Heirloom plants include numerous types of flowers, fruits, vegetables, bushes and trees that historically were grown by seed in backyards throughout the country. Heirloom seeds produce plants that, in terms of genetic traits, are exactly like their parent plants. Nowadays, due to industrial selection, they are rare finds in a typical garden. Heirloom varieties may be preserved through natural museums and arboretums, and some gardeners who like to seek out unique plants and/or maintain horticultural traditions might plant some classic heirlooms in their backyards. In addition to maintaining biodiversity, heirloom plants can offer interesting visual variation. For example, heirloom tomotoes may be green-and-yellow-striped or of a purplish hue rather than the common red color.
Heirloom seeds grow heirloom plants, also known as heirloom vegetables. Heirloom plants were cultivated throughout human history, but are not used in mass factory production. Heirloom seeds have provided the agricultural industry with a way to “make their bottom line. They have chosen to breed very specialized varieties of crops; ones that are known for their hardiness and productivity. The most common example of a common heirloom vegetable is the hard, decorative corn that you find in grocery stores around Halloween and Thanksgiving (mygardenguide.net, 2011).
While some people have differing opinions on the exact definition of heirloom seeds, there are certain traits that are agreed upon. To qualify as an heirloom, most people agree that seeds must have a history of around fifty years and must be open pollinated. Open pollination means that palnts are randomly pollinated by animals such as bees, moths, and butterflies, and therefore have a higher genetic diversity than most produce at a grocery store. Seeds that have been mass produced for agricultural needs have had controlled pollination to ensure certain traits are passed on. Common traits controlled for are fast growth, high produce yield, resistance to specific diseases, uniform color and size in produce, etc.
Heirloom seeds may have different shapes or colors than what you would typically see at a grocery store, but their increased genetic diversity can mean better flavor and resistance to new diseases, which makes them important.
One of the most important qualities of heirloom seeds is their ability to adapt to local conditions. If you only collect the seeds from the best heirloom plants you will be artificially selecting for certain traits. For example a lettuce farmer in Oregon may have problems with mildew. He allows a portion of his crop to go completely untreated and go to seed. He then selects the plants that were most resistant to mildew and uses them for next years crop. Gradually, the plants become more adapted to the area. This allows for every farmer to take part in the artificial selection process that first produced our agricultural species.
Hybrid and genetically modified seeds are often not even viable. When they are, they produce an insignificant or highly variable result. I observed this when I planted popcorn seeds. Half of the plants died, the rest only grew to three feet tall and produced tiny finger sized corn cobs. This is probably because that seed had been genetically engineered to require huge amounts of nitrogen fertilizer inputs.
Another important thing about heirloom seeds is the fact that they can be saved and used for the next season. Genetically modified seeds will either cross-pollinate with other crops and interfere with biodiversity or “terminate” so that they cannot be used again after they grow and produce fruit. Terminator seeds are completely controlled by corporations, so you would have to buy new seeds every year in order to use them. Essentially, they are patenting life.
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