Heirloom Seeds: History, Nostalgia, and So Much More

Getting that gardening itch, now that the holidays are over and winter is soon to wane? Just imagine: purple, yellow, green, and orange cherry tomatoes, white eggplant, deep green watermelon with star- and moon-shaped speckles, black-eyed susans and petunias that grow on long vines, beans with purplegreen leaves and rose-colored pods, ribbed and striped slicing tomatoes, white sunflowers, and bushy, globe-shaped basil. With heirlooms you can add beautiful, interesting, and tasty varieties to your garden, preserve old and rare cultivars of plants, and fight agribusiness and corporate greed and control—all at the same time.

Interest in heirlooms and their preservation is increasing as gardeners become more aware of their value, politics, and availability. A relatively small variety of seeds have come to dominate the world seed market, particularly with the development of hybrids in the last 50 or so years. For example, in the early 1900s there were approximately 7000 varieties of apples in the United States; now there are fewer than 1000. A handful of large agricultural and chemical companies has taken control of the world’s seed supplies, to everyone’s detriment. These companies control our food supply by forcing farmers to abandon ancient practices of saving their own seeds from year to year, in favor of buying mass-produced hybrids every year. The stakes are enormous. What exactly is an heirloom and how does it differ from a hybrid? An heirloom is an openly pollinated plant that will reproduce year after year true to type, meaning it will look, act, taste, and grow the same every year. Often an heirloom has a special defining characteristic, such as having origins in a particlar region. There is difference of opinion as to how old a plant has to be to qualify as an heirloom: 50 years, more than 150 years, or its existence prior to 1951 (when large-scale hybridization began). However, an heirloom is likely to be an old variety, whether 50 or 2000 years old.

A hybrid is a plant that is bred by crossing two distinct plants to create a genetically different third plant. Hybrids are sterile, since they cannot reproduce the crossed variety, but will revert to one of the parent plants. Hybrids are bred to take advantage of certain characteristics each parent may have. Hybrids are created for a variety of, usually economic, reasons, such as uniform size for shipping and marketing, the ability to withstand transport over long distances, ripening at the same time, or resistance to pests, blight, and other environmental and weather hazards. Hybrids also bring a consistent cash flow to seed companies, with the cost of lost flavor, nutrition, and interesting variety. Genetically engineered plants, with their accompanying issues and dangers, essentially are a step beyond hybrids.

By themselves, hybrids are not a problem and have resulted in some benefits. The issue is that agribusiness seed companies have sacrificed the genetic variety that heirlooms provide for mono-crops that are very profitable for business, but cause a host of other problems. One only need bring to mind the Irish potato famine as a cogent example. Thousands of heirloom seed varieties have been lost as a result of mergers and consolidation of seed companies during the 1970s and '80s. We are eating only a handful of the fruits, vegetables, and grains that were once abundant.

The good news is that there are groups, small farmers, and companies that have taken action to preserve heirloom varieties. One interesting source is the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants, located at his historic home in Monticello. Jefferson was an avid gardener and his focus was on unique plants from all over the world. Today gardens are grown in Monticello featuring many of the varieties he grew. A sampler seed packet is available for purchase.

For information on and sources of heirloom plants and seeds: