Heirloom Seeds: Why Use Them and Where to Get Them

If you ask someone to picture a tomato or an apple, they usually have a pretty straightforward image in their head. There are over 10,000 varieties of apples alone though. So why do we always see the same several varieties of apple in the grocery store?The reason is that the apples in the store are F1 hybrid apples or even genetically modified apples, instead of apples grown from heirloom seeds.

What are heirloom seeds and how can they provide us with a wider variety of produce?

Heirloom seeds grow heirloom plants, also called heirloom varieties or heirloom vegetables. Heirloom plants were cultivated throughout human history, but are not used in mass factory production. Industrialized agriculture is concerned above all with making a bottom line, so they have chosen to breed only very specialized varieties of crops. The varieties are chosen for their hardiness and productivity. As a result, industrial agriculture companies only breed several varieties of apples – and you never get to taste those other 10,000 varieties.

One fairly common image of heirloom vegetables many people are probably familiar with is the colorful corn you see on Thanksgiving. These are heirloom varieties of corn. You won’t find heirloom corn at major grocery stores, but nonetheless it is edible – some very small grocery stores (in Amish communities, for instance) even sell heirloom popcorn.

Heirloom plants are grown using open pollination, which is natural pollination by permitting insects, birds or air currents to carry the seeds. Growing plants in this way enables diversity to enter the genetic code of the plants. Many heirloom crops have been handed down generation to generation, but the result is a more genetically diverse crop than crops pollinated by hand. There is some debate as to the age a cultivar needs to be in order to be considered an heirloom plant, but there are no strict definitions. Most people consider stocks 50 years old or older to be heirloom crops. Heirloom plants are never genetically modified. They are grown organically and allowed to evolve on their own.

Lately there has been an upsurge in the popularity of heirloom gardening. What are some of the reasons that people enjoy heirloom gardening? What are the benefits of heirloom seeds and the diverse plants they produce?

  • Historical interest. Since many heirloom stocks are over a century old, growing them gives us a glimpse into the lives and dinner tables of our ancestors.
  • Curiosity. You’ve probably eaten enough mass produced apples to be used to them. Aren’t you curious about what all those other apples taste like?
  • Preservation of the gene pool and resistance to disease. The Irish potato famine of the 19th century wasn’t just caused by blight. It was also caused by a lack of genetic diversity. It might have been preventable had the Irish farmers cultivated heirloom potatoes. Instead, they only grew a particular variety of potato. When the blight came, it wiped out their entire crop. If the potatoes had had more genetic diversity, some of them might have been resistant to disease and survived the blight, which might have saved millions of lives from famine and displacement. If we do not preserve heirloom plants and allow natural pollination and mutations to give us genetically diverse foods, we could find ourselves in a similar position worldwide someday. Not only that, but eating heirloom plants preserves our own ability to adapt and survive. If we forget how to eat diverse foods, we may eventually lose the ability.
  • Organic and nutritional. Heirloom plants are grown organically. No chemicals or genetic engineering interferes with nature’s designs. Since genetic diversity is preserved in heirloom plants, heirloom seeds not only can produce disease-resistant crops, but crops with greater nutritional variety. You may be able to get nutrients from heirloom plants that you couldn’t get from mass-produced plants.

Heirloom plants are the passion of many organic gardeners these days and for great reasons: They are steeped in historical tradition, resistant to disease, nutritional and fully organic, and they preserve genetic diversity for the generations to come.