Heirloom Seed Myths – Are They Worth Buying?

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Robert Pavlis

What is so special about heirloom seeds? I see a lot of online questions from people looking to source heirloom seeds. Are these seeds really that much better, or is this just another new craze or fad?

People grow their own food mostly to be healthier and they believe heirloom seeds are better for you. Is this true? Do they produce better tasting food, or produce a better yield? What is the real value in heirlooms?

Maybe the attraction to heirloom has more to do with tradition as suggested by this comment; “To the gardeners who love them (heirlooms), it matters that ‘Mortgage Lifter’ tomato came from a man who bred his own tomato plants, selling enough of them to pay off his mortgage”.

Heirloom Seed Myths - Are They Worth Buying?
Heirloom Seed Myths – Are They Worth Buying?

What are Heirloom Seeds?

Since the phrase is used so much one would think that it is well defined, but it’s not.

Burpee, the seed company, says, ” The definition is open to dispute. But the term is usually applied to fruit, flower or vegetable varieties that were being grown before World War II.”

Plant Science for Gardeners by Robert Pavlis

A more general definition is, “seed of a plant that has been carefully cultivated and passed down through many generations.”

Heirloom Gardener – surely a source that knows the answer – says “Some authors and heirloom aficionados say that cultivars must be at least 50 years old to be deserving of the term.

Others say the cultivar must predate 1950 (a rough demarcation of the beginning of modern industrial farming practices). ” So in the year 2050, heirlooms will need to be at least 100 years old?

The Klee Lab, University of Florida (breeds tomatoes) says, “Anyone can call anything an heirloom if they want to. However, we loosely define an heirloom as “old” and open pollinated.”

The bottom line here is that there is no definition for heirloom seeds. There are vague sentiments about the seed being around a long time, but there is no agreement as to how long this should be. There is also no inclusion in definitions about quality of the produced food. By most definitions, a 50 year old seed that produces a tiny crappy tomato is an heirloom.

In theory, only the best cultivars have been saved. But in reality, much of this is done by amateurs who are free to collect and market any seed they want. That does not necessarily make it a bad process, nor does it mean that heirloom seeds are not good value for money. But it does mean that almost any claim about the quality of heirlooms is going to be false, at least some of the time.

Characteristics of Heirloom Seeds

There are some common characteristics of heirloom seeds.

They are not GMO, or at least not man-made GMOs. The sweet potato is a natural GMO and you can get seed for it, which means you can have a GMO heirloom.

They may be grown organically but the terms organic and heirloom are mutually exclusive. I think many beginning gardeners think these terms are synonymous, and they are not.

Heirlooms are open pollinated which means insects or wind selects the parents. In theory, over time, these insects help line breed a variety, cementing together the best plant properties for any given location. This is one of the expected benefits of heirloom. But since many heirlooms are produced by amateurs there is no guarantee that seed has not been cross pollinated with a different variety.

Some heirlooms are handed down in families from generation to generation, but many are also produced and preserved by commercial companies.

Heirloom cultivars have been around for many years, but at the same time the documentation of these cultivars is not very good. You got seed from your granny, who got it from their granny and so on. What evidence do we really have that the same cultivar was passed along for 50 years? How do we know it was not cross pollinated at some point? In most cases we don’t.

Many cultivars are now considered to be available under different names and it is fairly easy for anyone to invent a new name and call it an heirloom.

I looked for a registry for official heirlooms but couldn’t find one. If ti exists, please let me know in the comments.

Almost Heirlooms

Green zebra tomato - is it an heirloom?
Green zebra tomato – is it an heirloom?

The ‘Green Zebra’ tomato was introduced in 1983 by Tom Wagner. It is open pollinated and maintains its characteristics of ripening green from generation to generation. Some call it an heirloom and others don’t because it has not been around long enough. Should “age” really be an important factor?

The Klee Lab, mentioned above, has tested hundreds of heirloom tomatoes, picked the best ones for flavor, and then made hybrids with them. They provide “heirloom taste without the heirloom challenges. We think they epitomize what breeders call hybrid vigor; the best of both worlds.”

