What does “heirloom” mean?

I just got back from the first annual National Heirloom Exposition in Santa Rosa, CA. When I was telling this to a friend, they asked, “What does ‘heirloom’ mean?”

Good question. I took a shot from my understanding: “Non-optimized produce”, but that’s an engineer’s answer. Clearly, I was ready to get a farming education.

Heirloom, in the agricultural sense, is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a horticultural variety that has survived for several generations usually due to the efforts of private individuals.” Most of the definitions I heard at the festival described “plants that have come true for 50 years”; that is, they have had offspring that showed the same characteristics as the parent and are not a hybrid for half a century at least.

OK, so we have a working definition of what can be considered a heirloom. At the expo, however, it is clear that the spirit of heirloom is far more important than the definition.

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