Last week someone called to ask me if the seeds I sell are heirloom seeds. For folks who don’t know, “heirloom” has come to have a particular meaning in the gardening world: a seed variety that has been saved and passed down in a family, usually for at least 50 years. This means that hybrid seeds, which are a cross between two varieties, are pretty much ruled out, since few people go to the trouble of producing their own hybrids. This definition started with the Seed Savers Exchange, I think, but it has gradually been picked up by large seed companies as a marketing ploy, so that even Burpee, a major purveyor of hybrids, markets heirloom seeds. It’s basically come to mean any open-pollinated (not hybrid) variety that has some distinctive traits.
The good thing about heirlooms is that they have been selected for particular human uses or places, like Blacktail Mountain watermelon, a variety that a fellow who lived in Montana developed, or yellow tomatoes, which were developed in the Victorian period for their mildness so they would make good jams and “figs.”
Hybrids are not evil and can be very helpful. They are not at all the same as genetically modified organisms, which are developed by completely artificial means. To make hybrids, human beings take the pollen from one plant and put it on the flower or another. The seeds of a hybrid plant are not sterile (they don’t have “Terminator” seeds); they will produce plants of the different varieties in their parentage rather than copies of themselves (as is the case more-or-less with an open pollinated plant). However, often you can collect seeds from a hybrid and select for the qualities that made the hybrid desirable and end up with an open-pollinated version after just a few generations. This happened recently with a sweet grape tomato. Hybrids tend to be more vigorous than open pollinated plants and often have been bred to have resistance to popular plant diseases. If you’re growing in an edgy place for peppers, for instance, you might have better luck with a hybrid pepper. Heirlooms often taste better, but not always, and hybrids tend to produce stronger, healthier plants with larger and more fruits.
The other side of the heirloom coin is that because large seed companies have made much more money by developing hybrids, they have let the purity of their open-pollinated seeds decrease. I have bought heirloom broccoli seeds, for instance, that produced nothing but what is called “off-types”–things that have only tiny heads or none at all, stuff that looks like kale, etc. Maintaining good seed stock means paying attention to roguing out oddballs, but that costs money. Big companies have just harvested the whole field and called it OP. So as much as an heirloom can be a good thing, it has to be from seed lines that have been well maintained.
Further, I have occasionally seed varieties being marketed as heirlooms when yes, they were heirlooms, but were developed for feeding cattle, not for human beings to eat–turnips that get big and woody, for instance. So heirloom is not a quarantee of quality eating.
I myself grow mostly open-pollinated seeds. I don’t use the term heirloom, since it implies a family tradition that rarely actually exists. I do grow some hybrids, though, like hybrid pickling cucumbers developed by an ag school in the early sixties to resist diseases. Disease resistance means not only increasing the likelihood you will get a crop in a bad year, but it means less spraying, and even if you only spray with neem, like I do, less spraying is good!
Some people like to go around the internet posting scare stories about how Monsanto is going to outlaw (or already has outlawed) private gardens and the collection of any seeds. This is just not true. Evil as Monsanto is, it does not give a damn about gardeners because little serious money is to be made from us in comparison to agriculture. It has focused its GMO technology on the money makers like rice, wheat, corn, and soybeans. So being financially insignificant, like most of us are, has its advantages. Btw, worried about GMO soybeans? Eat organic soybeans. They are tested not to have GMOs.
That said, if you are growing corn and are concerned about consuming GMOs (I sure am), you are well advised to grow colored varieties. Pretty much all the yellow or white corn in the US is contaminated with GMO genes. The good thing about corn is that each kernel is the result of wind-borne pollen and will show immediately if the pollen has come from yellow corn if it’s a colored corn, like the heirloom Bloody Butcher or Oaxacan Green (just remember that typically, these are flour or parching corns rather than sweet or corn-on-the-cob corns). You can also just buy colored cornmeal (I’ve seen blue and red available), colored corn chips, and colored taco shells.:) Using corn as a grain instead of wheat will also get you around the contamination of wheat with GMOs–and if you want to grow your own grains, with corn you won’t have to deal with deep plowing, threshing, heavy duty grain mills, and so forth, all of which is necessary for raising the popular grains. Another good grain substitute is potatoes: lots of wonderful heirloom varieties of those at Fedco Seeds, a seed co-op in Maine.
With some plants, tomatoes or beans, for instance, it’s easy to save seeds, because these plants are naturally self-pollinating. Once you have selected plants with particular traits over several generations and from a good number of plants, you can pretty much keep that variety stable, growing it out year after year and further selecting and refining for those traits. This is how many small farmers used to grow crops. You can learn more about the ins and outs of saving seed of various typical garden plants in Seed to Seed or go a step farther and learn how to develop your own veggie varieties in Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties. Nobody has really written about saving seeds from herbs.
But some plants are not heirlooms because they have never had named varieties. I have never heard of named varieties of belladonna, mandrake, or henbane, for instance. They simply have not been that widely grown and remain closer to the wild.There are a few named varieties of black nightshade (numbered rather than named, since these are varieties developed by ag schools), but these have been developed for food production in tropical climates. Could individual witches have developed named varieties? I don’t see that as very likely, since a lot of plants would have to be grown over many plant generations to do this, and belladonna and mandrake, for instance, are pollinated by insects rather than being self-pollinated, like a tomato, which means that individual plants would have to be isolated, etc. Landraces might be possible, and certainly with black nightshade, landraces abound. But that is a selection that just happens and is not directed by people.
All this is to explain why, for the most part, I am not selling heirloom seeds. They simply don’t exist for many of the plants that have traditionally had a place in the witch’s garden. Instead, each seed remains a repository of a huge variety of genetics. These plants, although still very close to the wild, have chosen to dwell near human beings. That says a lot.