Heirloom seeds are becoming more popular, we explain here how the whole heirloom seed thing works, and how you can preserve your plants for generations to come.
When I was a child, we would all visit my grandmothers in the country, it was a great time. I particularly remember her tomatoes all lined up in a row on the windowsill and all perfectly ripened for our visit, what a stroke of ‘luck’ that was! For many years I tried to rediscover that flavour, but to no avail. I figuredvqvax that Granny had some sort of secret, until that is my father told me the reason. You see, Granny’s secret was simple, she kept the seeds from her plants for the following season and beyond, she collected seeds, and now 30 years on the practice has become heirloom seed collecting
More and more people are growing heirloom vegetables, in my case, I am immediately taken back to my grandmothers kitchen and those heady days of my childhood. There have, of course always been heirloom seed collectors, but they have pretty much been in small groups, or tight social networks (long before the internet stole the phrase). The increased support for heirloom vegetables has resulted in seed catalogues now stocking these items, and while modern hybrids are bred to be more hardy, or to give a better yield, heirloom growing means that you too can be taken back to the days gone by.
What designates a plant as a heirloom?
Well there are three main characteristics to Heirloom plants
Almost all heritage seeds are open pollinated varieties, and seeds from these plants will normally take on the characteristics of just one parent plant. Heirlooms grow true to type from their seeds. This is what results in people like my grandmother enjoying the same fruit year after year.
Some heirloom perennials are propagated from cuttings rather than seed, and although they are still considered heirlooms, their seeds may not produce exact same varieties. That said, there are still exceptions to this rule, however, these are the exceptions rather than the rule.
Ideally you should be able to trace the provenance back fifty years or longer. Again though this range is arbitrary rather than carved in stone, although many heirlooms can be traced back way farther still. As a guide, pre World War 2 seeds are heirloom as seed catalogues dumped these varieties for hybrids that were ‘better’. Isn’t that always the case, you never know what you got till it’s gone.
The final Characteristic is history. Most heirloom seeds have a family history, just as grandma kept her seeds and passed them on to my dad, and just as my dad passed them on to me, other families and friends have been doing this, making the seeds true heirlooms. Many of these seeds of course came to us through migration across continents, heirlooming there and then wasn’t something they wanted, it was something they needed to do. Thankfully we now benefit from this, as we have such a wide variety of heirloom seeds available..
Thanks to my family line, MY children are able to visit graddads house, and enjoy the same fruit I did when I was their age, and, I have to admit. When no-one is looking, I sneak out into the kitchen grab a ripe tomato from the windowsill, close my eyes, bite in, and return to grandmas house…….