Antique Seed Catalogs and Heirloom Gardening

On Heirloom Plants

When you think of an “heirloom plant”, you may be imagining a plant that has changed little in over a hundred years—something our great- great-grandparents would have farmed and eaten.  However, the definition of an heirloom plant is a bit more fluid than that, and not only includes edibles but also plants such as flowers, herbs, bulbs, and shrubs.  In fact, there is no singular consensus on how many years a plant has to have remained unchanged to be considered an heirloom.  Some groups use cut-off dates—meaning dates after which the plant has not changed.  For instance, 1940 is the cut-off date used by the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in Virigina.  The Heirloom Garden at the National Museum of American History uses a cut-off date of 1950.  Plants can be considered heirloom if they have not changed in 50, 75, and 100 years; there is not a single date used by a single, overriding authority.

Interestingly, the genetic make-up of an heirloom plant is also not necessarily unchanged over time, as one might assume.  While heirloom plants are plants that breed true to seed by open-pollinated, natural means, i.e., wind, water, insects, animals, etc., a certain amount of genetic crossing can take place naturally and the plant will still be considered an heirloom.  In technical terms, an open pollinated heirloom plant will seem extremely similar to its parent plant in looks and genetic composition, but will not necessarily have the exact same genetic make-up as the parent.  Sometimes flowering plants, mainly food crops, need to be isolated to prevent cross-breeding with neighboring plant species.  However, sometimes hybrid plants containing crossed characteristics from two different parent plants can be considered heirlooms if they are open pollinated and become stabilized over a long enough period of time (at least eighty years). Learn more about hybrids in our previous post.

Heirloom vegetables have been passed down over generations, often being 50, 75 or 100 years in cultivation.  Heirloom gardeners use seed saving techniques or buy seeds from heirloom seed companies.  You can explore various antique seed catalogs in the Biodiversity Heritage Library’s collection here to see the types of seeds our ancestors used, some of which are now heirloom varieties if they have been carefully preserved over time to maintain the same genetic traits (as explained above).  Aside from vegetables, people have also preserved flowers over time, creating heirloom varieties.  The Heirloom Garden at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History contains shrubs, perennials, annuals, bulbs and tropicals grown in American gardens prior to 1950.

Prior to, and during, WWII, many people grew their own vegetables in backyard gardens.  When many hybrid plants were produced after the War, creating plants with desirable traits and increased yields, a large number of people wanted to preserve their own seed because they missed old varieties of plants.  This led to the beginning of the heirloom gardening movement.  The first use of the term “heirloom” in relation to plants appears to be in describing edible crops, most likely bean seeds, in the 1940s: Professor J. R. Hepler at the University of New Hampshire told John Withee, prominent bean seed collector, about some beans given to him by friends and described them as “heirloom”.  Widespread use of the term was cemented in 1981 when Kent Whealy, co-founder of Seed Savers Exchange, gave a speech in Tucson using the term after obtaining permission to use it from John Withee.

Seed Catalogs and Heirloom Gardening

Many heirloom plants are available through seed catalogs.  A majority of these catalogs are currently held in different collections, and by looking at images and reading descriptions of plants in these catalogs, one can determine when certain heirloom varieties which still exist today were first introduced.  You can search the Biodiversity Heritage Library for heirloom plants by scientific name (the genus and specific epithet) and find old catalogs, magazines and publications containing that name. For instance, search for Nicotiana sylvestris in the Biodiversity Heritage Library catalog and you will find the beautifully-illustrated Maule’s Seed Catalogue from 1900.  Below is an image of the Maule’s page featuring Nicotiana sylvestris (click here to view that page in the catalog online).  Nicotiana sylvestris is a night scented tobacco plant, also called “Woodland Tobacco”, that grows up to five feet tall with three-to-four inch hanging trumpet-shaped white blossoms that open in the evening to release a sweet scent–and you can learn more and still purchase this heirloom plant today at places like Seed Saver’s Exchange!

Older seed catalogs are especially helpful to the modern heirloom gardener—peruse the catalogs to discover the plants you might like to have in your garden, and then search for heirloom seed varieties of those plants at modern companies such as Seed Savers Exchange and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.  Check out the beautiful seed catalogs available at the Biodiversity Heritage Library here.

Happy seed catalog viewing and heirloom gardening!

Garden Stories: A Week Long Event for Garden Lovers

All this week, we’ll be exploring the fascinating world of gardening, including garden history topics such as the development of hybrids, heirloom gardening, women in the seed industry, revolutions in garden marketing through art, and the vital role the Shakers played in the American seed industry. We’ll also be sharing great gardening tips and plant factoids with help from our BHL members and affiliates. And we’ll be using the over 14,000 seed and nursery catalogs in BHL to help tell these stories. Join in all the gardening fun by:

Special thanks to Joseph Brunetti and Erin Clark at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History HeirloomGarden for their significant contributions.


  • Adams, Denise Wiles.  Restoring American Gardens: An Encyclopedia of Heirloom Ornamental Plants, 1640-1940.  Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2004.
  • Weaver, William Woys.  Heirloom Vegetable Gardening: A Master Gardener’s Guide to Planting, Seed Saving, and Cultural History.  New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1997.
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Laurel Byrnes is a Virtual Marketing Volunteer for the Biodiversity Heritage Library at Smithsonian Libraries.