Heirloom seeds? What’s the difference?

I often get asked what heirloom seeds are and how do they differ from other seeds offered. So I will attempt to answer that to the best of my ability.

Heirloom seeds are generally considered an open pollinated seed variety from history. To qualify, the general rule of thumb is that the variety has been around for at least 50 years. Older than some gardeners!! And the seed is identical to the parents it came from. With very small variances for environmental differences, seeds from Heirloom varieties will be largely unchanged from the time your great grandmother grew it. And that is exciting!!

Now we know that nature is intelligent and that seeds are adapting to changes in the environment all the time. So in small ways the plants are improving over time, but generally these varieties will still be recognizable after all these years. I have found that Heirlooms outperform hybrid seeds in most cases. They are often earlier and can adapt over time to be even earlier the longer you grow them in your garden because they can adapt. Like us, plants have all kinds of suppressed genetic material that it can activate if need be in the case of diseases and creating hormones that either fend off insect attack or warn nearby plants that there is a danger. Cool, eh?

I find heirlooms taste better in almost all cases, especially in the family of tomatoes, corn (if you are looking for that rich old fashioned corn taste), beans, and peas. This holds true for most vegetable families in the Heirloom category. Why? Because they have been selected the old way for taste or production or form or fruit, that all kinds of gardeners of old did naturally in their gardens. You had to save seed year to year so naturally you saved the ones that did the best and tasted how you preferred.

Now what about this open pollinated idea? Open pollinated means that the plants, say from beans, are able to cross freely and naturally with themselves or other beans to create fertilized seeds that would grow the next year. That may seem like a no brainer, but now a days industrial farms use terminator seeds, created by those who value profit above all else. These seeds are often treated with Tetrachlorine and other chemicals that gradually kills the germ in the seed after a period, usually 1 year, so that farmers and growers cannot keep seeds and have to keep buying them each year. Ever wonder why seed germination goes down so quickly in the store bought seeds you buy? This could be why but it can also have to do with storage conditions. More on that in another blog.

There are also hybrid seeds. A hybrid is a crossing of two parent plants or parent lines to get a seed that is called an F1 generation. If you have seen F1 behind the name of the seeds in a catalogue now you know what that means. Some F1’s are created naturally like great grandma did trying to get a green ripening tomato rather than a red one, or a bean with more length, or a corn with shorter cobs. Natural selection was a great addition to the way man began to farm way back when. It still exists today and many great seed companies have their own on site breeding programs.

And then there are F1’s created by crossing two parent lines that have been inbred to themselves for a few generations in order to suppress most genetic expressions except the one characteristic that the breeder is looking for. This happens a lot in corn. The problem is corn is an outbreeding plant and has to crossbreed with many different plants to maintain its genetic viability and strength. When inbred so much, these parent lines are weak, but that is part of the trick. Once the two genes that breeders are looking for are inbred enough in two separate parent lines, they then allow them to cross and the next generation, the F1, will be more vigorous and express both those characteristics well. The seed saved from any F1’s will not hold true to the next generation however, so although you can try to save the seeds, the next generation, the F2, will be highly ununiform.

I believe not all seeds stated to be F1’s actually are. The manufacturer just may want to deter seeds saving, but until you know how they created those seeds, you will be flying blind if you want to save those seeds and grow them again. If you’re a beginner you may want to stick with trusted seed from Heirloom growers.

The other issue with some seed from seed sources, especially large companies is that they themselves do not often save seeds, but they may trial it from their bigger suppliers. Monsanto and Seminis are two huge seed creators and there is often nothing natural about it. They are out for profit and many of their varieties are created in a lab so they can patent them. Proprietary rights are the name of the game. I avoid these seeds, because I want real food and natural food systems, unadulterated by chemicals and pseudoscience.

One other thing to mention is that a seed variety is usually it’s name. Say for beans – Blue Jay would be one variety, Oma’s Speckled Green Pod is another. Tomato is the kind and for a seed grower, variety names are everything. It is obviously how we keep them all sorted out. Get to know the plants you grow by name and they will never let you down!

I hope you learned a few things from this little chat today and if you did, feel free to send it on to friends and family! Knowledge is power.

Published by gardenofeden2010

Avid environmentalist for over 30 years, gardener, lecturer, photographer, grower of all things beautiful, saver of seeds (our right), promoter of keeping the earth free and clean. Mother of 3 and wife of 1. Member of a very large women's community (over half the world).

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