the heirloom plant crossvine growing along a fence

Heirloom Plants: Discovering Nature’s Timeless Treasures

You go to your local garden center and see all the hybrid plant varieties, but you also see varieties like ‘Mortage Lifiter,’ ‘Old German, and ‘Black Krim.’ 

Which are you going to choose?

Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with a hybrid variety, but as traditional heirloom plants are slowly phased out, we’re losing an important part of our history. 

Imagine, for a second, that your kids or grandkids might never get to taste a real ‘Brandywine’ tomato – juicy and bursting with flavor – or smell the unique, heady perfume of a ‘Mortgage Lifter’ rose. Kinda sad, huh? Well, if we keep sidelining these old-timey plant varieties, we could lose them forever, along with the unique traits that make them so special.

It’s more important than ever to be growing these time-honored heirloom plants.  So if you’re ready to preserve the original flavors, smells, and benefits that our ancestors loved, read on.  Let’s keep these timeless plant treasures alive!

Understanding Heirloom Plants

What Makes a Plant Heirloom

Heirloom plants, also known as heritage plants, can trace back their lineage through the generations, often to your grandparents or great-grandparents. These are the plants that stood the test of time, passed down through generations due to their exceptional flavors, vibrant colors, and hardiness. You might already be familiar with their unique varieties and the stories behind them, but whether you’ve tried these heirloom plants or not, they will make an exciting addition to your home garden.

Preserving these plants is not only an important part of history but its also essential for biodiversity and for maintaining the genetic diversity of our food crops. When you grow heirloom plants, you are not only enjoying their unique attributes but also contributing to their preservation for future generations. So, when you choose heirloom seeds for your garden, remember that you’re also playing a part in preserving history.

Open-Pollinated vs. Hybrid Plants

Heirloom plants are typically open-pollinated, which means they can naturally pollinate through wind, birds, insects, or humans. Plants that retain the same characteristics as their parent plants are considered heirlooms. This is a crucial factor in maintaining the traits that make these plants so special and distinguish them from the ever-increasing number of hybrid plants. Open pollination ensures that the seeds you harvest from your heirloom plants will grow into plants with the same features season after season.

On the other hand, hybrid plants are created by controlled cross-pollination between two different plant varieties to produce offspring with specific characteristics. These plants are often bred for traits such as higher yields, disease resistance, or uniform appearance. However, the seeds collected from hybrid plants may not “breed true” and can result in plants with varying characteristics.

It’s essential to distinguish between open-pollinated heirlooms and hybrid plants when planning your garden because choosing the appropriate seeds will impact your garden’s success. If you like to save seeds, you must stick with heirloom plants because the seeds of a hybrid variety must be purchased year after year.  Not to mention, with heirloom plants, you get the joy of preserving history, supporting biodiversity, and embracing the craftsmanship of our ancestors, all while cultivating a thriving and unique garden.

Popular Heirloom Vegetable Varieties

cherokee purple tomatoes, an heirloom plant growing in a garden


  • Brandywine‘: Dating back to the 1880s, ‘Brandywine’ is probably the most well-known heirloom variety. It’s loved for its large, beefsteak-style tomatoes and rich, sweet flavor.
  • Green Zebra‘: This fun, stripey variety isn’t just pretty to look at – it also packs a tangy flavor punch. The fruit stays green, even when ripe, adding an interesting color mix to your tomato harvest.
  • Cherokee Purple‘: Originating from the Cherokee Native American tribe, this tomato is known for its dark, dusky skin and incredibly rich, sweet flavor, making it a firm favorite among many tomato connoisseurs.
  • Black Krim‘: This Russian variety is admired for its unique dark red to nearly black fruit. Its smoky, slightly salty flavor adds an exciting twist to many dishes.
  • San Marzano‘: Often hailed as the definitive pizza and pasta sauce tomato, ‘San Marzano’ has been a staple in Italian cuisine since the 18th century. It’s a plum tomato, known for its sweet flavor and low seed content.
  • Yellow Pear‘: As its name suggests, this tomato grows in a cute, pear-like shape and has a bright yellow color. Its mild and sweet flavor, coupled with its adorable appearance, makes it a great addition to salads
  • Mortgage Lifter‘: This large, pink, beefsteak-type tomato became famous during the Great Depression for supposedly helping its creator pay off his mortgage. It’s revered for its excellent, sweet flavor and high yield.

