What’s an Heirloom Plant?
And why does it matter?
Heirloom (or heritage) vegetables and flowers are the plants our grandparents grew. They are the seeds that pioneers carried with them on their journeys to new homelands, the flowers that adorned cottages and estate gardens in decades and centuries past.
You may already be growing heirloom veggies or flowers and not even know it. Perhaps you’ve planted Scarlet runner beans in your garden. Did you know they were discovered in South America in the 1600s? They have been the most popular green bean grown in England for 250 years. Maybe you never realized heirloom seeds and plants were a thing at all.
Heirloom or Heritage?
What’s the difference? There really isn’t any difference between these two terms, although I tend to think of heirlooms as plants or seeds that have been passed down through generations, like your grandfather’s peas that he used to grow and save seed from every year. So heirlooms can be a seed or plant that you may have an emotional or familial connection to. I think of heritage types as any other older varieties – plants or seeds that you purchased at the store or through a catalogue. But it really doesn’t matter, call them what you wish. I use the two terms interchangeably.
How do we Define Heirloom Varieties?
How old is a seed or plant before it officially becomes an heirloom? Some people define heirloom plants as those that were introduced before 1950, which is when modern industrial farming practices began to disrupt traditional farming. Others feel a variety should be 50 years old from its introduction date, which means an introduction date of around 1970; that seems newish to me. Still others state that varieties can’t be classified as heirlooms unless they were introduced before the 1920s.
Again, it doesn’t really matter. I generally think of heirlooms as varieties introduced before 1950. The older a plant is, the more intrigued I am, as long as it performs well in my garden and gives me joy.
Heirloom roses (also known as antique or Old Garden roses) are defined as a rose that existed prior to 1867, according to numerous rose societies. I’ve also seen the 50-years-old definition applied to antique roses. Read more at Gardening Know How’s article What Are Old Garden Roses? and discover Heirloom Roses 101.
Open-Pollinated vs. Hybrid
Heritage or heirloom varieties of plants are always open-pollinated, i.e. a plant that is pollinated by insects, birds or wind. They will “come true” from seed, meaning you can expect roughly the same characteristics in a plant you’ve grown from seed as its parent plant.
This is not so with hybrids. Plants can hybridize naturally, but when I speak of hybrids I generally mean human-created crosses between two plants, such as F1 varieties of tomatoes or marigolds, for instance. Plant breeders do this by taking pollen from one plant to fertilize another. This is done to select and combine the best qualities of each plant into a new variety. In genetics, F1 means “first children” – literally the “first child” of the two parent plants. Next time you search your favourite seed catalogue, notice if a plant has a notation like F1 beside it.
One of the downsides to hybrids is you can’t reliably save seeds from them to grow the next year. If planted, the seeds will revert back to one of the original parents, so you’ll have lost the characteristics of the hybrid. F1 hybrids, being “first children” are particularly unstable. Lots of hybrids are also sterile, meaning they do not set seeds at all.
“If you save seeds from heirloom vegetables over several years, you can gradually select seeds from the plants that perform best in your local soil and climate. This will give you a seed strain that is more resistant to local pests and diseases.”~ Mother Earth News
When you grow open-pollinated seeds you can do your own selections. Maybe you love the colour of the flower on a particular calendula plant in your garden, or perhaps you got a few particularly large or delicious tomatoes of one variety. Mark those plants with a ribbon or tag and save seeds from it for next year. If you do that year after year, eventually you’ll get your own stable strain of flowers or vegetables that are particular to you, your garden and its micro-climate. This is called a landrace. You can’t do that with hybrids.
Why is it Important to Grow Heirloom Plants?
Old varieties of vegetables and flowers are quickly disappearing from our planet, just like endangered animal species. When they are gone, there is no getting them back, and we’ll lose their unique flavours, forms, colours, resistances to diseases and pests, and stories, forever.
Check out this infographic from Rural Advancement Foundation International. The statistics it illustrates are breathtaking.
Why is this happening? Large multinational corporations have been gobbling up small seed companies since the 1980s, discarding older varieties in favour of hybridized or genetically modified seeds, which can be patented. These hybrids or GMOs have generally been bred for big agribusiness, not the home gardener.
“Unprecedented weather extremes are now the norm all over the globe. It is crucial that our plant biodiversity be maintained in both the field and in gene banks. Although the genetic base of our food crops in North America is extremely narrow and vulnerable, most of the money designated for research continues to go into hybrid and bio-engineered seed.”Dan Jason, Salt Spring Seeds
Here’s what this is costing us:
“Superior crops already exist, thanks to the genius of countless generations of farmers. They can be grown with few inputs, can be eaten with minimal processing for maximum nutrition, and their seeds can be easily saved for future plantings. They can admirably feed the planet. However, they are not profitable for the transnational corporations which have become global merchants of seed. Modern agriculture is in the hands of these huge corporations instead of with the farmers, where it belongs.”Dan Jason, Salt Spring Seeds
It’s up to gardeners like us to source and grow the varieties that our grandparents and their ancestors grew, and preserve all the qualities that they enjoyed by saving the seeds and passing them along. It’s a grassroots movement, small but mighty in its ability to make a difference in the diversity of our food sources.
Want to try saving your own seeds? Check out my list of summer seed-saving supplies.
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