No one knows when people first started gardening. In the book of Genesis in the Bible, we read that the Creator "planted a garden eastward in Eden." If he used seeds to do this, they certainly met the definition of heirlooms.
Heirloom seeds are a hot gardening topic right now. Ask a dozen different horticulturists to define what makes a plant an heirloom, and you will likely get a dozen different answers.
Why is there such an interest in heirlooms? Are these new vegetables or old ones that are being brought back to popularity?
By some definitions, I am an heirloom gardener. When I first started to garden, heirlooms were the choices. Newly introduced hybrids were not readily available to home gardeners.
After some extensive research, I found numerous definitions for heirloom seeds. According to most authorities, three factors make a vegetable an heirloom. The factors are age, open pollination and unique qualities.
Age for heirlooms is controversial. One definition says that seeds grown before 1951 qualify because that was the year that plant breeders introduced the first hybrids from inbred lines. Going back a few years, some gardeners focus on plants grown in the Victory Gardens of World War II or before.
Others focus on pre-1930s gardens or even those that date to World War I. Many heirlooms are hundreds or even thousands of years old and their origins are unknown.
Others look less at age but require that the seeds have been passed down through human family generations. Some exclude all commercial cultivars in the seed trade.
Open pollination is another important heirloom characteristic. This allows the seed to produce true to type if the proper characteristics are observed.
Finally, to be a desirable heirloom, a plant must have unique qualities. Just because something is old, does not mean it is better. Some heirlooms have genetics that are valuable to help improve other crop cultivars.
What it really boils down to is that gardeners choose heirlooms because they like them. Many gardeners choose heirlooms because of their flavor.
Others prefer the colors, shapes and other growth characteristics that heirlooms offer. Home garden produce should be tender, flavorful and juicy.
Good heirlooms withstand the test of time. They are not without problems. They usually have little disease resistance. They might not store well. They might be harder to grow. They might not look as good and might crack or split. However, they are still popular for good reason. The best of them are among the finest vegetables ever known. For example, Brandywine tomatoes, of Amish origins, still consistently rank among the best flavored tomatoes in taste tests across the country.
To help gardeners know more about heirloom seeds, I am sharing my own knowledge as well as information I have gleaned from other experts. Regardless of the various opinions, you need to determine what heirlooms you want to make part of your family heirlooms.
Seed Savers Exchange
One of the largest organizations devoted to preserving heirloom seeds is the Seed Savers Exchange (SSE). This nonprofit organization is member-supported and is dedicated to saving and sharing our garden heritage. Since its founding in 1975, Seed Savers Exchange members have passed on an incredible one million samples of rare garden seeds to other gardeners.
According to the organization, their mission is to save and share the heirloom seeds of, "North America's diverse, but endangered, garden heritage for future generations by building a network of people committed to collecting, conserving and sharing heirloom seeds and plants, while educating people about the value of genetic and cultural diversity."
What are heirlooms? SSE defines an heirloom as "any garden plant that has a history of being passed down within a family, just like pieces of heirloom jewelry or furniture. Some companies have tried to create definitions based on date, such as anything older than 50 years."
Shannon Carmody, membership director for SSE, said, "We have a three-armed mission. Most people see our catalog, which this year has a purple striped eggplant on it. That is the commercial side of the business, and all of the proceeds go to support the preservation of our permanent seed collection. Anyone can order from our catalog and enjoy the many kinds of vegetables we offer.
"The next part of our mission is to facilitate the exchange of seeds among our members. Seed exchanges are only open to our members, but that link is vital in growing and preserving seeds.
"The third part of our mission is to get more people growing these heirloom seeds. Our goal is to get more of these varieties grown on their own. We would put ourselves out of business if everyone grew and saved their seeds, but that is what we are trying to do."
This organization started as a family heirloom preservation project.