heirloom lettuce growing in a raised bed


  • Black Seeded Simpson‘: Introduced in the 1850s, this fast-growing, green-leaf lettuce is cherished for its delicate flavor and adaptability to a wide range of climates.
  • Paris Island Cos‘: This heirloom romaine lettuce dates back to the late 19th century. It’s known for its crisp, sweet leaves, making it a classic choice for Caesar salads.
  • Grandpa Admire’s‘: A beautiful, bronze-tinged, butterhead-type lettuce that was passed down through generations of the Admire family in Missouri. It’s highly prized for its mild, buttery flavor.
  • Forellenschluss‘: Also known as ‘Speckled Trout Back’, this Austrian heirloom variety is loved for its green, glossy leaves speckled with maroon. It brings both vibrant taste and visual appeal to the salad bowl.
  • Red Iceberg‘: An interesting twist on the classic iceberg lettuce, ‘Red Iceberg’ brings a splash of color with its crisp, red-tinged leaves, adding a mild yet slightly sweet crunch to salads.
  • Tennis Ball‘: Popular in the 19th century, this small butterhead lettuce was reputedly grown by Thomas Jefferson. It’s compact, making it great for small gardens, and it has tender, sweet leaves.
  • Marvel of Four Seasons‘: A French heirloom variety known as ‘Merveille des Quatre Saisons’, it sports beautiful red and green leaves and offers a robust flavor. As the name suggests, it’s adaptable to a range of growing conditions across all four seasons.

Heirloom carrots in a variety of colors


  • Scarlet Nantes‘: A French heirloom from the 1850s, this variety is known for its sweet, crispy, bright orange roots. It’s a reliable all-rounder that’s great for all carrot purposes.
  • Paris Market‘: Also known as ‘Tonda di Parigi’, this 19th-century French variety produces round, bite-sized carrots. They’re perfect for container gardening or growing in heavy soil where longer carrots may struggle.
  • ‘Purple Dragon‘: With their stunning purple skin and orange core, these carrots are a feast for the eyes and the palate. They bring a mild, sweet flavor and an exciting splash of color to any dish.
  • Yellowstone‘: As the name suggests, ‘Yellowstone’ produces long, bright yellow carrots. They’re not just pretty; they’re also crisp and sweet, adding a nice pop of color and flavor to salads.
  • Cosmic Purple‘: This modern heirloom variety has a beautiful, deep purple skin that contrasts dramatically with its bright orange interior. It’s known for its sweet, slightly spicy flavor.
  • White Satin‘: These immaculate, creamy white carrots add a dash of sophistication to the dinner table. They’re crisp, sweet, and a lovely surprise in carrot-based dishes.
  • Atomic Red‘: If you’re after a real showstopper, try this variety. ‘Atomic Red’ carrots are extremely high in lycopene, which gives them their vivid, reddish hue and packs a healthful punch.

Heirloom cherokee trail of tears pole beans growing in a raised bed garden.  There is a pink flamingo in the garden along with marigolds and mizuna.


  • Scarlet Runner‘: As the name suggests, this variety produces gorgeous scarlet flowers, making it both a visual treat and a pantry staple. Its large, flavorful beans are great in stews.
  • ‘Kentucky Wonder‘: Introduced in the 1850s, this green pole bean is beloved for its stringless, tender pods and excellent, full flavor. They are also known as ‘Old Homestead’.
  • Jacob’s Cattle‘: This striking bean is white with deep maroon splashes. It’s a type of heirloom kidney bean and is excellent for baked dishes or in hearty stews.
  • Cherokee Trail of Tears‘: Named in honor of the Cherokee Nation, these beans were carried along the forced relocation known as the Trail of Tears. They produce shiny, black beans that are perfect for soups and chili.
  • Blue Lake‘: This heirloom variety, first introduced in the early 20th century, is often the standard for green beans due to its flavor and reliability. It’s versatile, great either fresh or canned.
  • Tiger’s Eye‘: Known for its beautiful, golden yellow color with maroon streaks, this variety is perfect for Latin American dishes like chili and refried beans.
  • Good Mother Stallard’: This variety produces lovely, speckled red-and-white beans. They’re especially good in soups, where their rich, meaty flavor can truly shine.

heirloom pepper plants with red and green peppers growing


  • Jimmy Nardello‘: Despite its fiery red color, this Italian heirloom variety is one of the sweetest around. It’s perfect for frying and roasting and adds a delightful sweetness to any dish.
  • Fish‘: An intriguing variety that has been used in traditional African-American cuisine since the 19th century. It’s famous for its variegated leaves and striped, hot fruits.
  • Pasilla Bajio‘: A classic in Mexican cuisine, this pepper turns from dark green to brown when ripe. It’s moderately hot and commonly used in making traditional mole sauces.
  • Alma Paprika‘: These peppers are sweet and slightly spicy. They start off white, ripen to orange, and finally turn red. They’re perfect for making homemade paprika.
  • Bull’s Horn‘: Also known as ‘Corno di Toro’, this Italian heirloom pepper is prized for its sweet, flavorful taste. It’s excellent for roasting, stuffing, or eating fresh in salads.
  • Anaheim‘: This versatile pepper can be used when green or ripe and red. It’s mildly spicy and is popular in many Southwestern and Mexican dishes.
  • Chocolate Beauty‘: This bell pepper variety gets its name from the beautiful chocolate color it turns at maturity. It’s sweet, thick-walled, and great for adding a pop of unusual color to dishes.

