This article was originally published on November 1, 2008 and expired on February 15, 2009. It is provided here for archival purposes and may contain dated information.
Heirloom plants or seeds are sometimes given as gifts during the holiday season, said a University of Illinois horticulture educator.
"They are a special present from a past generation to a younger one," said Jeff Rugg. "An heirloom plant could be an individual plant handed down and planted in a garden, or in more general terms, it is a variety of a plant that has not been hybridized. It is still the genetically variable plant that was propagated generations ago.
"To be considered an heirloom, seed-bearing plants--vegetable, fruit, herb, etc.--must be open-pollinated, which means it must be able to produce seeds that will come back true to its kind year after year. Crops like garlic, potato, or apples are not often propagated by seeds, but can still be considered heirlooms."
Heirloom plants come in four classifications, he added. Most commonly, there are seeds passed down through the generations of a family or local area that are called Family Heirlooms.
"Until hybrid varieties came along after World War II, most commercially grown varieties of food crops were open-pollinated and are now called Commercial Heirlooms," he said. "It is possible to create an heirloom by the deliberate crossing of two known hybrids or an heirloom and a hybrid, if the seeds come true to type thereafter. These are Created Heirlooms.
"In the past, many Family and Commercial Heirlooms were created by farmers trying to get better crops. Then there are the Mystery Heirlooms. These are the result of the natural crossing between two heirlooms where only one parent is known."
Some catalogs do not list their seeds as heirlooms but do list them as antique seeds, he pointed out.
"This is usually the same thing as an heirloom seed," said Rugg. "Some people say that a seed cannot be an heirloom unless it has a history that can be traced back at least 50 years and some people insist on over 100 years.
"If a plant has a real uniqueness that cannot be found in other plants, some people will waive the age requirement. If the seeds can be traced to a special region of the world, then it may be worth saving in order to preserve regional plant diversity."
But if these plants are so special, why is it so hard to find them in catalogs and grocery stores?
"It has been a matter of supply, demand, and profits," he explained. "As recently as the 1950s and 1960s, a large amount of the U.S. produce was grown close to urban areas and on each person's own property using heirlooms. As the population grew and covered the farm land, the produce was grown farther away from the urban centers."
More women joined the workforce and had less time to garden. The interstate highway system expanded, large refrigerated cargo planes and faster trains all helped get the food grown in faraway places to the new, modern grocery stores while it was still fresh.
"Farmers needed a uniform crop that appeared the same in order to pass inspections at fast-food restaurant chains, that could be harvested at the same time for efficiency, and that was sturdy enough to make it to market without spoiling," he said. "The next time you go to a mega-store, look at the piles of each kind of fruit. They will appear to be identical because they are clones and hybrids.
"Ask yourself, if that pile of fruit had some pieces slightly insect-eaten or were discolored by spots, or were of a different shape or color, would you be as inclined to buy them?"
Many people feel that in addition to the flavor lacking in modern produce, there is also a lack of genetic diversity. One hundred years ago, one would find thousands of varieties of virtually every food crop. Now, there are only a thousand or so of each kind of food. In many crops, there are barely 100 varieties in commercial production.
"If there is a drought or a disease that harms those varieties with such limited parentage, we could have a food problem on our hands," Rugg said.
A community of gardeners has saved many threatened varieties of heirlooms. The Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) has provided an organized link for gardeners (http://www.seedsavers.org). It is a non-profit, tax-exempt organization that is saving old-time food crops from extinction. SSE members are maintaining over 25,000 heirloom varieties.
Another group is the Flower and Herb Exchange, founded in 1989. It shares the SSE website. It is saving over 1,400 old-time flowers and herbs. A seed catalog with over 1,200 heirloom and foreign seeds is available from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co. (http://www.rareseeds.com).
"Next spring, why not dedicate a few feet of your garden's crop rows or a large patio flower pot to something you've never tried before," said Rugg. "Try at least one new heirloom variety every year and you will really enjoy your favorite fresh food."
Source: Jeff Rugg, Unit Educator, Horticulture/IPM, email@example.com
Pull date: February 15, 2009