An heirloom is something of the value passed down from generation to generation. Then, heirloom seeds are seeds from a plant that have been passed down for generations because of their value.
Plants, like animals, can be bred to encourage the presence of helpful traits. Over generations, these traits become more pronounced. With heirloom seeds, adaptability and flavor are two of the most common traits cultivated.
What exactly constitutes an heirloom seed is still debated. Some say anything cultivated after WWII qualifies, while others say the strain must be over 100 years old. While the age of the seed line is still debated, there are two other important qualifications a seed needs to be considered an heirloom:
- The seeds must be open-pollinated (they can be harvested, saved, and replanted) and
- The seeds must be Non-Genetically Modified (GMO) (they must not have their DNA altered with DNA from different species or organisms).
Are heirloom seeds harder to grow?
Heirlooms are not hard to grow. They have developed protection against genetic diseases and insects. An example is the Brandywine tomato, an heirloom that has appeared as the most desirable flavor of any kind but can be difficult to grow. It lacks disease resistance, making it susceptible to wilt that can wipe out the crop.
Benefits of Heirloom Seeds
As mentioned above, heirloom seeds are cultivated for two traits: adaptability and flavor. Heirloom seeds are generally well adapted to the climate and region in which they live, able to resist local pests and diseases, as well as extremes in weather.
Heirloom seeds are also passed down because they produce excellent-tasting food, a trend becoming more common in an age where people long for naturally grown and tasting crops.
In modern agriculture, a very narrow range of crops is grown on monoculture plots. These crops are usually chosen for their productivity, durability, and resistance to drought, frost, and pesticides. Another hidden benefit to heirloom gardening is that it makes a crop’s genetic profile diverse.
These are good traits to have, but the result has been an overall reduction in biological diversity. Over the past few decades, the increasing popularity of heirloom gardening has been a reaction against this trend.
And lastly, the growing and storage by common people of heirloom seeds mean that full control of seed distribution isn’t solely in the hands of corporations and the government, which is a concern for some.
What Is Heirloom Seed Bank?
A seed bank is a genetic bank where seeds are stored en masse for the future in the event other seed reserves are destroyed. Localized crops can be saved even if a natural disaster or disease hits a region. Worldwide crops can be restored years after a nuclear war. A good idea that can prevent the extinction of a crop and one day might even save humanity.
The Millennium Seed Bank Project, located in West Sussex, UK, is the largest long-term seed bank on earth, with billions of seed samples in an underground, nuclear bomb-proof vault. Its goal is to store seeds from every plant species possible, and right now has seeds from around 15% of all plant species on earth.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a seed bank built into a mountain in Norway’s arctic upper regions. It, too, is nuclear war-proofed, and its cold temperatures keep the seeds preserved long-term.
The NSW Seed Bank focuses on Australian plants that are threatened or endangered.