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Here come the plant police

What, exactly, is an heirloom?

Narcissus,daffodil,‘Tête-à-tête’,heirloom Image ©GardenPhotos.com (all rights reserved) Leafing through the tempting new White Flower Farm catalog this morning, I came across the news that the delightful little daffodil ‘Tête-à-tête’ (left, click to enlarge) is an “Heirloom, pre-1949.” Hmmm… don’t think so. Not an heirloom and not pre-1949. It was actually raised by Alec Gray, the noted breeder of dwarf daffodils, and introduced by him, in England, in 1956, at five shillings a bulb.

Two issues arise from that little phrase, “Heirloom, pre-1949.” The only place I’ve found that notes ‘Tête-à-tête’ as pre-1949 is an English academic website listing the daffodil varieties in its collection. Sorry, it’s mistaken. Full marks to WFF for researching the history of the variety, but that website is misled them.

But that little slip is not the really point, its more the implication that because it’s more than fifty years old it must be an heirloom – in spite of the fact that it’s a British variety, raised by a dedicated breeder of daffodils.

And I’ve come across this before – I once heard a lecturer describe one of David Austin’s early English Roses, the gorgeous ‘Mary Rose’ (right, click to enlarge), from 1983, as an heirloom – “you can tell by the old-fashioned look of the blooms”. Hah! Rose,Rosa,Mary Rose,'Ausmary',English rose. Image ©David Austin Roses

So what, exactly, is an heirloom? Joel M. Lerner had an interesting piece in the Washington Post earlier this year in which he says that “almost all heirlooms are considered products of natural pollination, generally not derived from hybridizing, grafts or other human intervention” and reports that Jo Ann Gardiner, author of Heirloom Flower Gardens , considers that “heirlooms are plants we know because we grew up with them.”

Wikipedia says: “An heirloom plant, heirloom variety, or heirloom vegetable is a cultivar that was commonly grown during earlier periods in human history, but which is not used in modern large-scale agriculture.”

Tomato,Tigerella,Mr Stripey,heirloom. Image ©GardenPhotos.com (all rights reserved) None of these definitions is very satisfactory. ‘Tigerella’ tomato (left, click to enlarge), often listed as an heirloom, was specifically bred (in Britain, by the Glasshouse Crops Research Institute, I seem to recall) to combine good flavor with the striped skin – not “a product of natural pollination”; I grew up with ‘Carefree’ geraniums in the garden but these are F1 hybrids, surely the antithesis of the heirloom concept; ‘Tête-à-tête’ daffodils now represent an amazing 34% of Dutch daffodil production – I’d say that qualifies as “large scale agriculture”.

So… the question is: What, exactly, defines an heirloom? Thoughts?

BTW The authoritative sources on ‘Tête-à-tête’ are Modern Miniature Daffodils by James Wells and Golden Harvest: The Story of Daffodil Growing in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly by Andrew Tompsett. I'll come back to the intriguing origins of this variety another time.


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I've never thought about what an heirloom is, but I would consider it something old, unique, and open pollinated.


Interesting - I hadn't really thought about a horticultural definition of "heirloom". From a language point of view, I would expect the word to mean something that was unique and to be treasured - which certainly doesn't apply to 'Tete-a-Tete'. It's a lovely little plant, but I hate the way that - as you say - it has taken over the world. Especially when there are so many gorgeous "heirloom" narcissi to try instead.

Graham Rice

Yes, "old, unique, and open pollinated" sounds pretty good although I'm not sure where apples, for example, fit in; "unique and to be treasured" also sounds pretty good...

But it's almost as if heirloom means any old variety that inspires some sort of emotional attachment.

Trouble is, if we don't have something a little more precise then it just degenerates into another marketing word.

Charlie Greene

This whole heirloom thing is a hoax. Why rescue and bring back all these varieties when the reason most people gave up growing them was that they get diseased, the yields are poor or when you sow seed of an heirloom pink cosmos you get plants in four or five different colors. Most have been replaced by modern varieties for very good reasons.


I agree that we need a definition. There are official definitions for e.g. vintage cars, so why not for heirloom plants? If it's going to be helpful, the definition needs to be verifiable and reasonably objective.

How about something like this:
First named more than 100 years ago
Obviously different from other cultivars of the species

Graham Rice

A hundred years is a long time, Mjausson... It would exclude, for example, many of the superb Grandiflora sweet peas - for a few years, at least. And of course the open-pollination couldn't apply to plants like apples and roses propagated by cuttings or grafting.


Good question, I think you're right, heirloom is pretty vague. I've always used heirloom to signify open pollinated plants that grow true to type. Some items I've grown as heirloom I've selected because they're more heavily scented than later cultivars, but have also been focusing more on native species in my beds.

Graham Rice

One problem that a lot of gardeners have, Lisa, is that heirloom annuals and vegetables are not always true to type because home seed savers are not always very rigorous about removing rogues (off types).

TR Brand Jeans

This could be evidence that the man is an inarticulate bufffoon. Instead, viewed from the frame of his position, the interviewer imputes - without evidence - “brilliant” thoughts to him, and commends his “cerebral manner“.

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