Over the recent months, we are often been asked what the difference between heirlooms and hybrids. The answer is quite simple and straight forward. Heirloom traditionally means that the seed variety has been bred for its desirable traits, superior taste and vigor, having been passed down from generation to generation. The common timeframe for a seed to be considered heirloom is usually 50 years and represents that it is an open pollinated cultivar, not hybrid or genetically modified. Heirlooms are, in essence, a treasure, as they are packed with genetic information. The ritualistic tradition of seed saving, that has been occurring in our civilization for millennia, was developed using heirloom, open pollinated seeds. Many folks are familiar with the term open pollinated, but are not sure what it represents. In short, open pollinated varieties are non-hybrids and are originated from two open pollinated parents that will create an offspring similar to the parent plant with desired characteristics. Open pollinated seeds produce offspring that are true-to-type and are pollinated by the wind, insects, birds or other natural ways, they naturally adapt to your local micro climate, your soil and to you, hybrid seeds do not, as they are static. Open pollinated seeds are not hybrids or are genetically modified.
Heirloom vegetables have been relatively new to the average consumer as of the past 10 – 20 years, but have been an integral in creating the global food heritage we know of today. Heirlooms are generally characteristic of their unique appearance, outstanding flavor and texture and of course a compelling history. Many people are surprised to learn that there are thousands of heirloom varieties unknown to the public and many of them disappearing.
So why are treasured heirloom varieties disappearing? Currently, 75% of the global seed market is governed by 10 companies, uniformity, mass production, perishability and transportation are essential in their business model. These represent some of the many characteristics of heirlooms, from their quirky appearance, to their delicate nature and of course their inability to be mass-produced. The reality is that it took our ancestors 10,000 years to establish the array of foods that are available to us, a mere 100 years we had 96% more varieties to choose from. So why are heirlooms so much better? They conserve the genetic diversity of crops, preserve history and culture, promote bio-diversity and strengthen our eco-system through building soil and creating disease/pest resistant and drought tolerant seeds.
The graph to the left gives an amazingly stark contrast to what has happened in our food system over such a short period of time and the sparse variety that we are left to choose from. The empowering part about this is that we are at the neck of the hourglass, that point in history, where we can make the right choices that are going to allow our future generations to continue to enjoy rare and delicious vegetable and fruit varieties.
Farmers markets are a wonderful place to begin to acquaint yourself with what varieties are being grown, but if you truly want to see what is available, seek out heirloom seed catalogs. If you are gardener, consider only growing heirlooms and begin to explore some varieties that you may not have ever heard of or even considered, but you can be assisting in the reclamation of many of these treasured seeds. Most of all, save your seeds and share the with others. This knowledge is integral in the art of gardening and needs to be reclaimed. Keep in mind that many of these heirloom vegetables are not organic, do not let that hinder you from purchasing them. All you need to do is grow them our for one season organically, save the seed and you technically have an organic seed! Another wonderful way to support the genetic diversity in our food system is by supporting your local farmers market and/or CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), both support small-scale farms and your local economy. Not sure where to find those near you? Check out Local Harvest.
There has been much talk about hybrids lately, both good and bad and ultimately it is a decision that should be made, understanding what that means. Hybrid seeds originate from two different parent plants of the same specie, that were genetically crossed to create the hybrid offspring. Seeds of hybrid varieties can be sterile or commonly fail to breed true to type, usually resulting in plant varieties that you do not know what you are going to get. Hybrids are generally referred to the acronym F1 (means first generation or filial offspring). Either F1 or the word hybrid has to be on the packet or plant to prove that it truly is a hybrid.
Hybrids can be stabilized, which means that the variety can begin to cultivate offspring that are more true to type. Stabilizing or de-hybridization can take about 8 generations of growing it out, until it gets to a point where the offspring are clearly stabilized. A common example is the famous Early Girl hybrid tomato, a now stabilized hybrid that became popular among home gardeners for its characteristics in early fruit ripening. Although it is considered stable, it is still marketed as a hybrid. It would not be conducive for seed companies to change the classification because then gardeners would begin saving their own seeds and opt out from buying that variety year after year.
These modern hybrids have been developed by large corporations to suit their needs and demands, as they have been bred to yield high while compromising hardiness, pest resistance, flavor and quality.
Generally the hybrid market sets a barrier to the re-integration of seed saving for the simple fact that companies make it very difficult to save hybrid seeds and you generally would not want to. It is a market that is also dominated in Asia, making the seeds you purchase, adapted to a very different climate and soil. Keep in mind that Organic seeds can be hybrids, know who you are sourcing your seeds and your starts from.
There is a lot of information available to us and learning about it, makes us better consumers. Here at The Living Seed Company, we believe every gardener should have the right to save their own seeds. Check out our newly created FAQ sheet or frequently asked questions, where we have compiled some of our commonly asked questions on the basis of seed differentiation – enjoy and pass it on!
The greatest service which can be rendered to any country is to add a useful plant to its culture. - Thomas Jefferson