Part II – Heirloom, Open-Pollinated & Hybrid Seeds

Heirlooms, also known as “Heritage” and “Old Fashioned”
There’s just something about the word “Heirloom” that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.  It’s just like the satisfaction I feel while perusing through a favorite antique store, gently picking up and admiring small delicate trinkets from years past.  Trinkets passed down from a mom to a daughter or grandfather to grandson and adored by the recipient – a piece of someone’s history.

Well, heirloom seeds are somewhat like old antiques, surviving the test of time passed on from one generation to the next or simply forgotten and somehow remained preserved until its discovery many years later.  I’m certain there are hundreds of stories about how heirloom seed varieties are discovered here in the U.S.

Through my reading, I discovered that many heirloom seed companies were fairly consistent in their definition of the term “Heirloom”.  Most declared that heirloom seeds are seeds passed down from generation to generation, though to some the meaning of “generation” went beyond a single family and included neighbors and friends (which I feel is more believable).  Others convoluted the definition further by referencing a date. 

Example: some stated heirlooms are seeds developed over 50 years ago (which would be 1961 and earlier) while others claimed 1940 and earlier.  In everything I read (seed sites, technical information, etc.) I saw no evidence that an actual date confirmed the validity of an heirloom variety.  To complicate the matter further, “heirloom” is not an officially defined word (like “Organic”) so people are free to make up their own definition, as is the case with the dates.

Heirloom Discoveries

Here are some interesting facts I discovered.  If you’re interested in gardening, you will want to read this information and possibly confirm it through your own research.

Seeds Can Be Collected and Will Grow True

What makes heirloom seeds so special and desirable is its ability to produce seed that can be collected and planted, and will grow true to the generation of plant before.  In other words, the new plant will look like, grow like, and produce fruit like its parent plant (or something very close to it – heirlooms have been reported to not grow very uniform).  The ability to collect, grow and save seeds are important qualities for folks who are interested in storing up for the future (i.e., food storage) or maximizing on their seed investment by eliminating the need to buy seed every year.

There is also a growing movement to preserve the past and protect old plant varieties from possible extinction, especially with the increasing availability of hybrids and genetically modified seeds.

Most hybrid seeds will not grow true to either parent plant.

Heirloom Does Not Mean Organic

There are many folks, who mistakenly believe that “Heirlooms” are “Organic”.  This is untrue. Organic refers to the method and practices of growing plants (in our case, veggie seeds).  Heirlooms can be (and are being) grown using modern methods to include the use of pesticides, herbicides, etc.

If you read my post from yesterday, you know that the only way to call a product “Organic” is by complying with the USDA regulations and standards.

A good start to ensuring you’re getting organic is by looking for the seals of approval (USDA organic seal and/or the CCOF organic seal).  Companies in compliance with USDA and CCOF standards will readily display these seals on their website, products, etc. and include the term “Organic” or “OG” in the product’s title or description.  Some seed companies will even list their USDA Organic certification number.

Heirlooms Are NOT Always “Open-Pollinated” (OP)

First, let me start by providing a commonly used definition among seed companies for “Open-Pollinated”(except most of them left off birds in their definition… guess they forgot about hummingbirds?):

“Open-Pollinated are plants that are pollinated by birds, wind or insects or other natural means – without human intervention”

Open-Pollination… now here’s a subject that can be confusing for consumers.  In my search for answers, I came upon several seed companies (both large and small) who openly claim on their websites, “ALL heirlooms are open-pollinated”.  This just sounds a tad unbelievable.  Others (and there were lots) also stated heirlooms and open-pollinated are one in the same. A large popular seed company even stated, and I quote, “though all heirlooms are OPs, not all Ops are heirlooms; that is, not all OPs are accompanied by a story of being maintained by one family or group.”  Maybe I’ve been looking at the computer too long, but what does a “family story” have to do with open-pollinated (OP)?

What about the folks who grow heirlooms under the protection of hoop houses, green houses or under row covers?  Some of these folks even place bee boxes at the entrance of these structures so bees will have exclusive access to these covered plants for the sole purpose of pollination (no birds or wind involved).  What about “hand-pollination” used to simulate the effect of wind or insect pollination?  Or, the simple fact that there are no official or regulated standards ensuring that farmers and gardeners stating this claim are in fact adhering to the practice of open-pollination and in the same manner (there may be organic growing standards that support the use of open-pollination – I  did not confirm this).

Perhaps if these companies rephrased their claim to state, “All of OUR heirloom plants are open-pollinated” and back that up with a guarantee.  Okay.  I’m just saying.

Heirlooms Are Products of Hybridization

Whoa!  Before you grab at me through the computer, read on. But first, let’s look at an overly simplified definition of “Hybrid”:  

“A hybrid vegetable seed (an entirely new plant) results from the cross-pollination or mating between two different varieties or ‘parents’ within the same plant family”.

One important note about hybrids is: Seeds taken from a hybrid plant may either be sterile or more commonly fail to breed true.

So I bet you’re asking yourself, if heirlooms are products of hybridization and hybrids don’t breed true – then how is it that heirlooms can breed true?  Trust me, I thought the same thing.  Read on…

During my research, I came upon a few articles that challenged my thinking about heirlooms.  These articles mentioned that the creation of hybrids started as early as the late 1800’s / early 1900’s and during this time breeders would “stabilize” their hybrids over generations until the variety could reproduce itself true to type.  What?  Hybrids crossing the line over to heirloom. This maybe common knowledge to some, but for the seed company websites I visited (and there were tons), they told another story about hybrids and most viewed hybrids as something to avoid.  For me, I found this extremely interesting and couldn’t help but wonder if the only reason why modern hybrids remain unable to breed true is due to the fact that breeders fail to take the time to stabilize their hybrids enough to make the transition.  I guess, where’s the money in that?

