All About Heirloom Seeds

man planting seeds in garden

Throughout history, there have been changes to the methods for growing and producing seeds used in gardening, whether it's flowers, tomatoes, or rice. Historically, there have been a large variety of seeds used for each crop or plant. This leads to challenges, however, as not all crops grow in every climate around the world. Seeds that have a high tolerance to various climates and pesticides have been created, but have left the older plants that have been around for many years in rarer supply. These are considered heirloom seeds.

What is an Heirloom Seed?

There are several different definitions of heirloom seeds. Some categorize them by the plant's age and their existence prior to the creation of hybrid seeds. Others say it has to do with how the seeds were grown. The common distinction everyone can agree on, however, is that an heirloom seed is open pollinated and could not have been modified genetically. Open pollination means the plants were pollinated by a natural means, such as by birds, insects, or the wind. This also can create diversity from generation to generation of seed because there is no control to the pollination. A few heirloom plants are actually self-pollinated, which means they can pollinate themselves if open pollination doesn’t occur.

Heirloom Seeds vs. Hybrid Seeds

Heirloom seeds are considered non-hybrid seeds because they have not been altered with any other seeds. Hybrid seeds are just that -- from plants that have been cross-pollinated with other plants to modify them genetically, in an effort to obtain the best features from each plant. Hybrid seeds were in development around the beginning of the 1900s and introduced to the market around 1930. Heirloom seeds create a greater amount of genetic variety in their finished plant by size, shape, or other features from season to season compared to hybrid seeds. However, gardeners can apply various techniques to improve the consistency in their heirloom plants each year. Hybrid seeds also do not always produce the same crop each year, but producers work to stabilize the plant each year to improve the consistency when they are grown.

Heirloom Seeds are Important

There is, of course, the argument that heirloom seeds produce fruits and vegetables that taste better, but a person’s taste is subjective so that is not of primary importance. The primary reason why heirloom seeds should be valued is because they are part of our heritage. These seeds have been around for many years, some as much as 300 years, and that in itself is important. Additionally, having seeds that have not been genetically altered is important to many who want seeds that are as natural as Mother Nature intended them to be. Finally, there are so many diverse options in heirloom seeds. For instance, there are thousands of varieties of heirloom apple seeds, compared to just a few hybrid apple seeds. Many heirloom seeds are plants with unique genetic traits.

The Future of Heirloom Seeds

There are many seed banks around the globe working on the effort of saving heirloom seeds for our future. With the same concept as using a bank to store money, a seed bank is a facility that stores live seeds, maintaining them until they are needed to grow. There are over 1,400 seed banks in the world. When properly stored, seeds will last many years, even decades, for later planting.

There are also organizations dedicated to preserving heirloom seeds specifically. The Seeds Savers Exchange is one non-profit organization, founded in 1975, working together to save thousands of heirloom seeds for future generations and offer their seeds to other gardeners. Native Seeds/SEARCH is another non-profit organization focusing on the preservation of hundreds of heirloom seeds that are grown in the U.S. Southwest and Northwest Mexico. These are just two of the many organizations dedicated to keeping heirloom seeds around for generations to come.