Heirloom Seeds and Plants

Heirloom Seeds and Plants and Cultivars

Heirlooms handed down from generation to generation is a time-honored custom in families to keep the history and people from the past alive in the present. Bits of times gone by can be seen in the pieces that have been around for many years. The same is true of ‘heirloom plants’, or cultivars that were grown many years ago before the age of commercialized farming.

There are many debates over what specifically defines plants or seedlings as heirlooms. The common feature in all is that they are seedlings from plants that originated many years ago and have reproduced naturally through open pollination.

Heirloom Seeds

Some people place an age limit on originating cultivars, usually placing them between 100 and 50 years old. Some are handed down from generation to generation in families, such as garden items or prize-winning rose-bushes. There are also seedlings that were discontinued for commercial use and have been saved for special distribution.

Each heirloom, by whichever definition is considered, has a major component in common, which is they are all products of open or natural pollination. This keeps the plant true to its original cultivar, some of which are said to go back hundreds of years.

Those who swear by heirloom plants and vegetables are vigilant advocates for its superior quality and appearance.

Heirloom plants and vegetables have also provided continuations of plants that may have died out years ago due to the hybrids that became popular for commercial food production in the last forty years.

Why Heirloom Seeds and Plants?

Why Heirlooms?

One may ask why heirloom plants are so important to gardeners. For many, it is the idea of continuing cultivars from times past to literally taste a simpler time.

As the years have passed, fewer families save starter plants to be passed on from each generation to the next. The idea of keeping the same plant going for potentially hundreds of years encourages the concept of keeping history alive. There is a sense of family connection when looking at plants growing in the garden that got their start many years ago with the loving touch of a treasured grandmother or aunt.

Another aspect that attracts many gardeners to heirloom plants is the strongly held belief that the lushness of the flowers or the superior quality of the vegetable is due to starting from seedlings begun many years ago. If it is grown in the same type of soil, the plant adapts to the environment around it with greater ease than hybrids which change from year to year. This increases its durability and resistance to pests and other conditions which can cause plants to falter.

Most importantly, heirloom plants allow the continued production of seedlings that might otherwise die out. To increase the productivity of plants, many hybrids have been developed. Hybrids do not reproduce exactly from seeds that are saved as heirloom plants will do if properly cultivated. Saving seed from heirlooms and continuing their production will in turn allow plants and vegetables that would otherwise be in danger of dying out.

How To Obtain Heirloom Seeds and Plants

The easiest way of course to obtain the seeds for heirloom plants is to save them from ones you have already grown. It is extremely important to choose only the healthiest heirlooms to pick over for seed. They should always be put in clearly marked packaging so that the varieties of vegetables will not get mixed up. It is essential to grow the same heirloom varieties together rather than mixing them up. Seeds can be saved for up to five years if stored properly in a cool, dry place.

“Indian” Corn

The ways to obtain the seeds from the plants themselves vary depending on the species. Beans are left to dry at room temperature, whereas other plants such as tomatoes require some extra preparation. Tomato seeds need to be scooped out, insides and all, and left to sit in a small amount of water for several days until a fine layer of mold appears. Once this happens, the seeds can be cleaned off and laid out to dry.   Another way to obtain seeds if you don’t have the heirlooms available to work from is going to a seed swap. This may require some looking around, but many gardeners are willing to share the excess seeds and plants they have cultivated.

Getting together with others who are planting heirlooms will not only add variety to your garden, it will put you in touch with others who are cultivating generational plants and vegetables. Community gardening is something that helped build this country to be an important agricultural producer and has sadly become a lost art in the wake of commercialized farming.

What Makes Heirloom Plants and Seeds Better?

Without a doubt, the number one reason that gardeners will preach the gospel of heirloom planting is the overall superior health of the vegetables and flowers produced. It is thought that the open pollination method of cultivating the seeds is largely responsible for the better quality as the vegetation is reproducing plants that are alike or similar. This keeps the same plant going for years and one can literally “taste the past” with every bite of an Abraham Lincoln tomato (circa 1923) or an ear of Gourdseed corn.

It is important to note that while many of the heirlooms are fairly easy to grow, there are some that will require more maintenance. In some cases, it is simply an issue of a plant that is growing outside of its natural environment (such as seeds sent from family that live elsewhere). Other times it is because the plant itself is being exposed to different toxins and environmental concerns than its predecessors would have faced.

It is not guaranteed that a seed planted from an heirloom will grow exactly as the original plant did, which is why it is essential to plant several seeds of the same type. Some will do some bizarre things before they get going (such as leaves growing upside down), but this is just until the plant becomes used to its environment. Once an heirloom garden gets going, they will produce better tasting fruits and vegetables than those grown for mass production. Quite likely this is because they have the taste of a time before all of the hybrids and pesticides started altering our food’s appearance and flavor.

The Importance Of Continuing Heirloom Plants and Seeds

Some plants are in danger of dying out altogether without the help of those who continue the tradition of heirloom gardening. Tomatoes such as My Girl and Pink Cherry are in danger of being extinct and growing these plants will help keep these varieties as well as others alive and continuing for generations to come.

With mass production of food, there are fewer varieties grown, which is another contributing factor to endangered plants and vegetables that were once quite common. Fresh taste and quality is sacrificed so that more food can be produced. The heirloom vegetable make take longer to grow and not produce the amounts that the hybrids do, however they have a resiliency that withstands the test of time as well as a flavor that can’t be beat.

As the food is produced and enjoyed and Grandma’s prize winning rose bushes are the envy of the neighborhood, it should not be forgotten that part of the process is the time-honored tradition of passing the seedlings and plants to another.

Each time the plants are harvested, save aside seeds from the best fruits and flowers to be dried and stored for later use. When the time comes for the starters to be passed to another gardener, it gives life to the tradition of keeping heirlooms and their seedlings alive and reproducing for many generations.

Written by Angela Sangster, Copyright 2011 HousePlantsForYou.com All rights reserved

1 Comment

  1. norietta sears-belcher
    Sep 2, 2012

    thank you. I have been wanting to find these for years but no one knew anything about how to get the seeds or plants. I finally thought of the internet. We have a korfhage in louisville, ky and I will try them. If that doesn’t work out I will definitely be contacting you.

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