New England Pie pumpkins have history before the 1890's
The short answer: Everybody knows, nobody agrees.
Yes, there are plenty of opinions and no real consensus on the subject. Many sources will limit an Heirloom variety to having a beginning before a specific year or time period. This is a bit arbitrary. Heirlooms are more than that. Old and new varieties do not
JImmy Nardello's sweet frying pepper. Named for their son Jimmy and brought from Italy in 1887 by Guiseppe and Angela Nardello.
Costata Romanesca squash, a very old Italian Heirloom
appear out of nowhere, they are not random chance. They are the result of generations upon generations of care and selection. They are living antiques, a priceless inheritance of flavor and beauty.
'Wikipedia.com' says “An heirloom is something of value …that has been passed down for generations through family members.” Heirloom varieties of plants are just that. A variety passed form generation to generation, they usually have great stories surrounding them and sometimes great traits (value) such as incredible or distinct flavor, hardiness, or local adaptation assuming the family lived in the same area for quite some time. Many Heirloom seeds are over a hundred years old, many times more, and some Native and indigenous varieties have histories that pre-date records. Heirlooms possess great qualities which is why folks take the trouble to save them every year.
Heirlooms plants may have had a commercial source at one time or another, but just the fact that a seed company originated or decided to appropriate and sell an Heirloom at one time or another doesn’t make it any more or less an Heirloom. Take the famous Brandywine tomato as an example. The variety is now so popular with that the variety is sold in many commercial seed catalogs. It’s still an Heirloom.
Heirlooms varieties are usually awesome in many ways. Heirlooms are usually very regionally adapted as families typically stay in the same general area of the world. Because gardeners typically don’t ship their produce or mass produce it, they will select only the best tasting and most delicious fruits or plants, select only the ones that did great for their garden area and constantly refine them every year. This is how the distinctness and uniqueness between varieties develops, particularly in strains of the same variety.
By necessity an Heirloom variety must be open-pollinated (non-hybrid) and non-GMO. Open-pollinated means that the variety is not a hybrid, and will come back true to itself every year. GMO crops are a modern patented invention, which involve the splicing of genes foreign to the plants DNA. (You can read more about non-GMO and GM crops here) (Read more about the difference between hybrid and open-pollinated here.)
One of the great appeals of Heirloom plants is their flavor and quality. Many old varieties of vegetables boast superior flavor over their modern versions, or superior scent in the case of flowers. After generations of selection, the best of the Heirloom plants will often have it all: Dynamite flavor, beautiful looks, and easy care.
Of course, they can also have their faults. Some heirlooms may be so regionally adapted that they may do horribly in your climate or unusual soil types. You may have a common regional disease that it may be susceptible to.
There are a couple of ways we attempt to solve these faults. This is part of the point of our annual trials at Solera Seeds. We test hundreds of varieties against a wide range of conditions, even trialing them in other portions of the country. Currently most of our offerings are widely adaptable and all-around excellent performers wherever you may choose to grow them. As our seed offerings and grower network expand, we will become better able to categorize varieties based upon their preferred region, so when you choose an Heirloom variety you can know that it is the best fit for your area. One great way to anticipate the common problems you may have in your garden, is to contact your local Extension Service or Master Gardeners association, and they can help fill you in on the diseases and pests you can most likely expect.
Although on occasion a shot in the dark, in the end Heirloom vegetables and flowers are rewarding on so many levels. The diversity, history, and uniqueness of so many rare Heirloom plants makes every season an adventure. And when you find your favorites, they become your Heirlooms too, and you can pass them on to generations of gardeners.