People, Plants, and Plant Propagation

Heirloom Gardener’s Editor-in-Chief, Hank Will, on heirloom cultivars.

  • Raw Organic Red Delicious Apples Ready to Eat
    Photo by Getty Images/bhofack2

We occasionally receive letters from folks who eschew the patenting of plants, or hybridization, or even of propagation using laboratory methods, such as tissue culture. Some insist that all heirloom cultivars must be open pollinated and true-breeding, which means they will reproduce faithfully from seed without hybridization. True-breeding is indeed a part of the heirloom definition, but not for many woody fruit cultivars.

Some of the most famous heirloom apples, including ‘Red Delicious,’ originated as suckers, rootstock sprouts, or sports. These tissues were propagated asexually using grafting or budding. In the case of ‘Red Delicious,’ while they didn’t discover it, the Stark Bros. nursery of Louisiana, Missouri obtained the exclusive right to propagate and sell the cultivar for a fixed period, and successfully trademarked it with the U.S. Patent Office in 1905.

Beyond the realm of woody fruits, the processes of hybridization, selective breeding, and vegetative propagation have all been employed in the development of new cultivars, even heirloom ones. The offspring from crosses were then grown for many generations, selected for desirable traits, and eventually line bred. Humans are remarkable in their ability to apply creative technologies to any endeavor and are willing to protect their discoveries by legal means.

If you’ve used any form of crossing, selective breeding, budding, or grafting of sports or other mutants to develop your own unique heirlooms of tomorrow, I’d love to hear about them. Please email me at, and we may compile some profiles into a short piece for a future issue of the magazine.

See you in spring,



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