Now that you have a better understanding of these popular heirloom vegetable varieties, consider adding them to your garden. Your taste buds and future dishes will surely thank you!

Heirloom Fruits and Flowers

Heirloom plants are cherished for their unique characteristics, historical significance, and incredible flavors. In this section, you’ll discover heirloom fruits and flowers to inspire your garden and delight your senses.

Fruit Trees

Heirloom fruit trees provide you with delicious, old-fashioned flavors that you may not find in standard store-bought produce. Some of the popular heirloom fruit trees include:

  • Apple ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin‘: This classic English apple variety from the 19th century is highly prized for its delightful balance of sweet and sharp flavors. It’s perfect for eating fresh and also great for cooking.
  • Cherry ‘Montmorency‘: Known as the classic pie cherry, ‘Montmorency’ has been a favorite for its tart, tangy fruit since the 17th century. Plus, its bright white spring blossoms are a sight to behold.
  • Peach ‘Elberta‘: Introduced in the late 1800s, the ‘Elberta’ peach has a reputation for its freestone nature and sweet, juicy flavor. It’s a long-standing favorite for canning, baking, and fresh eating.
  • Pear ‘Bartlett‘: With its juicy, aromatic flesh, the ‘Bartlett’ pear is a staple of many heirloom orchards. Originating in England in the late 18th century, it’s one of the oldest pear varieties still in commercial production.
  • Plum ‘Damson‘: Valued for its culinary uses, the ‘Damson’ plum boasts a rich, tart flavor perfect for making jams, jellies, and traditional British plum pudding. This small, purple fruit has been a garden treasure since ancient times.
  • Fig ‘Brown Turkey‘: This is a highly productive and reliable variety, producing sweet, richly flavored fruit. It’s known for its hardiness and versatility, thriving in a variety of climates.
  • Citrus ‘Meyer Lemon‘: Introduced to the U.S. in the early 20th century, this fruit tree produces sweeter, less acidic lemons than the common types. It’s an excellent choice for indoor growing and container gardening.

heirloom plant - black eyed Susan vine


Heirloom vines grace your garden with exceptional fruits and impressive displays. Some examples of heirloom vines to consider include:

  • Concord’ Grape: This is the classic grape for making grape jelly and juice. Its large, purple-black fruit clusters ripen in late summer to early fall and have a sweet, slightly musky flavor.
  • ‘Red Malabar’ Spinach: While not technically a fruit, the red-stemmed vine is strikingly beautiful and produces tasty, spinach-like leaves that are a wonderful addition to summer salads.
  • ‘Heavenly Blue‘ Morning Glory: This variety boasts large, sky-blue flowers that open in the morning. It’s a vigorous climber that adds a pop of color to fences and trellises.
  • Scarlet O’Hara’ Morning Glory: These bright red flowers will light up your garden and can add a lovely fragrance to your home when used as cut flowers.
  • ‘Grandpa Ott’s‘ Morning Glory: An heirloom variety with vibrant, deep purple flowers that have a pink star in the center. It’s a vigorous grower and will happily climb trellises, arbors, and fences.
  • Black-Eyed Susan’ Vine: Also known as Thunbergia, this vine has stunning orange-yellow flowers with a dark center eye. It’s a great climber and adds a tropical touch to your garden.

Heirloom pink peony growing in the front garden

Heirloom Flowers

Heirloom flowers offer an unmatched elegance and old-world charm. They provide color, fragrance, and beauty, as well as being a valuable resource for pollinators. Some heirloom flowers you might want to include in your garden are:

  • ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ Peony: This double pink peony, named after the famous French actress, has been a garden classic since the early 20th century. It’s renowned for its beautiful, fragrant blossoms.
  • ‘Bishop of Llandaff‘ Dahlia: Dating back to the 1920s, this dahlia variety stands out with its dark, almost black foliage and bright red flowers.
  • Granny’s Bonnet’ Columbine: Also known as ‘Nora Barlow’, this unique columbine variety produces an intriguing mix of green and pink flowers. It dates back to Victorian times.
  • Lemon Queen’ Sunflower: A perennial favorite, this sunflower variety produces beautiful pale yellow flowers. It’s also a favorite among bees and butterflies!
  • ‘Painted Lady’ Sweet Pea: This bi-colored sweet pea was first introduced in the 1730s and has been beloved ever since for its vibrant colors and sweet fragrance.

