Gate and hear a talk by Judy Barrett about the value of heirloom plants. Judy is a well-known organic gardener and writer about organic gardening and heirloom plants and she had several interesting things to say.
An heirloom plant, like an heirloom piece of furniture, is one that has been handed down from one generation to another. Something about the plant impressed a grower and made him/her think it was worth saving and passing on.
Among the greatest values of heirloom plants is their biological diversity. They contain genetic material that is not available from any other source and that is an insurance policy against diseases that can easily wipe out plants in a monoculture. The best known example of that is probably the Irish potato famine, but we set ourselves up for similar catastrophes today when we grow only one variety of a plant to the exclusion of all others. Heirloom plants, though, have a diversity of traits which can be used to cross and re-cross and produce stronger and better plants.
One quality that heirloom plants share is their adaptation to the climate where they live. Judy told the story of a type of corn that is grown by Native Americans in the arid Southwest, practically without rain. The farmers plant the corn in spring and it sits there in the ground until rain comes and then, as she described it, the corn virtually jumps out of the ground and grows justs as fast as it can to produce a crop. This corn has been grown by these people for 200-300 years and it knows how to survive in this climate. Other plants have adapted to other climates, of course, but all of them have the capacity to survive and thrive where they are planted.
Another quality that is true of all heirlooms is their toughness. These plants have survived adversity and still managed to thrive and produce. Judy mentioned the 'Peggy Martin' rose which survived Katrina in New Orleans. It was covered by salt water for a long period of time after the storm, but once it dried out, the plant came back and it bloomed again the next spring. I got one of these roses on my trip to the Antique Rose Emporium last month, so the rose that survived the flood is now trying to survive the drought in my yard. We'll see just how tough it is!
Heirlooms are plants that survive through generations, that survive the attentions of green thumb gardeners and of brown thumb gardeners like myself. They are almost impossible to kill and that's just the kind of plant I need in my yard.