Heirloom seeds have made a dramatic comeback in recent years. It is said that there are more than 5,000 heirloom tomato varieties alone. But heirloom seeds are much more than tomatoes, each variety has its own life story. Each seed has been sown, cultivated, harvested, saved, and passed on, often for hundreds of years, down through the generations.
Some seeds have mysterious tales. Others have been smuggled out of native countries in the hems of ladies dresses or the inside of shoes, to end up with their owners in a new land. Whatever their story, these precious seeds are now stealing the limelight from their F1 hybrid cousins.
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What makes heirloom seeds special?
Heirloom seeds can actually be saved from season to season. They are often ‘true’ to their original ancestor species, having been lovingly planted and cultivated year by year with little or no cross-pollination from other similar varieties.
This is what makes heirloom seeds special – a tiny seed is cast into the soil, weighing no more than a spec of dust, only to emerge 100 days later as a magnificent vegetable weighing more than one thousand times its original weight. Then nature comes full circle and creates seeds that weigh no more than a speck of dust, and the cycle goes on.
There is one dramatic difference between heirloom seeds and F1 hybrids – this cycle of life only pertains to heirloom seeds. Hybrid seeds can only manage one season of growth. The seeds they produce are either sterile (non-germinating seeds) or at best create plants that do not look like their parents or do not bear fruit.
F1 hybrids have been cross pollinated to make ’super species’ of cultivars – either grown to produce more fruit, or produce early or longer. This modification has come at a price – inferior flavor, weaker plant lines and more susceptibility to disease.
Try something – plant one hybrid and one heirloom seed of the same variety side by side and, provided you supply the correct growing conditions, you’ll see the difference. The F1 hybrid will burst into life with wild abandon, produce an abundance of fruit, then die without a thought of tomorrow.
The heirloom however, will grow slowly and steadily. It will take longer to produce a strong framework on which it will bear fruit, and then seed. It is as though the heirloom plant knows it has to pace itself to produce viable seeds for the next season and the continuation of its species. This way of growing produces vegetables and fruits with flavors so divine, like nothing you can buy in a store.
Another distinct advantage of heirloom seeds is that, because they are ‘true’ to their ancestor varieties, they contain more good nutrients than F1 hybrids. They also come in wild shapes and dramatic colors like yellow and purple carrots, deep purple beans, lime green cauliflower and red Brussels sprouts.
Each heirloom seed variety has a life story which is part of its mystique and this story is often handed over along with the seeds.
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Unfortunately, over the last 60 years the majority of seed saving has been left to commercial business and it has been reported that one thousand heirloom varieties a year are lost forever. An heirloom gardener will cherish their seeds because they know that they may never find that particular variety again and that one failed crop can wipe out an entire cultivar.
Heirloom seeds are meant for sharing, but you need to take the responsibility seriously, sow and save your seeds with pride, and keep them going for a hundred more years.