By introducing heirloom fruits and flowers to your garden, you’re not only preserving history but also enjoying nature’s bounty and beauty with each passing season.

Benefits of Heirloom Plants

Flavor and Rich Taste

Heirloom plants often provide more flavorful fruits and vegetables compared to their hybrid counterparts. This is because heirlooms have not been bred for commercial production, which can prioritize traits like size and shelf life over taste. With heirloom plants, you can enjoy fruits and vegetables that have a rich, delicious taste that you can’t find in large-scale commercial produce.

Attracting Pollinators

Heirloom plants are often more strongly scented, which makes them ideal for attracting pollinators like butterflies and hummingbirds. Pollinators play a vital role in maintaining your garden’s overall health, as well as promoting biodiversity in your local ecosystem. By growing heirloom plants, you can help support and nurture these important creatures.

  • Enhance your garden with eye-catching, fragrant heirloom flowers
  • Provide vital resources for butterflies, hummingbirds, bees, and other pollinators
  • Contribute to the overall biodiversity in your area

Health Benefits

Heirloom plants may offer greater health benefits compared to hybrid varieties. Many heirloom vegetables are believed to have higher levels of essential nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. In addition, when you grow your own heirloom plants using organic heirloom seeds, you can feel confident that you’re providing your family with produce that is free from synthetic pesticides and genetically modified organisms.

When you choose heirloom plants for your garden, you are making a choice that supports biodiversity, encourages healthier eating, and provides a richer flavor experience. This means you can enjoy the many benefits of heirloom plants in your garden while also helping to preserve the genetic diversity of our food sources for future generations.

Tips for Successfully Growing Heirloom Plants

Choosing the Right Heirloom Plants for Your Garden

When selecting heirloom plants for your garden, consider your climate, available space, and personal preferences. Start by researching heirloom varieties well-suited to your area’s growing conditions. Next, think about the size of your garden and the types of vegetables or flowers you’d like to grow. Keep in mind that some heirloom plants require more space or specific soil conditions to thrive. Along with environmental factors, choose plants that align with your taste preferences and will bring you joy as you watch them grow.

Choosing Heirloom Seeds

Before starting your heirloom garden, find high-quality seeds. Look for reputable seed companies that specialize in heirloom seeds. They often provide detailed information about each variety, including its origin, climate requirements, and care needs. Choose seeds from plants that have a history of being open-pollinated and non-hybridized, ensuring the plants you grow will produce consistent traits over time.

  • Buy seeds from a reputable source
  • Select open-pollinated, non-hybridized varieties
  • Look for detailed information about plant requirements and care

Gardening and Maintenance Tips

Caring for your heirloom plants is an essential part of ensuring their success. Here are a few maintenance tips to keep in mind:

  1. Watering: Water your plants thoroughly.  If you are growing in containers, allow water to run out of the drainage hole. Avoid leaving plants standing in water for longer than an hour, as soggy conditions can cause damage. We recommend bottom watering for some plants, such as African violets and tomatoes.
  2. Fertilizing: Heirloom plants often require regular fertilizing to bloom and fruit successfully. For example, heirloom tomatoes are heavy feeders that need frequent fertilization.
  3. Spacing: Give your heirloom plants enough space to grow. Avoid overcrowding, which can lead to disease and reduce yield.
  4. Harvesting Seeds: If you plan to save seeds for future planting, let fruits mature on the plant well past the point when you would pick them for eating. This allows the seeds to fully mature for proper seed saving. 

Final Thoughts

The journey of growing heirloom plants in your home garden can be truly rewarding, both for you as a gardener and for the ecosystem around you. Not only do these precious plants add splashes of unparalleled beauty to your backyard with their unique shapes, sizes, and colors, but they also nourish the biodiversity of our environment. 

By choosing to grow heirloom plants, you are contributing to the preservation of history and genetic diversity, which in turn supports healthier soil and promotes a balanced ecosystem. Every seed you plant is a testament to generations of gardeners who have cherished these varieties and passed them down through time, like cherished family treasures.

Beyond the environmental benefits, heirloom gardening can provide a profound sense of fulfillment. There’s something truly magical about reaping the fruits of your labor, be it the mouth-watering sweetness of an heirloom tomato, the tantalizing aroma of heritage roses, or the vivid hues of a treasured bean variety. 

Remember, growing heirlooms is not merely about horticultural success; it’s about experiencing the joy of discovery, the anticipation of the seasons, and the satisfaction of knowing you are a custodian of living history. As you journey on this path, don’t forget to share your experiences, your seeds, and your passion with others—keeping the rich tapestry of heirloom varieties vibrant for generations to come.  Happy gardening!