Heading back to Flavour Country: Heirloom and Heritage Seeds

Have you ever noticed that our food does not have the same flavour intensity as it did around a decade ago? Food today does not seem to have that taste bud popping flavour that we remember. The reason is that much of our food has been engineered and hybridized to emphasize certain characteristics other than and often at the expense of taste. Currently, taste appears to be the least important factor to the companies that produce the seeds for most of the world’s fruits, vegetables and grains. These companies are engineering the seeds to produce faster growing, larger and more attractive looking fruits and vegetables. Even the fruit and vegetables we grow in our own gardens don’t stack up against what we remember, as the seeds that are regularly available in our local stores come from the same seed stock as mass agriculture.

Case in point, in the United States, only about five percent of the apple varieties that existed 200 years ago still remain and in the United Kingdom, about ninety percent of vegetable varieties have disappeared over the last century. Today’s fruit and vegetable hybrid varieties are developed by companies for pest resistance, fast growth and uniformity; then marketed to such a degree that traditional varieties lose popularity and disappear. They are also bred for qualities related to easy machine harvesting, long distance transport and refrigeration.  As a result, society is basically driving much of our food resources to extinction on purpose. Market control, aesthetics and shelf life reign over diversity and taste these days.

Just a handful of companies control the majority of the world’s seed production and as a result, farmers and home gardeners are basically provided with the same seed stock. The seeds you buy at your nursery and even the fruit and vegetables you purchase from organic farms are most likely to be one of these hybrid varieties. In order to get away from this, you need to look for the historic fruit and vegetable varieties by sourcing out seeds that are labelled heirloom or heritage.

Heirloom seeds can be defined as seeds that have traditionally been saved by families, generation after generation. These seeds have many traditional qualities and are desirable because of their high quality and taste. By using these seeds you might have to sacrifice aesthetics and/or short season growing times but you will be rewarded with more intense taste. Heirloom and heritage varieties are usually considered those that are at least fifty years old, although some vintage varieties have a traceable history dating back hundreds or thousands of years.

Unlike hybridized species, heirlooms are open-pollinated plant varieties and if the seeds are saved, they will always produce the same variety. Hybrids are the result of a cross between various varieties, so when the seeds from hybrids are saved and then planted the next year, often they do not sprout. If they do, the resulting plant can experience problems as hybrids can revert to the traits of the parent plant used in hybridization. 

Heirloom varieties generally have good disease resistance and the yields are often higher than hybrids. Heirloom varieties also tend to produce over a longer period each season, so you can enjoy the crop for a longer period once it starts to ripen. 

By growing heirloom and heritage varieties, not only will you have tastier produce, you’ll be playing an important role in maintaining genetic biodiversity!

Where do you find heirloom and heritage variety seeds? Obviously these types of seeds can be a little harder to track down but as the demand for these types of seeds increases I have recently noticed you can now find some heritage seed species where you buy other seeds. Obviously for additional varieties you will have to contact your favourite mail order seed supplier or search the internet. The following are two Canadian websites that offer heritage seeds www.saltspingseeds.com and www.annapolisseeds.com.

Heirloom and vintage seeds will help you to bring back that taste of produce like you remember from the 1970’s. Just take some time to read the seed package in order to assess whether you have the right conditions for the seed of choice. Many of the seeds available will grow in our area but some will not. I noticed that for the last few years, that there are many varieties of seeds labeled as heritage/heirloom available in the local nurseries and garden supply stores. With some research and careful planning you will be enjoying fruits and vegetables from you own garden the way they were meant to taste.