Brandy Boy is a new hybrid using Brandywine, a favorite heirloom. It tastes like Brandywine, has higher yields, produces an earlier crop, and is more disease resistant. Does the hybrid component really make it an inferior tomato compared to heirlooms? Should this be labeled as an ‘improved heirloom’?

There is much work being done to improve the taste of tomatoes and we will soon have better non-heirloom tomatoes, than the current heirloom ones. The same will happen with other vegetables.

Sugar Snap Pea – Is it a Heirloom?

Are Sugar Snap peas heirlooms?
Are Sugar Snap peas heirlooms?

I have grown Sugar Snap peas for many years  because I have never understood the pleasure of shelling peas. Easy to grow, and very productive. I never thought it was an heirloom since everybody sells it and it’s not marked as an heirloom.

As part of the research for this post, I was surprised to see them listed as heirlooms on many sites. But a little research confirms that the Sugar Snap was released in 1979, by Dr Calvin Lamborn and Dr MC Parker.

It seems to be an open pollinated cultivar but is it an heirloom? This is just one example of the confusion in this whole business.

Do Heirlooms Actually Exist?

Mother Earth News suggests, ” with heirloom vegetables you can choose what works best in your garden. If you save seeds from heirloom vegetables over several years, you can gradually select seeds from the plants that perform best in your local soil and climate. This will give you a seed strain that is more resistant to local pests and diseases.” This is one of the claimed benefits of heirlooms.

For the moment, lets accept the fact that heirlooms have to be 50 years old. If you grow such a plant in your garden and select for better performance and less diseases, is the resulting seed still the same cultivar? Genetically, it is no longer the same plant you started with, so how can you claim it to be the same cultivar?

This new improved cultivar is now only 1 year old and therefore can no longer called an heirloom.

Extend this across the country. Two different gardens both start with identical Brandywine tomato seeds. Over several years they select seeds from the best plants in their environment. After some time, neither one is growing the original Brandywine any more. They may still call it Brandywine, but genetically it is now different. And both gardeners are now growing different varieties.

Who owns the original Brandywine?

One can easily make the case that there is no such thing as a 50 year old cultivar, which means heirlooms don’t exist.

Claims for Heirlooms

Lots of people make claims for heirlooms as a class of seeds, but this really makes no sense. How can we say all heirlooms taste better? Or that all heirlooms produce better yield? At best you need to consider each cultivar on its own, and then decide if it has some special benefits you might want.

Even with this limitation, lets have a look at what people claim for heirlooms.

Heirlooms Tastes Better

I am sure that some heirlooms taste better, but there are also many that don’t. Taste is a big function of the growing environment. A particular cultivar might taste great in one location and not in another. Claiming that heirlooms all taste better is simply not true.

The tomatoes from the Klee Lab have been specifically bred to have better taste than most heirlooms. The chemicals in tomatoes that produce taste have now been identified, along with the genes responsible for making them. Breeders are actively testing for an increase in these chemicals. This will lead to hybrids that taste much better than heirlooms.

You can’t compare heirlooms from your back yard with those bought at the grocery store. The one is picked in an unripe state, and shipped long distances. The other is left to fully ripen to maximize taste, and then if you are like me, eaten warm right in the garden.

The label heirloom certainly sells seeds. One ad described the hybrid tomato as “unique appearance with heirloom-quality flavor.”

On a personal note, I love Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes; a hybrid. I have never found another tomato that comes close in taste, including, Garden Gem and Garden Treasure, from the Klee Labs, both of which are good tasting tomatoes. Taste is very personal.

Heirlooms are More Nutritious

Lots of pro-heirloom people say it – but none provide any evidence to support the statement.

The whole topic of what is more nutritious is very complex and better left for another time.  But if you have support for this claim, please post a link to your reference in the comments below.

Heirlooms are Organic

They are usually grown organically, but many produced by amateurs are not certified organic. Since heirlooms tend to be less disease resistant, many are produced using synthetic pesticides.

