What are Heirloom Seeds?

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Heirloom seeds, heirloom vegetables, and heirloom gardening are becoming increasingly popular today. Many people are turning or returning to home gardening for a variety of reasons, and heirloom seeds figure prominently. Some of these include an interest in fresh, local and healthy foods, others need to stretch the family food budget, some need additional exercise – preferably outdoors, and still others are searching for the lost flavors of the family garden when they were growing up.

All of this interest has created some confusion as to what an heirloom seed truly is. Some think that the term “heirloom” is the same as “organic”. Other folks think that anything that is not organic or heirloom means that it is GMO. To make matters worse, some larger seed companies sell both heirloom and hybrid seeds that are certified organic, further confusing the matter.

Seed saving represents our original relationship to the land, a mutualism or symbiosis between us as humans and the plant kingdom. It is the basis of our understanding of seasonal cycles and time for planting; the use of plants for food, tools, art, and medicine; and the development of crops through domestication which is the foundation of our economy, social system, and technology.

An heirloom is anything of value (though not necessarily economic) to a person, family or group passed down from one generation to other. Examples are furniture, China, silver or seeds. An heirloom is generally considered something worth passing down. An heirloom seed, therefore, is a seed from a plant that has been passed from one generation to another, carefully grown and saved because it is considered valuable. The value could lie in its flavor, productivity, hardiness or adaptability. Many heirlooms have been grown, saved and passed down for more than 100 years. Some have the history reaching back 300 years or more. To have been saved and preserved for so long, these seed varieties have shown their value to many people and families for an extremely long time.

Most heirlooms have been saved and selected because they have the best flavor and production in home and small market gardens. We get the benefit of this long development cycle, as only the best producing, most flavorful, most memorable and most dependable varieties have made the selection throughout the years. Delicate, weak or fickle varieties are no longer with us.

Seed saving is central to the ideals of sustainability and food security, especially in times of concern about climate change and food safety. Only open pollinated, heirloom seeds (landraces) have the ability to adapt to changing climate conditions in the time frame that they happen. We are likely to see climate changes that manifest as dry spells and drought; late and early frosts; hail storms and floods; insect and other attacks on crops; etc. The variability inherent in landscapes will provide the basis for the continued selection of crops that are most able to adapt to these changes.

Genetically Modified Organisms or GMO seed have been altered using DNA from completely different species and organisms to give different traits such as resistance to herbicides and acceptance of chemical fertilizers. Some GMO corn, for instance, manufactures its own herbicide in its root structure. Some DNA donors have come from fish, frogs, and bacteria. The major crops that are genetically modified are corn, cotton, soybeans, and wheat. Sugar beets and alfalfa have recently been deregulated, and potatoes are being studied. Most common garden vegetables are not yet genetically modified simply because the financial return in the market is not present yet.

Two of the better-known benefits of heirloom seed include adaptability and flavor. Some varieties of heirloom tomato have been known to adapt to a specific location within as little as 2 to 3 growing seasons, showing better vigor, better production, better flavor and increase disease resistance. This is a result of saving the seed and replanting it year to year. Many people come to heirlooms in search of flavors that they experienced as a child. One of the leading characteristics of heirloom varieties is defined by the depth of flavor that they produce. This single characteristic has been one of the major reasons for the preservation of specific varieties over great spans of time. This is probably one of the biggest reasons for the resurgence of heirlooms in home gardens in the past 10 years, as once people experience the amazing range and depths of flavors that heirlooms offer, they are hooked. Taste is once again becoming a viable characteristic in variety selection for the home garden instead of only production quantity, uniformity, and disease resistance.

People are celebrating the fact that taste trumps volume. It’s the classic quantity vs. quality conundrum, with quality making a comeback.

Heirloom seeds offer many advantages to the home vegetable gardener. Heirloom vegetable seeds deliver on taste and nutrition while providing a greater variety of vegetables.  Hybrid seeds have been developed since the 1950s to suit the requirements of supermarket food monopolies. Commercial growers want high, simultaneous yields and thick-skinned produce that will store and transport well. Taste and nutritional value are not the priority, profit is.  In addition, genetic alteration has begun showing up in ground animals, insects, and fish, which scientists attribute to the chemical herbicides which are sprayed over the genetically altered crops.  The crops have been engineered to resist the herbicides, however, the wildlife is now suffering.

Heirloom seeds, on the other hand, have evolved over centuries through open pollination of non-hybrid plants.  These plants represent an unbroken chain of evolutionary improvement.  Food growers have kept back seed from the earliest, best-yielding and most disease-resistant strains since plant domestication began more than 8000 years ago. Through this selective process,  heirloom varieties were encoded with thousands of generations of improvements.

For some of the world, food security plays a big part in the importance of non-hybrid seeded plants. Genetic diversity in food crops is vital for global food security. Combined with local expertise, genetic diversity enables communities to meet their needs over varying seasons.  The ability of the gardener to gather non-hybrid seeds at the end of the growing season ensures that the plants that perform best in a particular local climate will continue to survive and provide food for the future.