What are heirlooms? Seeds with Stories

Sophie Krause gives us five good reasons to grow heirloom plants this spring. 

By Sophie Krause

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You may have heard the word heirloom before, perhaps at your local farmer's market, scribbled in chalk above a mound of red, purple, green, and sunburst-colored tomatoes. Or maybe you've read heirloom italicized on a farm-to-table menu, with a name like Boston Market lettuce accompanying your beet and goat cheese salad.

No matter how you've encountered the word, you may still have one major question: What exactly is an heirloom?

Your great grandmother's necklace is a family heirloom– it's been in your family for several generations. The same logic applies to the plant world. Heirloom crops are specially-bred varieties that have belonged to a plant family for multiple generations (half a century or more, to be exact).

Technically speaking, heirlooms can be as ancient as the Old World (hence their nickname: Old World crops). Let's take one of those sunburst colored heirloom tomatoes from the farmer's market we discussed earlier, for example. Its name is Brandywine Yellow, and it was developed by an Amish community in Pennsylvania in the early 1900s.

When Brandywine Yellow was first discovered it was not an heirloom. It was just one naturally occurring tomato variety, savored by a community. Your great grandmother's necklace wasn't a family heirloom when she wore it. The tomato, like the necklace, became an heirloom as it was passed down through the generations.

Heirlooms are time tested varieties, seeds that have been passed down to us by generations before us. They are not necessarily organic, and they are not necessarily better for you (though they can be!).

There are heirloom tomato varieties as well as apple, beet, carrot, grape and turnip varieties – essentially any crop that has remained in cultivation for over multiple human generations. Not many varieties make it to heirloom status. Roughly 90% of the vegetable varieties available in 1903 are now extinct, meaning that they are no longer grown.
So why did we stop growing so many vegetable varieties?

At the turn of the century, we began breeding new varieties of crops, called hybrids or conventional crops. To meet growing consumer demand, conventional seed breeding programs emphasize qualities like uniformity and flesh thickness. By favoring crops with uniform traits that allow for the mechanization of processing, or thick flesh that allows for crops to be shipped from one hemisphere to the next without bruising, we can have a large variety of crops in the supermarket all year round. Considering that most crops only grow at certain times of the year, this is rather amazing.

Unlike the Brandywine Yellow heirloom tomato seeds which will only grow another Brandywine Yellow tomato, hybridized crops are not always capable of reproducing exact copies of themselves. This is where the tricky concepts of Mendelian plant genetics come into play, which I'll spare you. I will, however, draw a familiar parallel to the kinship between horses, donkeys, and mules.

An heirloom crop is like the parental horse or donkey, and a hybrid is their combined offspring, like the mule. Just as a mule cannot give birth to another mule, hybrid varieties cannot breed true or similar to type. They must be pollinated by hand to ensure the right combination of traits in their offspring, the traits we are selectively breeding for. People began breeding mules because they found them to be more patient, sure-footed, and longer-lived than horses, in addition to being faster, less stubborn, and more intelligent than donkeys. Similarly, in the plant world, we began breeding hybrid varieties of crops for traits we wanted. The traits favored by the majority of grower's today are those that facilitate the industrial agricultural cycle and our current methods of commercial food production.

But what are the costs to selectively breeding crop types for mass consumption? What qualities do we lose when we breed conventional and hybridized seeds? Or, what qualities do we gain when we pass down heirloom varieties?

Here are five important qualities we preserve when we grow heirlooms:

1.Heirlooms Tell a Story and Connect Us to Our Past

Just like a population of people, heirlooms have a group story. By breeding true to type, or consistently, people can save heirloom seeds and replant them from year to year. This is how all seeds were grown until the early 1900s, when we began to majorly advance hybrid breeding technologies. Passing through green-thumbed hands for hundreds and sometimes thousands of culturally transitive years, the stories behind each heirloom represent a library of history. Consider the Cherokee Trail of Tears Pole Bean. Brought from Tennessee by the Cherokee people as they were marched to Oklahoma by the US Federal Government in 1839 over the infamous and deadly Trail of Tears, this specific heirloom bean was saved for its prolific and hardy nature. Grown along the trail, it was saved and replanted by countless Cherokee people as a way to help feed those still en route. To this day, heirloom bean seeds carried by family members and passed down from child to child, and garden to garden, continue to tell their story.

2.Heirlooms Are Better at Adapting

Every heirloom variety is genetically unique, which allows it to evolve uniquely. Heirlooms have intrinsically high genetic variability, which is acted upon by evolutionary processes. This means they can evolve resistances to pests, diseases, specific growing conditions and climates, which conventional crops can lack. And heirlooms have greater genetic diversity than conventionally-bred crops too, which gives them more options for responding to selective pressures. By reducing the genetic diversity of our global crops, conventional breeding methods contribute to the “genetic erosion” that puts our food security increasingly at risk.

3. Heirlooms Vote for Seed Sovereignty

There are many political reasons to grow heirlooms. Growing heirloom seeds is a tasty and tangible way to preserve genetic variety in the form of old, sometimes ancient, plant lineages. Heirlooms stand in stark opposition to today's dominant hybrid growing methods, which favor only the fastest-growing, hardiest, and most portable varieties. Heirlooms help increase food security and self-sufficiency outside of the home gardener's plot. In a world of rapidly changing agricultural laws, at a time when corporations can purchase patents on seeds to monopolize entire growing markets, heirlooms represent the gardener's and consumer's freedom flag. Each heirloom seed represents a vote for seed sovereignty, and the right to use and exchange seeds freely within a community.

4.Heirlooms Are (Usually) More Flavorful

Sometimes heirloom seeds are passed down simply for their flavor. The Crapaudine Beet, dating back over 1,000 years and looking like black bark when pulled from the ground, is not the familiar purple variety often found in our beet and goat cheese salads. Originally grown in the low desert, this Old World beet has the shape of a large carrot with green foliage and a bright red interior. Passed down through the ages because of its tasty performance in the home and market garden, it cannot be found in today's stores. One of the most flavorful beets ever known, today the Crapaudine beet continues to be sought after by home growers, specialty markets, and well-informed chefs.

5. You Can Grow Heirlooms

The good news is that heirloom varieties are still available for you to grow! Just as you can pass down a family heirloom to your children, growing heirloom crops is as easy as planting heirloom seeds and preserving them. Perhaps there is a variety your grandmother introduced you to, or a type of vegetable that is special to the region where your family originates from. Check out the Rare Seeds website, or perhaps your local seed bank, and start growing heirlooms this season in your Spring Garden. Remember to save some of the seeds at harvest time, and continue growing them for many seasons to come.

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Sophie Krause is a gardener and landscape designer studying to become a landscape architect. She has enjoyed putting her hands in the dirt since she was a child, and uses her B.A. degree in Biology and Environmental Science from UC Santa Cruz to influence her design work. She works to re-connect communities with their environment, specifically with urban populations. Reach her at sophiemkrause@gmail.com

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