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What’s all the fuss and just what is an heirloom plant?

Register • Apr 21, 2014 at 8:56 AM

Meet Marshall Cletis Byles, also known as “Radiator Charlie”

Charlie was a radiator repairman in Logan, W. Va., during the 1930s. He owned a small repair shop at the bottom of a mountain. The location of his shop insured steady business as trucks overheated on the mountain and had to roll back down for some much necessary radiator work. Despite the success of his shop, the Great Depression was looming and Charlie needed other ways to keep afloat.

Charlie was also an amateur, but skilled, tomato breeder. He cross-pollinated four beefsteak varieties, putting the biggest one in the center of his patch and surrounding it with the others. Charlie’s eventual dream tomato resulted in twopound fruits. Charlie sold the plants at one dollar apiece and paid off his $6,000. mortgage in six years.

Details of Charlie’s story vary from source to source, but if you see Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter tomato starts in your local nursery, think of Charlie and be prepared for one of the most flavorful heirloom tomatoes. Mortgage Lifter bears fruit in about 80 days, is on the meaty side, and can be either red or pink.

Also consider the Cherokee Trail of Tears bean. Cherokee ancestors carried this bean in their pockets on their forced relocation from North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains to Oklahoma in l838-39. Four thousand perished along the way. The Cherokee Trail of Tears bean boasts six-inch green pods with purple stripes. The beans have a pole habit and are good snapped or dried; they mature in 85 days.

A favorite of Thomas Jefferson was Tennis Ball lettuce, a parent of Boston lettuce types. Folklore claims that the heirloom tomato variety named Polish was smuggled into the U.S. on the back of postage stamps. Broad Ripple Yellow Currant tomato was found growing in a crack near 56th and College Streets in Indianapolis. That’s one tough tomato.

What’s all the fuss and just what is an heirloom?

Taylor’s Guide to Heirloom Vegetables offers three criteria. One, the variety must be true-to- type from seed saved from each fruit; two, seed must have been available for more than 50 years; and three, the variety must have a history and folklore of its own.

A comparison of heirlooms with their popular hybrid counterparts can help illustrate the advantages and challenges of each.


Heirlooms may get the nod here, though taste is subjective. Heirloom seeds have been nurtured through generations for flavor. Hybrids often sacrifice flavor for other traits. Take, for instance, the carrot. Some are bred to be super strong, a characteristic that allows machines to pull the carrots out of the ground without their breaking. Easy to harvest, but often tough and hard to chew.


Heirloom seed can be saved and replanted. Offspring from hybrid plants are extremely unpredictable and will not produce true-to-type. As a result, you must purchase new seeds or seedlings each year.


Hybrids are often hardier, more pest and disease resistant plants often grown for uniformity in size, shape, and ripening, as well as durability in shipping and shelf life. Heirlooms may require more care.


Hybrids generally have higher seed viability, a number that indicates the percentage of seeds that sprout versus those planted. Heirloom seeds generally do not ripen at the same speed, allowing the gardener to extend the harvest time.


There is a wealth of heirloom varieties available from seed. The choices are more limited with plant starts from your local nursery, although heirlooms are gaining in prominence.

Heirlooms vs. hybrids? Consider your gardening needs and wants.

As for me, I’m just hooked on the stories.

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