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Understanding heirloom, hybrid and open-pollinated seeds

  • Barbara Robinson
  • In the backyard of my grandparents’ house in rural Nebraska, my grandfather, a retired farmer, planted a small kitchen garden. But what I remember most was this big gruff man tending sweet peas that climbed up a fence and tumbled the air with a light, musky herbal scent. Was his sweet-smelling variety of Lathyrus odoratus and cvs an heirloom cultivar? Possibly.

    Some quick definitions: A “variety” is a naturally occurring variation of individual plants within a species. A “cultivar” is a variety propagated for specific desirable traits.

    Defining “heirloom” is trickier. For starters, one firm requirement is that an heirloom must have been open-pollinated. “Open-pollinated” simply means that pollination occurred by insect, bird, wind, or other natural mechanisms.

    A “hybrid,” by contrast, is a genetic cross between two species typically created through manipulation by human intervention. Man, not nature, twiddled a hybrid’s genes. Hybrids are never heirlooms.

    Each type of plant — open-pollinated varieties, heirlooms and hybrids — has particular advantages.

    Seeds from open-pollinated varieties, whether self-pollinated or pollinated by another plant in the same variety, produce plants with roughly the same characteristics as their parents. Seeds planted from hybrids don’t.

    Heirlooms have evolved to handle particular microclimates through generations of open pollination. Compared with hybrids, heirlooms maintain genetic diversity within a species. They might have unusual colors and growth characteristics, and vegetables often have flavors commercial hybrids lack.

    Hybrids, on the other hand, may have been bred for specific disease resistance, have more vigor, a predictable uniformity, and the ability to withstand shipping and handling that commercial growers prize.

    Although all heirlooms are open-pollinated, not all open-pollinated varieties are heirlooms. The difference is age. Many heirlooms are treasures family members loved, saved and handed down through generations. But seed companies have also saved, maintained and handed down seeds.

    A popular school of thought limits heirloom varieties to those at least 50 years old. Some say 100 years. Others attempt to pin down a time before hybrids became widely used by growers and seed companies. 1945? 1951? 1970? It’s difficult to be precise.

    Before labeling a variety an heirloom, the Seed Savers Exchange verifies and documents the generational history of preserving and passing on the seeds. The Slow Food organization’s International Ark of Taste catalogs specify delicious heirlooms facing extinction.

    For gardeners, these efforts and others by groups of seed savers and companies have resulted in a wide range of unique, available heirloom seeds, many of which come with fascinating pedigrees and stories.

    For example, several companies offer seeds for storytelling vegetables in the USA Art of Taste. Among them, the ‘Hopi Yellow’ and legendary ‘Moon and Stars’ watermelons, the native American sweet ‘Paw Paw’ fruit, and the Cherokee ‘Trail of Tears’ pole bean, first offered though the Seed Savers Exchange in 1977 by Dr. John Wyche, a gardener, seed preservationist, circus owner, and dentist from Hugo, Oklahoma. Wyche said his Cherokee ancestors carried the beans over the infamous “Trail of Tears” in the winter of 1838.

    Heirloom tomatoes that will be sold at the UC Marin Master Gardeners’ tomato market on April 8 include ‘Black Prince’ from Siberia, ‘Jaune Flamme’ from France, ‘Cherokee Purple’ from Tennessee, ‘San Marzano Redorta’ from Italy, ‘Oaxacan Jewel’ from Mexico and ‘Brandywine.’ Check marinmg.org for tomato market locations and times. An elderly Ohio gardener gave ‘Brandywine’ seeds to the Seed Savers Exchange in 1882. He had received them from a woman whose family had handed them down for more than 80 years.

    These are but a few of the many stories you could plant in your garden.

    “During the last 10 years, we’ve seen more and more heirloom seeds become widely available, some from seed savers and some from big companies,” says Renee Shepherd of Renee’s Garden seed company. “People want heirlooms, so they aren’t as hard to get anymore. It’s become a business. They’re wonderful and old timey. But, they aren’t magic. You should grow the best tasting and most productive vegetables for your climate.”

    Or, sweet peas.