What is an Heirloom?

By Lia Babitch

Originally printed in the 2013 Turtle Tree Seed catalog

langenaria cucuzzi
Langenaria Cucuzzi

Recently, many of people have been becoming aware that “Heirloom seeds” are good seeds, and asking for them. This is a really good thing, because it means that there is a greater awareness that there is a difference in different varieties, but there is also a lot of misunderstanding as to what that means, exactly. In many cases, “heirloom” is used interchangeably with “open-pollinated”—varieties that have been selected by careful gardeners, farmers and caring seeds-people for a variety of good qualities over many plant generations, and which breed true to type when properly cared for. Some of these open-pollinated seeds have a long history associated with them and get to be called heirlooms, and some are the result of more recent seed work, either trying to recapture good qualities which were lost in a variety through neglect or accident of cross-pollination, or to meet the needs, wishes or dreams of our current and future agriculture. For instance, in organic and biodynamic systems, we need varieties which jump right up quickly to compete well with weeds and which are energetic scavengers of nutrients from organic matter and from the living soil, since we don’t force-feed our plants with chemicals and intensive NPK fertilizer.

Chemical companies have begun telling the world that we need their patented, cross-species gene-and-virus injected seeds (GMOs), which depending on the circumstance they either say are substantially the same as or completely unlike other varieties, depending on which argument will suit the momentary (monetary) need of the company. But it is our view that none of our systems need plants that have been experimentally shot with bacteria or other genes and viruses to make them into pesticide factories or herbicide-resistant so that chemical companies can sell more poisons, and we reject having our bodies experimented on through our food supply, with technology that is both in our view unnecessary and in many cases shown to be unsafe. In our view, patents on life are patently wrong.

cherokee moon and stars
Cherokee Moon and Stars

Many seed companies, even some who recognize the unnecessary danger of GMOs, have turned their attention away from open-pollinated varieties, because hybrid varieties make more money, and they don’t want the bother of keeping up open-pollinated varieties, which take careful work to maintain. Hybrids (F1) are varieties which have two secret, usually inbred parents, and which do not breed true if seed is saved. Because seed companies never have to tell anyone which parent lines they’ve used to make a hybrid, and because saving seed from F1s is a long-term science project rather than a predictable way to produce more seed of that variety, hybrids are practically and intrinsically proprietary. The seed company does not even have to patent them to corner the market!

Sometimes a dedicated seeds person decides to do the long-term science project and “untangle” a hybrid—to select for the traits of the hybrid in a naturally reproducing population of plants, in other words, to make an open-pollinated variety which has all the good points of the hybrid, but which can be saved for seed and predictably produce true-to-type offspring when cared for properly. This is the case with the Early Moonbeam watermelon, with the Sullivan’s Favorite Frying pepper, Clear Dawn onion and with several others. This recent, dedicated work by committed seeds-people has broadened genetic diversity that we can hand down to future generations. These and other open-pollinated varieties developed in recent years, such as Green Zebra tomato, Rose Potpourri sweet corn, etc. are sometimes called heirlooms for the future, and these worthy open-pollinated varieties will pass the test of time and become heirlooms if gardeners, farmers and seeds-people are willing to keep saving them. But to be an heirloom today, a variety needs to have a history of at least 50 years, either saved in a family garden, or documented in seed catalogs from days gone by, or verifiable in some other way. As a way to simplify things, some people and companies refer to any open-pollinated seed as heirloom (or the more unique ones at least). But I think that anyone interested in good, true seed should be able to understand the importance of well-cared-for open-pollinated varieties, which can be saved for future generations. Heirlooms, which are open-pollinated, are a part of this, and each open-pollinated variety that has been selected and worked on by dedicated farmers, gardeners and seeds-people in more recent years is also a part of this, this passing along of the hard work of the past and current seeds-people to all who come after us, for the continuation of the generous and diverse life we’ve played a small part in caring for while we’re here.