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Reclaiming Our Heritage: Growing Heirloom Plants and Saving Seed

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The popularity of heirloom fruits and vegetables is much deserved; their flavor, variety, and beauty are clearly superior. But there are also other compelling reasons to preserve heirloom edibles, and they have serious implications for our future.

An Italian violet artichoke

The Evolution of Localized Seed

Over the history of human agriculture, food plants became adapted to specific regions as they were nurtured, propagated, shared, and passed on through generations to preserve their special flavors and unique attributes. No matter where people have been born and raised, they all lovingly recall favorite foods that they dearly miss after moving from their home regions, and whenever possible they brought their food plants with them. At a minimum, this is the definition of heirloom seeds and plants.

Some sources define heirloom plants by the age of the particular cultivar, that is, how long ago the plant type came into existence, ranging from 50 to over 100 years ago. But the most important point is that they must be open pollinated, which means that they can be propagated through their seeds and that they are adaptable to different regions by growing them and selecting the plants that thrive and produce well under local conditions.

This dynamic quality is possible due to the genetic diversity retained by the plant, and this is a critical advantage in creating new adaptable varieties that have disease resistance, tolerance to either heat or cold, or the amount of water necessary for successful cultivation, and so on. They are also known for their unsurpassed range of flavors.

Heirloom beans clockwise from left: Hidatsa Shield Figure, Good Mother Stallard, Hutterite Soup, Tiger's Eye.

In contrast, hybrid plants, those that have been purposefully crossed under controlled conditions to select for commercially advantageous traits such as color, durability under transport, high production, etc., have lost genetic diversity and are dependent on high fertilizer input, the use of pesticides and herbicides, and the seeds are either sterile or do not breed true. Hybrids began to be used extensively at around 1945, the end of World War II, and during the 1970’s the distribution of hybrid seeds was firmly established by commercial seed companies.

To grow hybrid varieties of vegetables or fruit you must depend on a commercial supplier for the seeds or seedlings, not on seeds saved by your grandparent or neighbor. This industrialization of agriculture has had a profound effect on farmers, and therefore has limited the types of vegetables and fruits available to consumers. The proliferation of farmer’s markets across the nation is an attempt to regain access to wonderful edibles not available in supermarkets, because they are grown on a small scale, and many are grown using organic practices.

Gardeners Help Preserve Our Agricultural Heritage

Organizations such as Seed Savers Exchange are dedicated to actively preserving the legacy of heirloom plants by operating a seed bank and a heritage farm for propagation. Most important, however, is their large grassroots membership of local gardeners and farmers that continue to grow and save seeds of heirloom edible fruits and vegetables:

“The genetic diversity of the world’s food crops is eroding at an unprecedented and accelerating rate. The vegetables and fruits currently being lost are the result of thousands of years of adaptation and selection in diverse ecological niches around the world.

Each variety is genetically unique and has developed resistance to the diseases and pests with which it evolved. Plant breeders use the old varieties to breed resistance into modern crops that are constantly being attacked by rapidly evolving diseases and pests. Without these infusions of genetic diversity, food production is at risk from epidemics and infestations.”

Seed Exchange members are listed in a database and yearbook and offer their seeds to other gardeners for a small fee. There are literally thousands of varieties with interesting stories, and some are known only as “My grandmother’s sweet pepper“.

Members can also join the Member-Grower Evaluation Network (M-GEN) and volunteer to grow plant varieties in order to collect information about how the particular variety grows in their region. M-GEN is in it’s pilot year, and has 41 participants in 24 states, plus Ontario and Belize.

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