Here’s an article worth reading from the National Gardening Association.  I’ve included a little snippet below:

 “After creating a tomato hybrid with desirable traits, breeders would go back and “stabilize” them for several generations until the variety could reproduce itself true to type as any open-pollinated plant. This process gave us classic tomatoes such as ‘Marglobe’ (1935) and ‘Rutgers’ (1937). Initially products of hybridization, these varieties are now considered to be open-pollinated and are treated as such. “

 “According to John Navazio, a Ph.D. and former plant breeder for Garden City Seeds, many modern OPs are in fact “true-breeding hybrids” such as the tomatoes mentioned above. A more recent example is the ‘Peacevine’ cherry tomato introduced several years ago by Alan Kapuler, research director of Seeds of Change. He started with the popular hybrid tomato, ‘Sweet 100’, then selected and stabilized it over several generations. More recently, he has continued to grow out and stabilize other true-breeding OP varieties from commercial hybrids, such as the new ‘True Gold’ sweet corn.”

So in light of the information I found, I can honestly say that I am open to the idea that some heirlooms are hybrids, at least within their origin. And there’s an extremely high chance that many cross-pollinating heirlooms (such as beets, brassicas, corn, squash) have “naturally hybridized” over-time. I find it hard to consider that ALL farmers and gardeners growing heirlooms over the generations prevented the pollen from other varieties from entering into their gardens (from inside or outside their own gardens) thus preventing cross-pollination of their plants.  100% of the time, no less.  What’s more plausible, is if they grew only one variety of each heirloom veggie – but I was unable to either confirm or disprove this.

I can only help but consider the fact that the only true open-pollinated heirlooms that have stood the test of time (unless they were manually manipulated by a breeder) would be beans, lettuce, peas and tomatoes, all of which are self-pollinating and, from what I understand, are difficult to cross-pollinate.

If you have information that proves (beyond a doubt) my understanding is inaccurate, I will gladly review it and concede to my erroneous conclusion.

Heirlooms Are Usually Well Adapted to Their Region

Many seed companies and agriculture/scientific sites confirmed that open-pollinated heirlooms are typically well adapted to the region from which they are grown.

The question that came to my mind is can folks living and growing in the low desert purchase heirloom seeds from a source, say for example, from California or Vermont, and still have success?

My instincts say this is doubtful, but what could it hurt to buy a few seeds and do your own test in your own garden.  Who knows, you might get lucky.

A better bet is to find a seed company who is selling heirloom seeds from an area that is similar to yours.  For us it would be an area that is arid, poor soil conditions and heat.  I did find a couple of seed sellers that might be worth looking into. (Tucson, AZ) (Chino Valley, AZ) (Tucson, AZ)

Know Where Your Heirloom Seeds Come From

As I read through information, I noticed several reputable seed companies mentioning that they never purchase seeds from foreign seed companies and that some are contacted, almost daily, by companies in China who want to sell them heirloom seeds.

For me, just the mention of heirloom seeds coming from China makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up (though, I do understand that some rare heirloom varieties only come from within China).  But I discovered that our government requires all imported seeds to be chemically treated (fumigated) to kill any harmful pest or pathogens. Now this made me sick to my stomach.

Do yourself a favor. Never assume that all companies who sell heirlooms obtain their seed from within the U.S.   Buy heirlooms from reputable seed sources that openly support local seed houses or better yet, grow and harvest their own organic heirlooms.

Heirlooms Are More Nutritious and Nutrient Dense – Really?

Yes, I did come across several seed companies who made this statement. Now if you’re a huge heirloom fan and totally believe this statement… please refrain from throwing anything at me until you hear me out.

Nutrition comes from the soil, not from a specific trait within the fruit or veggie itself.  If veggies, melons or fruit trees are grown in nutritionally deficient soils, then the veggie, melon or fruit will be nutritionally deficient.  There is such an epidemic of nutrient deficient soil in the U.S. because we, as a nation, have over produced on our soils without replenishing and balancing the soil properly.

The nutritional state of your soil (thus the nutritional state of your fruits and veggies) also affects the flavor.  Nutritionally dense soil produces fruit with superb flavor, which in turns brings out the best in your beloved heirloom.  I believe it is the organic gardening revolution that’s helping to revive our soils (at least one small plot at a time) and is the reason why you can pick up some outstanding organic heirloom fruits and veggies at the open markets.

Some folks even go as far as to use a refractometer to help them to determine their fruits’ and veggies’ level of nutrition based on a BRIX scale.  This is a great idea for those who are unable to garden but love to buy bulk fruits and veggies for canning purposes. With a refractometer in hand, you can test the quality of the fruits and veggies you’re purchasing to make sure you are buying the most nutritionally dense produce possible.  Hubby and I are planning to buy one when we are fiscally able. A good one for home use can be purchased for under $100. (Update: I originally had $200 listed, but you can find a decent one for just under $100).

Well thank you for hanging in there today.  I typically try to keep my posts fairly short and sweet, but I had a lot information to share with you.

With that said, it’s time to sign off.  In my next post, I will present the information I confirmed on GMO (genetically modified organisms) seeds.

God Bless,

The Artistic Desert Gardener


1 Comment

Filed under Demystifying Seed Terminology

One response to “Part II – Heirloom, Open-Pollinated & Hybrid Seeds

  1. Lois Zablockis

    Boy this is alot of information. I’m going to have to read it a couple of times so it sinks in. Thank-you for all your research.

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