Heirlooms and Why They Matter
Geologist, gardener, epicurean, homesteader, scholar, problem solver
Occasionally, you’ll see produce advertised as Heirloom at the grocery store or farmer’s market. Often associated with tomatoes, Heirloom produce is characterized by unfamiliar shapes and colors, seemingly foreign to the rows of identical, round, red tomatoes we’ve become so accustom to seeing. But what does it mean when something is an “Heirloom variety”?
There are three different categories of seeds: First Generation Hybrids (F1 hybrid), Genetically Modified (GM), and Heirlooms.
F1 hybrids, also known as “commercial varieties”, are patented, hand-pollinated, genetically identical within food types, and often sterile – which means you can’t save the seeds from the matured plant; you must buy new seeds every year. These are the seeds usually sold by large, multinational seed companies.
GM Seeds have been modified in a laboratory to enhance desired traits such as increased resistance to herbicides or drought. These seeds are also genetically identical within food types, and typically sterile. There has been increasing controversy surrounding GM seeds as reports regarding cross-contamination and environmental effects raise cause for concern.
Heirloom seeds, also known as open-pollinated seeds, are genetically diverse specimens that have been passed down from generation to generation. You can save the seeds from mature heirloom plants and use them to plant a new crop the following year.
Why Heirlooms Matter
Heirloom seeds are hardy and have been carefully selected throughout the years to preserve the best specimens, and they can adapt more easily to local environments. Have a bad year with your crop? Save the seeds from the plants that made it and sow them again the following year – your crop will be more adept to local weather conditions than it was the year before.
Many heirlooms are naturally resistant to regional threats. I recently came across a beautiful winter squash that is native to the Southwestern United States and is supposedly naturally resistant to the vine squash borers that plague so many Texas gardeners; however, this variety is rare and threatened with extinction.
Biodiversity is the most important factor when it comes to heirlooms. There are very few commercial varieties of fruits and vegetables when compared to the 1000s of heirloom varieties, and a lack of biodiversity can have disastrous results. The Irish Potato Famine is the most commonly referenced monoculture disaster, but the United States had its own disaster with corn in the 1970s, and there is a current crisis with the Cavendish banana, America’s favorite yellow banana.
When you sow a single plant variety your crop is more likely to be wiped out by disease or natural disaster, because if one plant contracts a virus or succumbs to a weather condition, every single plant in your field is now threatened, because they all share the same genetic vulnerability. When you have several different varieties, there’s a greater chance that whatever is affecting a few of your plants, won’t affect the others.
Every day biodiversity is being lost at up to 1,000 times the natural rate. The extinction of individual species, but also habitat destruction, land conversion for agriculture and development, climate change, pollution and the spread of invasive species are only some of the threats responsible for today’s crisis. Biodiversity has become such a topic of importance, that the United Nations has declared 2011-2020 the Decade on Biodiversity.
Where to find Heirloom Seeds
Fortunately, this is one of those problems where a single backyard gardener can truly make a difference, and save certain vegetable varieties from extinction. You can grow and save heirloom variety seeds, or even become a member of Seed Savers Exchange. If you don’t have a garden, you can help by branching out and purchasing different fruit and vegetable varieties. A lot of our biodiversity issues have to do with consumer demand; the farmer will only grow something if the consumer is going to buy it.
D. Landreth Seeds
I will now segue to discuss a business I believe is worth saving – not only is the biodiversity of our agriculture system under threat, but the diversity of the seed business is struggling too. Founded in 1784, D. Landreth Seeds is America’s oldest seed company and carries over 900 varieties of heirloom seeds. David Landreth started selling seeds in Philadelphia, and D. Landreth Seeds would eventually sell seeds to every American president from George Washington to Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1798, Landreth introduced the Zinnia into the United States from Mexico, and in 1820, he introduced the tomato. His company also introduced the Bloomsdale spinach – one of the most popular vegetable varieties ever grown.
Due to a series of unfortunate legal issues, the company’s accounts have been frozen by a garnishment order, and they need to sell 1 million catalogs or raise $1 million dollars by September 30th in order to continue 227 years of uninterrupted business. The response from the internet has been overwhelming, with a full on “Save Ferris” like campaign, but there is still a lot of money that needs to be raised. You can help support heirloom seed saving and keep a part of American agricultural history alive by purchasing a catalog, seeds, or any of the other products they carry at Landrethseeds.com. If you want to help save the business, but do not want any merchandise, they have set up a donation page for contributions.