Heirloom seeds bring history, variety to the garden
When you think of heirlooms, things like your grandmother’s wedding ring or the family Bible probably come to mind.
These are wonderful keepsakes, but they can only go to one person at a time.
Another kind of heirloom, however, has limitless sharing possibilities: seeds.
The definition of a true heirloom plant is up for debate.
Sarah Browning, educator in Lancaster County for University of Nebraska Extension, says, “Many authorities classify any cultivar developed before 1951 as an heirloom.”
That was the year plant breeders introduced the first hybrid vegetable cultivars. Many varieties can be traced back hundreds of years.
All heirloom plants are open pollinated, which means the seeds can be saved and planted the next year, and the seeds will produce plants exactly like the parent plant.
“Before 1951 and the increased use of hybrid plant varieties, which do not ‘come true’ from seed, gardeners normally saved their own seed each year,” Browning says. “They chose to save seed from their best-tasting and most productive plants and gradually developed their own special cultivars or varieties.”
Diversity Means Security
Heirloom seeds are fun to grow, but more importantly, these old cultivars play a role in global food security.
“Maintaining the diverse genetic base that heirloom vegetables represent is also important so that their genetic traits are not lost,” Browning says.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, there are several hundred thousand known plant species, with 120 cultivated for human food. However, more than 75% of plants consumed worldwide come from just nine crops.
The FAO says genetic diversity in crops can help them withstand environmental changes, pests, and diseases. However, cultivars are rapidly disappearing due in part to more uniform varieties that provide growers with a more consistent crop.
In the United States, 95% of cabbage, 91% of field corn, 94% of pea, 86% of apple, and 81% of tomato varieties grown a century ago have been lost, according to FAO.
From Seed Savers Exchange: Red Burgundy okra, Long Red Florence onion, Alma Paprika pepper, La Ratte fingerling potato, Kerr’s Pink potato, Fish pepper, Jimmy Nardello’s pepper, Tolli’s Sweet Italian pepper, Apple Green eggplant, Bulls Blood beet, Thai basil, Stupice tomatoes, and American Tonda squash.
Saving the Seeds
Gardeners throughout history have closely guarded their seeds, going as far as sewing them into garments to avoid detection when crossing borders. Many of today’s heirloom offerings are thanks to the foresight of those gardeners.
Seed Savers Exchange, based in Decorah, Iowa, is home to the largest nongovernment seed bank in the United States. It got its start in 1975, when cofounder Diane Ott Wheatly sought to protect and pass on the tomato and flower seeds that her great-grandparents had brought to Iowa when they made the trek from Bavaria 100 years earlier.
Today, Seed Savers Exchange has 13,000 members and has preserved 20,000 plant varieties both by saving seeds in a gene bank and by sharing them with gardeners and farmers.
Members and nonmembers of Seed Savers Exchange can participate in a seed swap program, and many varieties are available for purchase online at seedsavers.org.
Descendants of gardeners who came to America from other parts of the world aren’t the only ones preserving priceless seeds.
The Indigenous Seed Keepers Network provides educational resources, mentor programs, outreach, and support to tribal seed sovereignty projects across North America. It is a project of the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance (nativefoodalliance.org).
The website states, “In honor of the grand lineage of Seedkeepers who have faithfully passed down seeds for our nourishment, we make restored commitment to care for these precious seeds for those yet to come.”
Tips for Growing Success
While there are many advantages to planting heirloom seeds, they do not have the benefit of disease resistance found in modern cultivars. That means gardeners will have to make an extra effort to fight verticillium and fusarium wilt, among other diseases.
Browning says planting in containers with a soilless planting mix or using a strict rotation schedule can help reduce soilborne diseases. It may take a little more work to grow heirloom plants, but gardeners will be repaid many times over with beautiful, flavorful produce with an interesting story behind it.