Diane Ott Whealy and Kent Whealy started Seed Savers Exchange when Diane's terminally ill grandfather gave them seeds of Grandpa Ott's morning glory and German Pink tomato. The original seeds made the trip with Grandpa Ott's parents when they emigrated from Bavaria to St. Lucas, Iowa, in the 1870s.
The seed gift from Grandpa Ott has blossomed throughout the country and across the world. Diane and Kent's desire to share and preserve now includes thousands of heirloom garden seeds that include collections from members' ancestors who made their way to this country from Europe, the Middle East, Asia and other areas.
The heart of this preservation effort is their 890-acre Heritage Farm near Decorah, Iowa, where some 60 employees maintain their certified organic preservation gardens, the historic orchard and even some ancient White Park Cattle.
I asked Carmody how many of the different seeds they grew on their farm each year, and she explained that most of those on the commercial or catalog arm are reproduced each year to keep them true to type.
"As far as the seed exchange collection, that is much larger and includes everything from amaranth to sorghum to tomatoes and everything else. We do those on an as-needed basis.
This is not a traditional nursery just looking to sell seeds. It is member-supported and not just with money. Today, SSE maintains more than 25,000 endangered varieties that help preserve the vanishing garden heritage of our country.
One of the many benefits of membership is the Seed Savers Yearbook. The 2010 edition is an encyclopedic volume offering 13,571 unique varieties with 20,407 total listings to members from members. Members then can grow and increase the heirloom cultivars and exchange those with other members.
This unique method of members growing and preserving and then sharing their seeds' crops with others has kept thousands of seed cultivars from going extinct. It also enables you to find rare and unusual seeds that are not available through commercial channels.
Carmody said, "Our collection grew very fast last year, but one of the things we are doing is actually documenting all of the varieties in our collection. Every seed has a story and we want to have that story. We want to have the cultural context as well as the germ plasma."
This organization is very concerned that the "genetic diversity of the world's food crops is eroding at an unprecedented and accelerating rate. The vegetables and fruits currently being lost are the result of thousands of years of adaptation and selection in diverse ecological niches around the world.
"Each variety is genetically unique and has developed resistance to the diseases and pests with which it evolved. Plant breeders use the old varieties to breed resistance into modern crops that are constantly being attacked by rapidly evolving diseases and pests.
"Without these infusions of genetic diversity, food production is at risk from epidemics and infestations."
Not all the seeds offered by SSE are heirlooms, as some are recently developed by their members. Everything they sell or exchange is open-pollinated, which means you can save the seeds you grow and replant them and get similar offspring if you follow instructions for keeping the line pure.
One dependable source of information that gardeners in the state have depended on is Utah State University, which is the state's land grant college with a strong agricultural department. They have been growing and improving vegetables since their founding in 1888.
Dan Drost, Extension vegetable specialist for Utah State University, said, "To be considered an heirloom variety of any plant (vegetable, rose, some flower), the plant needs to have some heritage or age. Not everyone agrees on how long this should be, just like not everyone agrees on what is considered to be 'antique.'
"Generally heirlooms are cultivars of variety that have been grown for more than 50 years. Others say to be truly heirlooms the plants should be preserved and maintained by a family or group. Thus it has 'provenance' or region of origin."
Drost thinks that definition is too narrow. "Gardeners and farmers have shared seed throughout history and thus the true difference of the seed or plant is hard to determine unless we run DNA tests to compare similarities and differences.
"One thing is for sure, heirloom plants are always considered to be propagated by open-pollination. What does it mean to be open-pollinated? To be open-pollinated means that a plant is either self- or cross-pollinated to maintain the uniqueness of the type."
He explains this concept further. "Seeds generated after a flower is pollinated will produce plants like the parent plant that produced the seeds. Self-pollinating vegetables include beans, peas, lettuce, peppers and tomatoes.
"Cross-pollination means that pollen from one flower is transferred to a different flower and this is conducted by insects or by the wind. Cross-pollinated vegetables include wind-aided corn and insect-pollinated pumpkins, carrots, or radishes."
