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Why grow Heirloom seeds? What are heirloom seeds? @ sowdiverse.ie

Heirloom Seeds, why grow them?

Why Grow Heirloom Seeds?

When we bought seeds for the first time, we did not know what the difference was between heirloom, open-pollinated, hybrid, and GMO. If you are asking yourselves the same questions we used to, we have tried to summarize the main differences for you. 

What is an Heirloom seed?

Heirloom seeds come from open-pollinated plants that pass on similar characteristics and traits from the parent plant to the child plant. An Heirloom seed (or heritage seed) has one parent plant. It is interesting to note that the definition of Heirloom seeds may not be the same for all gardeners. Some gardeners will say that Heirloom plants are those that were introduced before the last 50 years, while others will say that Heirloom varieties are those introduced before the 1920's. In general, an Heirloom variety is a plant variety that has a history of being passed down within a family or community and has been around for a long time. Therefore, Heirlooms are seeds that are possible to regrow and pass on from one generation to the next.

Are Heirloom seeds organic or non-organic?

In most cases, Heirloom plants are organic because they have been usually grown for their own consumptions by families, small scale gardeners or communities who do not generally use pesticides, herbicides or any harmful chemicals. However, there may be minor instances where some chemicals may be used by some families since Heirloom plants do not have the similar level of protection that hybrid and GMOs plants provide against diseases and pests. But this is quite rare. Usually, Heirloom seeds are passed on within families similar to the generational sharing of heritage jewelry and are cherished. Simply put, an Heirloom seed refers to the heritage of a plant and its transmission through multiple generations, while organic refers to a growing practice. They are two different things. You can therefore have an organic seed that is a hybrid.

To summarize, Heirloom seeds are usually organic.

What is the difference between Heirloom vs. Open-Pollinated vs. Hybrid vs. GMO?

There are indeed important differences that anyone should be aware of when it comes to Heirloom, Open-pollinated, hybrid, and GMO plants. First, Heirloom plants are the only ones that breed true to type or true to seed.  This is because as we mentioned earlier, the same characteristics from the parent plant are passed on from generation to generation. The same cannot be said for hybrid and GMO. Hybrid plants are produced when different varieties of plants cross-pollinate, which can happen naturally in nature or with human intervention. Because there are different varieties of plants involved, it is unlikely that the offspring of hybrid plants will produce traits identical to the parent plant. If your aim is to save seeds that are true to type (eg. identical to the parent plant), then hybrid seeds and GMO seeds are not for you. 

Open-pollination is when pollination occurs by insect, bird, wind, humans, or other natural mechanisms.

Because the flow of pollen is not restricted between individuals, open-pollinated plants are more genetically diverse. Open-pollinated plants will slowly adapt to local growing conditions and climate as time goes by. However, the seed from an open-pollinated plant will only remain true-to-type as long as the pollen is not shared between different varieties within the same species. Open-pollination is great though as it diversifies the plant genetic material.

To summarize, an Heirloom variety must be open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated plants are Heirlooms.

An open-pollinated seed, heirloom included, will likely become a hybrid if the distances to avoid cross- pollination between different varieties within the same species are not respected. Please note if you are growing heirloom plants for seed saving and you want the seed to remain true-to-type, then you will need to respect the isolation distance to avoid cross-pollination, with other varieties.

What about GMO then? On the other hand, GMO or transgenic plants can only be produced using unnatural methods and genetic engineering done usually in labs. One of those methods is for instance gene splicing where scientists modify a seed’s DNA to ensure the resulting plant produce the desired traits and characteristics they are after. For instance, a tomato gene was altered to have a long shelf life.


Why plant Heirloom seeds?

When considering all of the above, it is legitimate to ask ourselves why would we grow Heirloom seeds instead of hybrid and GMO seeds? First, Heirlooms plants are usually known to produce fruits, vegetables, legumes, brassicas, herbs that have better taste and flavor and are more nutritious. Secondly, they are less expensive over the long haul since they are true to type and reproducible so you can save the seeds from one of the plants you are growing and replant the following year and share that with friends and family. Obviously, Heirloom plants require a bit more care than the hybrid or GMO plants since they are less disease resistant but you will be gaining so much more in taste, color, texture in your plate. Last but not least, by growing Heirloom seeds, you would also be playing an important part in preserving the genetic diversity of plants, biodiversity and will guarantee your family always has access to free food supply for generations. When we think about it, no hybrid seeds would be produced if there were no Heirloom seeds.

Where to buy Heirloom seeds?

As more and more gardeners become interested in Heirloom seeds, you may find that it isn’t as difficult as before to obtain them. If you are looking for Heirloom seeds, seed exchanges, farms, seed saving organizations, specialized Heirloom seeds sellers, and botanical gardens are a good place to start. It is also possible to obtain seeds from seed conservation societies. There are some sellers on eBay but you have no guarantee the seeds are genuine.

The best thing is to get the seeds from seed saving organizations, conservation societies and specialized sellers that have publicly pledged not to sell hybrid or GMO seeds.

Hope you find these pages helpful.

You can get Heirloom seeds HERE at Sowdiverse.ie

Keep Heirloom varieties alive in your gardens for the generations to come.