What is Heirloom Seed?

An article by Shannon Draper of The Gravel Garden

My definition of an heirloom vegetable (and there are a few) is the seed that has been nurtured and saved over generations. These seeds were smuggled over borders and seas in times of strife. Often sown into hemlines and jackets; immigrants from all over have always travelled with seed that had traits they found desirable. Flavor, productivity, disease resistance being some of them. Some modern day varieties have been bred and although not strictly heirlooms (50 years or older) are still on seed lists for heirlooms because of their ability to produce true seed.

I started growing heirloom vegetables about 4 years ago. Having had a veggie garden for a couple of years I was constantly on the lookout for “new” varieties. What I didn’t figure on was that finding that “old” varieties was where all the taste was, especially when it comes to tomato’s. The tomatoes that we have become accustomed to are generally all picked green for shipping countrywide and gassed with ethylene to speed up ripening. This means that they can sit in cold storage for a long period and make it to your salad looking perky and ripe as if it were just plucked from the vine.The taste….well, that seems to have fallen by the wayside hasn’t it . Older, tastier (so much tastier) varieties are just not marketable. They don’t travel or store well. Their shapes are far from uniform and just don’t fit in those little polystyrene punnets . So the flavor of our fruit has been compromised and we forget how good that used to be.

There are virtually thousands of open-pollinated varieties out there. The real beauty of this is that gardeners and farmers can save their own seed from these fruit and vegetable and hold these ‘genetically diverse gems’ in safe keeping for future generations who just might need to have a little “food security” in the future. If one takes note of the insidious control of “certain” multi- national seed companies that have a LARGE chunk of the market share of seed distribution worldwide, it would be ludicrous to have the entire planet’s eggs in one ‘grain ‘basket…. but this is real, and is happening. South-African and Indian farms have been choice subjects for field trials on a massive scale involving Genetically Modified cotton, maize, soya, canola etc. Those who have fortunate to see Peter Proctors DVD on the return to organic (and specifically biodynamic) principles in India will be aware of the necessity to preserve the old varieties of seed; particularly grains. So many varieties and genetically rich species of rice and grain has been lost in a relatively short period of time in favor of the seed which is failing them so catastrophically now. There are a number of sources of open-pollinated seeds emerging; South Africa has 4 or 5 small companies operating on a small scale at present putting the seed out there. The time is now… not later, to start securing our heritage seed.

3 Responses to “What is Heirloom Seed?”

  1. Mike Hemsley September 20, 2010 at 7:12 pm #

    Can you advise the contact details of some of the small companies supplying open pollinated seed?

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