Heritage and Longevity of Heirloom Vegetables and Seeds

Heritage and Longevity of Heirloom Vegetables and Seeds

By Mark Zuleger-Thyss/Garden of Healing


Saving seeds from your tomatoes, pumpkins, or squash is the best way to contribute to heirloom vegetables' longevity. An heirloom plant passed down from generation to generation maintains its purest form. They have never been tampered with or hybridized. For hardcore enthusiasts, heirloom status comes from saving seed varieties for at least 50 years. These seeds come from open-pollinated plants that pass on similar characteristics and traits from the parent plant to the child plant.

We associate heirloom seeds and plants with heritage, history, and nostalgia. This type of seed saving comes with the understanding that vegetables grew for generations in a specific place. You can find heirloom produce at local farmers' markets, which reflect the surrounding growing region. Heirloom seeds provide the original, high-nutrient varieties and traditional strains our ancestors used.

What exactly does "heirloom" mean? While open to some interpretation, the bottom line is, the word describes produce resulting from a type of pollination – open pollination - repeated over time. Heirloom plants are the result of natural selection rather than of controlled over-hybridization. Heirloom seeds are becoming imperative in preserving food biodiversity and protection from genetic modifications (GMO). All heirloom seeds are open-pollinated. Not all open-pollinated seeds are heirloom. The critical distinction is about heritage. The formula is: Open pollination plus heritage equals heirloom.



There are two ways to describe seeds: by genetics or by how they were grown. Organic produce is grown without synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or synthetic fertilizers. GMOs are genetically modified seeds. Scientists create them in a lab where their raw genetic material gets altered, usually to make them resistant to an herbicide. Conventional seeds have no real definition. The term usually means that fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides were used to grow the plants. Open-pollinated plants rely on wind, insects, birds, or humans to spread pollen and will cross-pollinate with other plants of the same species. Begin a new heirloom tradition by saving seeds of open-pollinated plants, knowing that they will only qualify as heirloom starting in 2060.

The growing region is also key to the longevity and success of any plant, particularly heirloom plants. Warm-weather vegetables like beans, cucumbers, and corn grown for decades in upstate New York with its unique soils, humid summers, and local pests, will carry traits that have adapted to those conditions. New York-origin plants will not perform well in southern California, where thirsty summers are prevalent and supplemental watering is required.



Buying heirloom seeds

Many online sites exist where you can buy heirloom seeds. Here are a few favorites:

Seed Savers Exchange (Decorah, IA)

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (Mansfield, MO) – Rareseeds dot com

Clear Creek Seeds (Hulbert, OK)


Saving heirloom seeds

Seeds can be hard to find so learning how to save them from your own plants makes it easy to grow them again in your garden. This helps you avoid the seed-buying crunch in the spring. How do you select the right seeds, and when are they best harvested? Here are some tips.


Plan ahead

Buying new seeds is not always easy. Sure, seed packets are inexpensive but wait until the spring, and vendors might be sold out. Harvest your own seeds, and you will be all set for the planting season.


Plants adapt to your immediate climate

Raising crops from your own seeds helps plants become better adapted to your climate and growing conditions. Year after year, plants will be more vital, productive, and resistant to local diseases.


Genetic traits – true to breed

Relying on heirloom seeds means future generations of plants will stay true to breed and will keep consistent genetic traits.


Biennials versus annuals – know the difference

Annual plants complete their life cycles from germination to the production of seeds within one growing season. Geographical location dictates the length of a growing season, and the seed-to-seed life cycle for an annual lasts several months making them ready for harvest after a short time.

Examples of annuals include cucumbers, beans, peas, corn, watermelon, lettuce, basil, wheat, summer and winter squashes, and rice.

A biennial plant completes its life cycle in two growing seasons. Biennials focus their energy on vegetative growth producing roots, stems, and leaves during the first growing season. During the second growing, biennials reach sexual maturity and bear flowers, fruits, and seeds, and then die. 

Examples of biennials include sugar beets, carrots, chard, cabbage, kale, onions, turnips, and parsley.



Choosing and saving the best seeds

Collect seeds from the vegetables of your healthiest and most vigorous plants. Vegetables should be well sized and shaped and feature hardy and desirable characteristics such as coloring and striping. Plants that germinated first, produce the most fruit, or are bolted last are the best to choose from.

Selecting seeds from plants with the most potent traits year after year ensures genetic traits will become more prominent in each successive generation. Saving seeds from heirloom plants and vegetables contributes to the heritage and longevity of the original, high-nutrient varieties and traditional strains our ancestors used.


© 2021 Mark Zuleger-Thyss, Garden of Healing LLC. All rights reserved.

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