The Beauty of Heirloom Seeds

What is an heirloom seed? There are many definitions of what exactly qualifies as an heirloom seed.

In broad strokes, an heirloom seed has been passed down through a family for generations, just like that treasured porcelain vase from your great-great-great grandmother. Some experts suggest that in order to be an heirloom variety, the seed must be at least fifty years old. Other horticulturists insist that true heirloom seeds must be documented before 1950, and there are still others who say that a variety must be at least a century old to be considered a true heirloom seed.

At this point in time, there’s no consensus regarding a definition. Everyone can agree, however, that an heirloom plant must be an open-pollinated variety maintained by individual growers for a long time.

What makes heirloom seeds valuable are their characteristics of cultivation. Seeds that yielded a hardy plant and tasty fruit would be valued and protected over the years. According to the US Census, in 1900 sixty percent of Americans lived in a rural setting. Also according to the Census, the majority of them were growing some or all of their own food. It stands to reason that those growers were thrifty and saved seeds each year to plant during the next. These heirloom variety were grown and preserved, producing the greatest yield for their efforts.

Heirloom Seeds vs. Hybrid Seeds

Heirloom seeds, or open-pollinated varieties, differ from hybrid varieties in their plant population and how they pollinate. Heirloom plants all share the same, specified traits. Any individuals in the population may cross pollinate and the results will be like the parents. That means you can save heirloom seeds year after year and, each planting will yield a crop like the previous year.

Hybrid varieties have glutted the market since the late 1800s. To derive hybrid seeds, you’d need to cross-pollinate parents of two different varieties to produce offspring that yield a certain set of traits. If you look at the example of corn (setting aside genetically modified corn, which is a whole different ballgame), scientists and farmers have tinkered with corn cross-pollination to produce a crop that is insect repellent or that better uses the sun to grow more quickly. If you save these seeds, however, the next generation of plants isn’t uniform and is almost always inferior. That means farmers and gardeners have to purchase new hybrid seed every year.

Heirloom seeds offer small links to our past that can feed us today. Their proven track record can help us grow safer, better tasting, chemical-free fruits and vegetables while we’re trying to be self-sufficient and a friend to Mother Nature.

{Photo Credit: Creative Commons photo by evo photo}

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