A growing number of seed companies are advertising and successfully selling heirloom vegetable seeds to discerning gardeners. Heirloom seeds routinely produce distinctively flavored vegetables which our grandparents used to enjoy in the years when there were no modern hybrid seeds. Of course, modern hybrid vegetables remain nourishing, tasty, and more convenient to grow than heirloom vegetables. For that matter, these advantages were the purpose for the creation of hybrid seeds from the start. Although, just as with homemade bread and hand fashioned quilts, many of us have decided that the extra attention that these vegetables need is merited by the old-fashioned aroma and the nostalgic connection to our ancestors.
Generally speaking, the vegetable seeds which are designated heirloom seeds must show two traits. They must be open-pollinated, and the variety must be no less than 50 years old. Even though some seeds currently sold in catalogs or stores may meet one of the aforementioned standards, they really have to meet both requirements for a trustworthy seed business to describe them as Heirloom.
Nearly all seeds available today are called Hybrids. A hybrid is a plant which is the result of cross-pollinating two different species. A common issue experienced with hybrids is, they will never replicate themselves. If you plant cross-pollinated seeds, then harvest the seeds from the hybrid plants, that second generation of seeds will only come with the genetic material of one of its genetic predecessors. Maybe an oversimplified explanation would clear this up. If some seeds produce hybrid plants which were a cross-pollination of red peppers and yellow peppers, the hybrid may produce orange peppers. If you harvest the seeds from those hybrid peppers and plant them, the resulting plants might merely produce either green or yellow peppers.
Heirloom seeds, in contrast, are open-pollinated species. Therefore, if you remove seeds from this type of plants, the next group of plants should grow “true to type”, which means the identical vegetable will be grown over and over. The capability of these vegetables to copy themselves is the reason these varieties have survived for all those years.
While the fifty year standard for tracing back heirloom varieties may seem arbitrary, the decade after the Second World War marks the start of when major seed companies started developing and selling the more robust hybrid vegetable seeds. This generation’s gardeners have developed a new approval for the old fashioned vegetable varieties, however, and the seed companies have reacted by dedicating increasing amounts of advertising space to Heirloom seeds.
Please do not conclude that hybrid vegetables are considered bad. The technology which gave us our hybrid vegetables has given us better growing conditions and higher yields in today’s agriculture, which has international advantages. Heirloom vegetables are appreciated by some home gardeners, however, as a result of their texture and flavor, and their ability to bring back memories of Grandma’s tomato sandwiches.
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