When I first heard the term heirloom bandied about when talking about seeds (mostly tomatoes), I thought I knew what it meant. But if I had to explain it to someone, I wasn’t really sure I could and get it right. So I looked it up.
Think of it like this. Most of us understand what a family heirloom is-an article that has been handed down from one generation to the next for a long time, such as a ring or a vase. With seeds, it’s much the same.
Heirloom seeds are those that have been saved year after year from plants that originated fifty to one hundred years ago, with no hybridization other than what occurs naturally through open pollination by birds, insects, the wind, and so on. Over time, they adapt to their environment, making them more resistant to some factors which include insect problems and diseases.
In the early 1970s, hybrid seeds became widely popular, although they were first introduced following World War II. Hybrids are bred for the purpose of strengthening certain characteristics of plants, such as hardiness, color, and form, to name a few.
While that might sound like a good thing (and in most cases, it is), we still need to grow heirloom seeds to preserve diversity among plants. This helps insure the viability of our food supply. Seeds saved from heirlooms will produce the same plant it came from. Hybrids most times will not.
Heirloom vegetables also generally taste better, and although they may not transport as well, or stay fresh as long as the hybrids, there’s nothing yummier than a fresh heirloom tomato! I grew ‘Brandywine’ and ‘Cherokee Purple’ in my garden last year – both heirlooms – and had great results in a year that was generally bad for tomatoes in our area because of the cooler than normal temperatures.
Hybrids have certainly changed the face of gardens, and I love the new colors and flavors, but without heirlooms, we would have none of them. Heirlooms are their parents and it’s good to show some respect for them.