Drost explains that there are many reasons to grow and propagate heirloom plants and save heirloom seeds. "You want to preserve seeds from the best-tasting, best-performing plants in the garden. When you do this, you select plants more adapted to your conditions (provenance) and thus create your own special cultivars.
"The selection will be suited to your own growing conditions (garden, climate, location) and tastes (flavor, appearance). Open-pollinated seed will become more adapted to that area's soil, climate and pests. Therefore, a goal in raising an heirloom variety is to preserve it so you need to make sure it does not cross with something else," he said.
Mountain Valley Seeds
I consider Demetrios Agathangelides of Mountain Valley Seeds to be one of the most knowledgeable seed people in the Intermountain Area. He started growing vegetables in his native Greece at a very young age and after attending agricultural school there, he immigrated to the U.S.
After working at Utah State University, he started his own seed business and specializes in seeds adapted to the Intermountain area.
"There is not a defined definition of what makes an heirloom," Agathangelides said. "Some people use the age of 50 years but that is not always correct. Look at the scientific literature and you won't find a concise definition. My opinion is that they must come from an earlier time — say back to the time of my grandfather."
While not everyone agrees as to the age, almost everyone agrees that they must be open-pollinated. As Drost explained, open-pollinated does not mean that a seed comes true, but that a gardener must take care to make certain that the plant only crosses with itself.
Mountain Valley sells many different kinds of seeds for many purposes. Many of the newer hybrids are selected for better production, superior disease resistance or other qualities.
While the definition of heirlooms is not always clear, we took some time to peruse their offerings and found dozens of cultivars that could qualify under one or more definitions of heirlooms.
He named many and I have included a few here, including some I have grown for many years. Detroit Dark Red beets, still one of the best beets, were introduced in 1892. Blue Lake beans originated in the early 1900s, and Danish Ballhead cabbage was introduced 1887 and is still a favorite today.
He lists many tomatoes, including Amish Paste, Ace 55 Yellow pear, Cherry and Roma. He explains that even the Hamson tomato, or DX-5212, is now more than 50 years old. Adding myriad squash, pumpkin and other vegetables helps round out his selection.
One heirloom tomato he sells is Thessaloniki. He fondly remembers being introduced to that one in his native Greece when he attended agricultural school there. He likes the tomato because it resists cracking, sunburn, blossom end rot and decay. Another favorite that he sells that is an heirloom from his childhood is the Armenian cucumber.
Heirloom seed and other resources
Seed Savers Exchange: www.seedsavers.org/Content.aspx?src=helpfullinks.htm
Baker Creek Seed: rareseeds.com/
Mountain Valley Seed Co.: 455 W. 1700 South, Salt Lake City; www.mvseeds.com/index.html
Dr. Dan Drost's vegetable fact sheets: extension.usu.edu/ under the gardening link.
Garden tips and events
Thanksgiving Point: For more information or registration contact Gretchen at 801-768-7443.
Many local nurseries now feature packet lines of heirloom seeds. Check to see if they carry your favorites.
"Seed to Seed," by Suzanne Ashworth, is an excellent guide for home gardeners who want to learn how to grow and store seeds on a small scale.
"Basic Landscape Design," Larry Sagers: Learn to create a beautiful landscape whether you are just getting started or redoing an old one. Weekly March 15-29 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m. or April 5-26 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m.
"Home Vegetable Production," Larry Sagers: Learn how to grow a productive vegetable garden from the cool spring months into autumn. Classes weekly March 15-29 2-4:30 p.m. or 6-8:30 p.m.
Backyard garden series workshops: Choose from a variety of classes taught by Master Gardeners. See the Thanksgiving Point website for a listing of all the classes March 5 and 12.
Red Butte Garden: "Totally Tomatoes," 9 a.m.-noon and 1-4 p.m. March 6. Register online at www.redbuttegarden.org/classes/workshops#TPW or call 801-581-8454.
Larry A. Sagers is a horticulture specialist for the Utah State University Extension Service at Thanksgiving Point.