Heirloom plants are in the news. What, exactly, are heirloom plants and how are they different from non-heirloom plants? There are many definitions of heirloom plants. Most agree that they are plants that were developed before World War II, are open pollinated, and are not genetically modified (GMO).
Some individuals would say that a plant is only an heirloom if it was in use before World War I. The distinction is not critical, however, because the true boundary being expressed is that the plant was developed before the widespread use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. These plants should not depend on huge amounts of chemicals being used to kill anything else in the field, as some modern seed does.
Open pollinated means that the plant will breed true. If you save the seeds from one year and plant them the next, you will get plants just like the parent. Many modern seeds are hybrids. If you save the seeds and sow them the next year, you will get a plant that is unpredictable. It will not look like its’ parents, but will favor one or the other in ways that are impossible to tell. Farmers that plant hybrid plants must buy new seed every year to get the expected crop.
Genetically modified crops are variously viewed as the salvation of man or the instrument of its’ destruction. GMO crops have genetic material from unrelated species inserted into their genetic material to add desirable characteristics and mitigate undesirable ones. Corn is the classic GMO crop right now. Genes have been added to make it more tolerant to pesticides and to kill caterpillars that eat it. Because corn is pollinated by the wind, one field can contaminate thousands
of acres with GMO pollen. Lawsuits are still being used to sort that one out.
Some groups growing heirloom plants add a requirement that the plants came passed down in families, not maintained by seed companies. This is not necessary, but it makes it more interesting to grow a given crop if you know the plant was smuggled out of Hungary by fleeing Germans, or brought to the United States by Irish immigrants.
The biggest advantage of heirloom plants is their genetic diversity. You can find plants that will survive in almost any climate in the heirloom part of the seed catalog. However, you should know that many heirloom plants do not have resistance to common problems such as fusarium wilt in tomatoes, so you have to pick your plants wisely. Not everything grows every place, and sometimes it is tough to find out exactly what climate the plants will do best in.
Heirloom plants are typically more expensive than hybrid plants. However, they taste good, come in strange and wonderful colors and shapes, and work to keep plants alive that would otherwise die out. Try out a row of heirloom plants this growing season.
You can find more information on heirloom plants at the Seed Saver’s Exchange. They are a seed bank that also grows out and sells many heirloom plants and seeds.