Why Heirloom Seeds Are Special and How to Find Them


Why plant heirloom seeds? Plant them if you want a charming, old-fashioned flower garden. Plant them if you want to eat vegetables grown for flavor, instead of shelf life or good looks. Plant them if you don't want to limit your choices to the seeds available through huge seed companies. Plant them if you want to preserve biodiversity on earth. Most of all - save and plant heirloom seeds because it's fun!

What Are Heirloom Seeds?

Some growers base their definitions on date -- a plant that has been grown for more than 50 years or more than 100 years. Others say that heirloom plants are any garden species that have been passed from generation to generation within a family or a community. Some growers say, quite sensibly, that heirloom plants are those grown before about 1950, when the introduction of chemical fertilizers and extensive transport systems radically changed gardening.

Heirloom plants "come true" from the seed which can be gathered and saved by the home gardener. Plants grown from saved seeds will look like their parents. Many heirloom seeds and plants are adapted to the conditions of a particular growing region. They are likely to be resistant to pests or diseases that have been common in the area for a long time. The plants show a color, shape, scent, or tastes that were important to the home gardeners who saved the seed.

Different From Other Seeds

Heirloom seeds are different from commercial seeds.

Many commercial seeds are first generation hybrids. These F1 hybrids have been hand-pollinated from specially chosen parent stock. They can be patented, and the successful introduction of an F1 hybrid is very lucrative. Many F1 hybrids are sterile. The home grower can save the seeds, but they will never germinate. Others germinate, but with wildly unpredictable results. Selling F1 seed is very profitable for seed companies, because gardeners and farmers must buy new seed every year.

Some commercial seeds have been genetically altered. The plant's DNA has been changed, often by splicing a gene into the plant's DNA to add a particular characteristic. The debate about bioengineered food is often about this kind of seed.

Both F1 hybrids and genetically altered plants are usually developed to show specific characteristics that are good for commercial use. If the crop ripens all at the same time, it is cheaper and easier to harvest. Thicker skins make vegetables easier to transport. A pretty appearance is more noticeable in stores than great taste or a lovely scent. These are not necessarily the characteristics you want in your garden!

Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated. The pollen from one plant is carried to the next by the wind, by insects, and sometimes even by birds. Some heirloom plants are even self-pollinating! When the home gardener saves these seeds, the next generation of plants will look, smell, and taste like their parents.

Finding Seeds

Many seed catalogs list a few heirloom varieties today. However, you will usually find the biggest selection of heirloom seeds through organizations dedicated to seed saving. They'll help you learn more about heirloom seeds, too!

  • Seed Savers Exchange is a nonprofit organization. Every year, the members put together a list of the seeds they will share, and they usually have about 6,000 kinds. They're very helpful to newcomers.
  • Native Seeds Search s a nonprofit conservation organization. They are focused on the seeds that are traditional native crops in Northwest Mexico and the Southwest U.S.
  • Seed & Plant Sanctuary of Canada is a charitable organization dedicated to the preservation and promotion of heritage and heirloom seeds. Check out their Plant Description Databases!
Was this page useful?
Related & Popular
Why Heirloom Seeds Are Special and How to Find Them