Posted on April 29, 2014
What is an Heirloom Variety?
Simply put, an heirloom is exactly what it sounds like. In much the same way you might pass down a quilt or piece of jewelry from generation to generation in your family, seeds from heirloom varieties have been passed down through the years such that we have true-to-type seed from garden plants that can be traced back anywhere from a few decades to colonial times to, perhaps, even older.
Because of the way these varieties have been propagated, saved, and passed along, each heirloom variety has its own unique little story, and heirloom gardeners often cite this as being one of the main reasons they enjoy working with heirloom seed so much. There is a tale about a tomato variety that comes from Logan, West Virginia around the Depression era. The man responsible for creating it was an auto mechanic with absolutely no formal education in growing anything. Looking for a way to make a little extra money, he spent several years crossing various types of tomato until he was satisfied with the result. He began selling his seedlings for one dollar each (a steep price in the ‘40s), and his tomatoes became so popular that he was able to pay off the six thousand dollars (an even steeper price) he owed on his house, earning his tomatoes the name “Mortgage Lifter.” The Mortgage Lifter tomato is still one of the most popular heirloom tomato varieties. Now, that’s a tomato with character!
What is the Criteria for a Seed to be Heirloom?
You’d think that the number one requirement for an heirloom to be heirloom would be age considering the definition of heirloom, but there is no set and universally accepted age range for a variety to be heirloom. Really, when it comes to how old a variety is and whether or not it “counts,” it all depends on who you ask. Many gardeners seem to like the 40s to 50s range—this signifies the end of World War II and the large scale embrace of hybrid varieties by commercial agriculture thereafter. For others, an old heirloom has to be really old, as in 100 years or more.
So, is heirloom status really contingent on age? For many gardeners, the exact age isn’t as important as the way in which the seed travelled through the years to get to where it is now; to them, an heirloom is any seed that was handed from family member to family member in the old kitchen garden. Then again, there are commercial heirlooms, as well. These are heirlooms that were passed on just like any other heirloom, but they were developed to be sold. These commercial varieties became so popular, that they were preserved by companies and sold over and over again so that we still have them today.
There are at least two agreed upon qualities an heirloom must have in order to be dubbed heirloom: it must be open-pollinated (meaning that the seed cannot be from a hybridized plant, since seed from a hybridized plant will not produce true-to-type offspring), and it cannot be genetically modified (GM).
Advantages of Heirlooms
Discussing the advantages of heirloom seeds over hybrid or GM seed can get a little dicey since all of these seeds come with equally forceful support and criticism. Those who favor heirloom seed say that the number one reason to switch is the marked difference in taste—heirloom varieties of tomato, for example, are held as the gold standard for sweetness, boldness, spiciness, smokiness, and all-around deliciousness in terms of what can come out of the garden, and that to compare heirlooms to non-heirlooms isn’t even fair. They also claim that this tastiness is accompanied by a far superior nutrition value, and that both of these factors are owing to hybrid varieties being bred with high yield and precise ripening times taking precedent over flavor and vitamins.
While there are a lot of people that would argue against those points, one thing that can’t be challenged is the utility of being able to save seed and keep a beloved plant going season after season without having to buy the seed over and over. Saved seed can not only continue in your garden, but in the gardens of friends and family that will be delighted to grow seed produced from your garden. Seed-saving is not only a way to keep costs down, but it is a satisfying way to engage with your garden the way our ancestors always have.
Seed-saving and heirloom –growing is not only keeping you connected with tradition, but keeps these old varieties connected to the world. Much like threatened wildlife, old, seldom grown varieties, if not actively preserved, can quietly disappear, leaving a tiny little hole in the plant biodiversity of the planet. Species come and go all of the time, and even professionals that take on the task of trying to keep these varieties going have a tough time controlling the loss, but when home gardeners do their own seed-saving, they make their own contributions to the passing down, and heirloom varieties stick around just a little bit longer for the next generation of food-lovers.
Heirlooms and Organics
There seems to be some confusion when it comes to the relationship between heirlooms and organics—they have a tendency to become mixed up at times. Heirlooms and organics are not the same thing; not every heirloom is organic, and not every organic is an heirloom. This is because “heirloom” has to do with the variety itself, and “organic” is describing the way the seed was made.
Organic seeds are seeds produced from organic parents on organic farms in accordance with guidelines set forth (at least, in the United States) by the National Organic Program and the USDA. Some of these guidelines include things like, avoiding the use of any additive, pesticide, or fertilizer that makes it on the “prohibited” end of the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, refraining from the use of human sludge on fields, using land that has been free of no-no substances for a specified number of years, and submitting to regular inspection to verify proper adherence to organic practices. Provided a farm is meeting all of the requirements of NOP, any varieties it grows, heirloom or hybrid, will be organic. Keep this in mind if you are thinking of making a switch to heirlooms in your organic garden, and be sure to look for organic heirloom seeds.
Where Can I Get Heirloom Seed?
The availability of heirloom seed gets greater every year, thanks to a growing number of seed preservation organizations, heirloom seed companies, and the individual effort of seed-saving enthusiasts willing to send and swap seed with other gardeners and inspire others to do the same.
Heirloom seed can be found at local seed swaps that may be held in your area, historic farms where particular varieties may have been cultivated for many years, seed banks, and, of course, the websites of many seed companies that specialize in providing heirloom varieties. Some of these companies may even have seed racks that you can peruse in grocery stores and nurseries in your community. Trusted seed providers by heirloom devotees include The Seed Savers Exchange, Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, Seeds of Change, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Territorial Seed Company, and High Mowing Organic Seeds, but these are certainly not the only ones.
It may help you in your search for reputable heirloom seed providers (and organic seed providers) to look for the “Safe Seed Pledge,” a voluntary pledge developed in 1999 (organized by High Mowing) stating that signees “do not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants.” Companies that have taken the pledge are affirming that they recognize the concerns that their customers may have about the impact or contamination of modified seed, and will try their best to make sure that their seed is what customers expect.