What Are Heirloom Seeds?

blue nigella flowers in a field

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Gardeners have a seemingly infinite array of choice for seeds, and many of us look forward to those seed catalogs arriving in our mailboxes during those weeks of dreary cold winter. Many gardeners are getting more interested in growing vegetables and flowers from heirloom seeds and the reasons for this are as varied as the many seeds available.

Most of the garden seeds we plant today are hybrids, meaning they have been bred for specific characteristics such as color, size, disease resistance, or other desirable qualities. There's a desire for new hybrid seeds and plants as some gardeners believe they're better than earlier versions. Hybrids are also pollinated by human intervention, whereas heirloom seeds are produced via open pollination (which relies on nature, i.e., insects, birds, and wind). For these and other reasons, many gardeners these days are seeking out heirloom seeds, and there are vendors who specialize in selling them, including Seed Savers and Hudson Valley Seed Co.

Fun Fact

The term "heirloom" refers to a seed that has a long history, whose provenance been documented. Often these seeds have been passed down through multiple generations within a family or community, and are carefully saved to preserve them for planting the following year.

Have you ever had an heirloom apple? These apple varieties are grown by grafting branches of old heirloom trees, discovered in orchards and often carefully researched by enthusiastic orchardists from old records. They have intriguing names like "Westfield Seek No Further" and "Chenango Strawberry" and "White Pearmain," usually named by the person who discovered the tree. You can find more heirloom apples in farmers markets these days and even trees for sale so you can grow you own. The same enthusiasm surrounding heirloom apples is now being seen in heirloom seed collectors.

Characteristics of Heirloom Seeds

Heirloom seeds don't necessarily look any different from ordinary seeds. But they have some differences. For one thing, heirloom seeds can be saved and replanted every year, and that's not the case with all newer hybrids. Because of this, heirloom seeds have stood the test of time and are extremely reliable.

Some experts claim that to qualify as an heirloom, a seed variety must have been in existence for at least fifty years; some say even older, and use World War Two (which ended nearly eighty years ago) as a marker. Following this rule ensures that actual heirloom seeds are sourced, not newer hybrids.

Heirloom seeds also tend to have interesting stories connected to them. This history is worth preserving and sharing, as it helps us understand and appreciate our connection to the land we live on and the changes it has gone through. For example, there are heirloom seeds of flowers that grew in famous gardens like Monticello, or from new or unusual plants discovered by individuals, like the black hollyhock flowers discovered in 1629 that were kept growing in Vermont for centuries.

Heirloom tomatoes are particularly popular these days, and farmers market growers can make a good profit selling these highly-sought after and delicious tomatoes, and seedlings for other gardeners. Other heirloom vegetable seed varieties becoming increasingly popular include beets, melons, corn, cabbage, kale, lettuces, beans, carrots and herbs.

Why Plant Heirloom Seeds?

Besides the romantic notion of being connected to the past, and preserving history, are there actual benefits to planting heirloom seeds? In a word, yes. Planting heirloom seeds encourages crop diversity, a practice which has been negatively affected by the pervasive use of hybrids. Also growing heirlooms helps to preserve plant varieties that are endangered, which is also important for preserving horticultural diversity. What's more, heirloom seeds are known for an enormous range of special qualities that many think are missing in hybrids bred for greater yields: including more subtle permutations of flavor, fragrance, or color. And while some heirloom seeds might require a bit more care to grow, what gardener would not happily meet this challenge for the promise of juicy tomatoes full of subtle flavor, or crunchy white-skinned cucumbers, or sweet peas in a range of delicate pastel colors?

Heirloom Seeds vs. Organic Seeds

For a seed to be officially labeled organic, it must be produced within the standards set forth by the USDA. This includes coming from a plant grown in organic soil, using only organic fertilizers. Heirloom seeds need not be produced this way, but many gardeners who value organic processes want these protocols applied to all their seeds. To be sure what you're getting, check the label for the official USDA Organic symbol.

Can Heirloom Seeds Come from GMOs?

Heirloom seeds are always non-GMO. GMO stands for "genetically modified organism" and refers to plants that have been engineered with non-plant material (such as bacteria) to give them certain properties. Planting heirloom seeds ensures you're not planting any GMOs. Many gardeners and naturalists are against using GMO seeds, which are bred using specific scientific techniques (such as cloning) for certain qualities, but which are controversial, partly because they're believed to have negative impacts upon some aspects of agriculture.