What are heirloom and heritage seeds?

By Melanie Mathieson
The Gardening Guru

Have you ever noticed that our food does not have the same flavour intensity as it did about a decade ago?
Food today does not seem to have that taste bud-popping flavour we remember. And 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 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 90 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 also are bred for qualities related to easy machine harvesting, long distance transport, and refrigeration. As a result, society basically is 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 basically are 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 those that traditionally have 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 usually are considered those that are at least 50 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 always will produce the same variety.
Hybrids, on the other hand, 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 often are higher than hybrids. Heirloom varieties also tend to produce over a longer period each season—so there’s less problems of waste if you don’t have people to give away surplus to.
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’ve recently noticed you now can 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 heritage seeds will help you to bring back that taste of produce like you remember from the 1970s. 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 this past spring that there were many varieties of seeds labelled as heritage/heirloom available in the local nurseries and garden supply stores.
With some research and careful planning, you’ll be enjoying fruits and vegetables from you own garden the way they were meant to taste.