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Exactly what an heirloom plant is can mean different things to different people. We consider heirloom fruit trees as varieties that have developed a historical or cultural significance which have been passed from generation-to-generation and often has a local or even familial significance. There is no hard and fast definition of “heirloom” as we also consider age a determining factor in the “heirloom” designation. We consider an heirloom to be no younger than 60 years old to qualify, because that would ensure its origins prior to WWII, when modern agriculture emerged and varieties began to be patented. Simply stated I've found defining heirloom cultivars is to use the definition of heirloom in its truest sense. A true heirloom is a cultivar that has been nurtured, selected, and handed down from one family member to another for many generations.
You may be wondering, "That's great, but are heirloom trees worth my time?" The common supermarket varieties appeal to commercial growers because they need fruit that ripens all at once, doesn’t bruise easily, grows high yields, ships and stores for extended lengths of time, and sits on the shelf without a blemish. Flavor is often a secondary consideration. These requirements are essential for commercial growers to meet because consumers have come to expect visually homogeneous fruit. This demand eliminates our cherished trees’ unique qualities like the Ashmeads Kernel’s shy bearing nature and russeted skin, or the diminutive, but uniquely sweet and pronounced tang of the Wickson apple. Our heirloom and traditional fruit trees exist thanks in great part to the home gardeners who continue to explore beyond the store shelves in search of a treasured trait that has eluded many of our supermarket aisles. We encourage everyone to maintain this search and share in the revival of these relics from the past. It’s a unique experience to bite into a fruit that explodes with a complexity of sweetness chased with a dash of tartness. What a delight to realize, after savoring this discovery, that this is one of thousands of flavors waiting to be rediscovered.