Heirlooms are not necessarily organic.

Heirlooms are Bred Naturally

People believe that if a bee moves pollen from flower to flower it is natural and pure. If a human moves the same pollen it is unnatural.

Many heirlooms are produced by hand pollination. This is especially important when multiple cultivars are grown in close proximity to one another. If you consider that natural pollination, I guess heirlooms are natural.

Heirlooms are Better Suited to Your Environment

Heirloom breeders select varieties that grow best in their environment. Over the years, the stronger healthier plants are selected to produce seed. This selection process causes the cultivar to change over time to better adapt to the local environment.

But you live somewhere else. If you buy someone else’s seed they are not adapted to your environment any better than hybrids would be. In fact hybrids are usually more disease resistant in your environment.

Heirlooms are only better for your environment if you buy them from a neighbor, or line breed them yourself for many years.

Heirlooms Breed True

Clearly this is false. If it were true, they would not adapt to your environment over time. They can’t genetically change to grow better and at the same time breed true. They may breed “more true” than hybrids.

The other issue you have is that they only breed similar if you take care to prevent cross pollination. This is a bit complex and is different for each vegetable.

You might be growing one type of heirloom cucumber to keep the strain pure, but if your neighbor (anyone within 1/2 mile) grows a different type of cucumber, you may be producing hybrid seed.

The only way to have true heirloom seeds is to find some seeds that have been stored for 50 years.

Heirlooms Preserve Biodiversity

Growing heirlooms preserves old stains and allows for genetic diversity. This is true, within the limits mentioned above. How important is this? Is there really value in preserving every cultivar of tomato that was ever grown? As the years go by we will have more and more of them. Do we really need them all?

Steven Tanksley, a geneticist at Cornell University, says this about tomatoes, “all that diversity of heirlooms can be accounted for by a handful of genes. There’s probably no more than 10 mutant genes that create the diversity of heirlooms you see.”

Some Truths about Heirlooms

They are less expensive since you can save your own seed. That is true provided you don’t count the time it takes to collect and clean the seed.

Heirlooms provide a much wider range of sizes, colors and taste compared to hybrids. Lots of people like exploring different varieties of vegetables.

Historical and sentimental reasons are also important to some. Gardeners fall in love with the idea that they are part of preserving the hard work of past generations. In a recent poll on Facebook, this sentiment was much stronger than I would have guessed.

Some Final Thoughts

I was not able to find good taste studies that compared heirloom to hybrid, so I think that the question of better taste for heirloom is still up in the air. Heirlooms do provide a wide range of tomatoes, and many do have good taste. Some hybrids also have good taste and are more disease resistant. I am not convinced that you need heirlooms to grow a good tasting tomato and this will be even more true in the coming years.

Several breeders are now working on improving the taste of hybrids, by combining heirlooms with hybrids. This allows them to combine disease resistance with flavor. Most of this is currently being done for the tomato, but other vegetables will follow.

If taste is no longer an advantage for heirlooms, what’s left? They do offer a wide range of size and color and that will keep them popular for a while. Peoples romantic attachment to their vegetables will also help them prevail.

If you believe that the preservation of cultivars is an important endeavor for the future, then heirlooms are a good option, provided that you do save and distribute the seed. If you are not going to save the seed, then it is better to grow great tasting cultivars that do well in your environment. In that case, being heirloom should not be a major consideration.

References:

  1. Image of Green Zebra Tomato, by Pattie; https://www.flickr.com/photos/piratealice/2914159282
  2. Image of Sugar Snap peas, by JMacPherson; https://www.flickr.com/photos/lipstickproject/6323093806
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Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

19 thoughts on “Heirloom Seed Myths – Are They Worth Buying?”

  1. My mind is blown. I don’t even know how to move forward with this information. I am a fairly new grower and trying to establish my business and I don’t like the idea of relying on suppliers should the economy go down the drain. Seems like heirloom and OP are the sustainable way to go.

    Reply

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