Heirloom seeds have become very popular in recent years. But what exactly is an heirloom seed and how is it different from a “regular” seed? Most gardeners agree that heirlooms are cultivated varieties of open-pollinated plants. In general they are high quality, quite flavorful, and easily to grow.
Heirlooms are those varieties that the seeds have been saved and handed down through the generations; sometimes this includes commercial operations but it never includes commercial hybrid seeds. The heirloom seeds are generally varieties at least 100 years old but some heirlooms date to the World War II Victory Garden movement. Most gardeners agree that an heirloom seed must have been introduced before 1951 when modern plant breeders started to introduce the first hybrids from inbred lines.
Heirloom seeds and those gardeners who grow these varieties are often contrasted against large-scale commercial agricultural operations which tend to focus on one or two varieties of plants and will even use bioengineered hybrid seeds not normally found within the natural environment. Many argue that planting heirloom seeds, rather than bioengineered seeds, is a more sustainable practice for food production because it is not reliant on corporations to maintain the seed supply. Indeed, because heirloom seeds are not hybrids the home gardener can easily save seeds for the next season or exchange seeds with others and grow a larger variety of heirlooms.
Consumers have also recognized the superiority of some heirloom seeds in terms of flavor. Tomatoes in particular are quite popular as heirloom varieties because their flavor far outshines the tomatoes that are available in the local supermarket. The supermarket tomato varieties have not been developed to focus on flavor but rather on their durability for transport and their ability to look perfectly round and red. Heirloom tomatoes in contrast and sometimes rather ugly looking and come in a multitude of different colors but their flavor is far superior.
Potatoes are another plan in which a wide variety of heirlooms exist. More than 4,000 varieties of potatoes exist throughout the world and come in a wide variety of colors including white, pink, purple, red, yellow, and brown. But consumers rarely see this type of variety in the local supermarket because commercial farmers focus on those verities better suited for industrial agriculture and current market conditions. Biodiversity and sustainability of heirloom seed varieties tend to fall to residential farmers and small-scale commercial operations.
However, an heirloom seed does not automatically mean that the plant will be better than non-heirloom varieties. Some heirlooms are finicky to grow, may not germinate, may germinate late, and may be particularly prone to disease or intolerant of certain weather conditions. But these wide varieties of characteristics are exactly why there are so many regional heirloom seeds in the first place.