The term heirloom vegetable is used to describe any type of vegetable seed that has been saved and grown for a period of years and is passed down by the gardener that preserved it. It has a provenance, … of sorts.
Kathy Mendelson offers a website, http://www.halcyon.com, that is filled with passionate and technically sound information about heirloom seeds. A botanist by training, she has worked in public gardens, taught plant science at the community college level, and served as a consultant and speaker on garden history. She is particularly interested in garden history. She grows a wide variety of heirloom plants
and I have borrowed her section on their history for your perusal…
Just how old a cultivar has to be to be an heirloom is open to discussion. Some authorities say heirloom vegetables are those introduced before 1951, when modern plant breeders introduced the first hybrids developed from inbred lines. While there are good reasons to use 1951 as a cut-off, many heirloom gardeners focus on varieties that date from the 1920s and earlier. A few, especially those re-creating World War II Victory Gardens, add introductions from the 1920s, 1930s, and the early 1940s. While some first-rate open pollinated cultivars were introduced after 1951, few gardeners include them with the heirlooms.
While many of the varieties are 100 to 150 years old, there are some heirlooms that are much older. For example, experts think certain heirlooms are actually traditional Native American crops that are pre-Columbian. Other heirlooms are old European crops, some of which have been in cultivation for almost four hundred years. Still other heirlooms trace their ancestries to Africa and Asia. They too may be much older than records indicate, but distance and language make it difficult to trace their histories.
What’s the Difference Between Hybrid and Heirloom Vegetables?
Heirloom vegetables are not a special species of plants. To be capable of being saved, all heirloom seed must be open pollinated.
Open pollinated or OP plants are simply varieties that are capable of producing seeds that will produce seedlings just like the parent plant. Not all plants do this.
Plant breeders cross breed compatible types of plants in an effort to create a plant with the best features of both parents. These are called hybrids and many of our modern plants are the results of these crosses.
While plants can cross-pollinate in nature and hybrids repeatedly selected and grown may eventually stabilize, many hybrid seeds are relatively new crosses and seed from these hybrids will not produce plants with identical qualities.
Why Bother To Plant Heirloom Varieties When There Are Plenty of Regular Seeds Around?
Many heirloom seeds for fruits, herbs, and vegetables are at risk of becoming extinct.
Because so many varieties of heirloom foods are fragile and difficult to ship they are not readily available to larger grocery chains.
Also, when a farmer plants an heirloom variety of herb, fruit or vegetable and few people purchase it (generally because they cannot get past the less than perfect appearance of the item), it becomes less desirable a product to produce on a small farm. Industrialized farmers stick to high-yield crops that can stand up to machine harvest and long-distance transport.
The loss of genetic seed diversity facing us today may lead to a catastrophe far beyond our imagining…
The Irish potato famine, which led to the death or displacement of two and a half million people in the 1840s, is an example of what can happen when farmers rely on only a few plant species as crop cornerstones.
Preserving heirlooms seeds also means preserving genetic diversity, the kind that develops over eons instead of being created in a laboratory. Heirlooms have sustained generations and can do the same for us. They allow you to move towards self-sufficiency, as you can save your own seeds rather than being dependent on seed companies. They are safe, they are dependable and they are beautiful, and I highly recommend them to every gardener.
Fruits and vegetables aren’t the only plants passed down through generations – many herbs and flowers have a history, too. Anyone who’s walked past a bed of old fashioned roses in full bloom knows that they blow most modern hybrids away when it comes to scent. The bloom season may not be as long, and the blooms may not be as perfect, but when they burst into flower they give their all and the fragrance is simply glorious.
There are countless heirloom varieties of fruits, vegetables, herbs, flowers and trees that need to be preserved.
THERE ARE ONLY THREE TYPES OF SEEDS…
1) First generation hybrids (F1 hybrids), have been hand-pollinated, and are patented, often sterile, genetically identical within food types, and sold from multinational seed companies.
2) Genetically engineered or Bioengineered seeds are fast contaminating the global seed supply on a wholesale level, and threatening the purity of seeds everywhere. The DNA of the plant has been changed. A cold water fish gene could be spliced into a tomato to make the plant more resistant to frost, for example.
3) Heirloom or open-pollinated, genetically diverse jewels that have been passed on from generation to generation!
Within heirloom seeds groups there are 10,000 varieties of apples, compared to the very few F1 hybrid apple types.
The Mayan word “gene” means “spiral of life.” The genes in heirloom seeds give life to our future. Unless the 100 million backyard gardeners and organic farmers keep these seeds alive, they will disappear altogether. This is truly an instance where one person–a lone gardener in a backyard vegetable garden–can potentially make all the difference in the world.
There are many fine seed companies that offer heirloom seeds. Seed companies are certainly not the only source for heirloom varieties. In fact, many heirlooms are not even available from commercial seed companies, but circulate from gardener to gardener in trades facilitated by seed exchanges. These exchanges are not seed companies and they usually do not sell seeds. Instead, they are forums where people who grow heirlooms and people who are looking for them can find each other.
Join A Seed Exchange Club!
Most seed exchanges provide their members with publications that operate a little like classified ads. In them, gardeners with seeds to share can list what they have and those who are looking for a particular variety can post what they want. Members browse these lists, hopefully making a match for seeds that are possibly available nowhere else. While there is no guarantee that a particular variety will appear in any given year (or for that matter, ever), these exchanges are the best place to look for rare heirlooms.
The lists are updated each year, so do not give up easily if the particular seed you desire is illusive for some time. It just might show up on a seed exchange list.
As heirloom vegetables have become more popular, a few varieties have become stand-outs. ‘Brandywine’ tomatoes, for example, have become well-known among gardeners and they even appear in increasing numbers at farmer’s markets and some grocery stores.
The ‘Moon and Stars’ watermelon has similarly grabbed considerable attention. There are other celebrity heirlooms as well, such as blue potatoes and certain dry beans. Such vegetable superstars are, at least for now, still the exception. Many other fne heirlooms are becoming increasingly rare, and are at risk of disappearing entirely from the seed trade.
Heirlooms Are Not Hybrids And Neither Are GMO’s
Heirloom seed is 100% untampered with seed compliments of Mother Nature. Hybrids are naturals which have been spliced together by humans. Neither of these should be confused with genetically modified organisms or (GMOs) which, according to About.com’s Biotech Guide, can be any plant, animal or microorganism which have been genetically altered using molecular genetics techniques such as gene cloning and protein engineering. Plants like corn that has the pesticide Bt engineered into its genetic makeup to make it resistant to certain pests are GMO crops. Bt is a natural pesticide, but it would never naturally find its way into corn seed.
Not necessarily heirloom, but organic seeds can be purchased or studied about at