This article is courtesy of Vegetarians in
By Zel and Reuben Allen
Vegetarians who treasure the
moments spent in the vegetable garden can find even greater treasures with heirloom seeds
that may be as old as their grandfather. Anyone who has lovingly tended the plants for
that specially awaited day to pluck a ripe tomato or a squash off the vine can agree that
homegrown heirloom vegetables have unmatchable richness of flavor, sweetness, and
juiciness, but wait--it can get even better.
When you discover the many unique features of heirloom varieties,
you'll surely be hooked. You'll find seeds that have a long history, a pedigree, so to
speak. You may be growing purple string beans, tomatoes of unusual shapes and colors,
little round white eggplants, and beans for drying and soup-making that your great
grandmother might have grown in her garden.
Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, placed
such high value on his garden, he sought out fruits and vegetables brought to America by
explorers from all parts of Europe. Today, visitors to Jefferson's home in Monticello can
see varieties of vegetable and flowers that Jefferson himself once grew. Some of the seeds
planted at Monticello may be almost 200 years old, an awesome concept and a perfect
example of treasured heirlooms.
Each year, in
December and January, commercial seed companies sell attractive, relatively inexpensive
seed packets to home gardeners through seed catalogs and garden shops. Anything from root
vegetables and beans to eggplant, tomatoes, and okra are available. Though these catalogs
are filled with appealing color photographs of your favorite vegetables, what they're
selling are hybrid seeds, seeds that have actually been bred for the commercial grower.
Hybridized plants are the result of a cross between two varieties.
For instance, two varieties of tomatoes are chosen because each has particular traits the
grower wants to cultivate. When seeds are taken from the cross-pollinated tomato, these
seeds will not be able to reproduce this crossed variety, but will revert back to one of
the parents. Heirlooms, which are open-pollinated plants, on the other hand, reproduce
themselves generation after generation.
Commercial growers who grow only hybridized crops risk the danger of
a fungus or plant disease destroying their entire crop. It happened in the famous Irish
potato famine in the 1840s where farmers were growing only one variety of potatoes.
Disease destroyed their entire crop and millions of people died. Their variety of potato
had no resistance to that particular disease, one of the pitfalls of hybridized vegetable
crops. With the diversity of plant varieties offered by preserving heirlooms, many plants
develop resistance to certain pests, preventing the total crop loss experienced in
The commercial grower wants to breed fruits and vegetables that are
uniform in size, ripen all at once, have the same color and shape, and that can be
transported to market without spoilage. Invariably, it's the flavor that's lost. We've all
purchased fruits and vegetables from the supermarket that tempted us with their bright
colors and plump appearance but have too often given us that flavor let-down. The home
gardener, too, may not always have success with these hybrid seeds and may feel
Flavor is not the only feature lost with breeding hybrids. Thousands
of varieties of unique vegetables and fruits have been lost to us. In the early 1900s
nearly 7,000 varieties of apples existed in this country. Today, that number has shrunken
to less than 1,000. Unfortunately, a similar pattern exists for most of our fruit and
Consider, instead, ferreting out companies that specialize in
heirloom seeds. Many of these seeds are of varieties that are more than150 years old, such
as lettuces with exotic names like Rouge d'Hiver and Little Gem. Some heirloom seeds come
from other parts of the world and have enriched our table with such treats as exotic
peppers from South America, Mache, a delicate variety of lettuce from Europe, or Pintong
Long, bright purple, long thin eggplant from Taiwan.
Preserving heirloom seeds gives people a sense of history and cultural heritage. By
growing heirloom plants and saving the seeds, we can all participate in saving many
varieties from extinction and preserving plants with special genetic traits. In becoming a
seed saver of heirlooms, we can pass on the rich history with which many plants are
endowed. If you can learn the origins of your seeds, pass this heritage on to your family
members and share these seeds with other growers of heirlooms. In this way it is possible
to save special varieties not commonly grown.
Today, many of us are concerned about the widespread practice of
genetic engineering and the unknown consequences of genetically modified foods. Taking up
heirloom gardening reassures us that we can enjoy vegetables and fruits that are pure,
natural, unchanged, and in complete harmony with nature.
Heirloom seeds have special features that distinguish them from
- The variety of seed should be able to reproduce itself.
For example, one variety of tomato that has been saved for generation after generation of
plantings will produce that same variety of tomato.
- Antique seeds are always self-pollinated or
open-pollinated and will produce plants with the same traits planting after planting,
generation after generation. Hybrid seeds will not be able to reproduce plants with
exactly the same traits.
- The variety of seed must have been introduced at least 50
years ago, though some heirloom gardeners say they must be at least 100 years old. In
recent years, however, varieties with shorter histories are considered heirloom because of
- The particular cultivar, or variety, must have a special
history. Perhaps one can trace the plant's origins to a particular region of the country.
Or, perhaps seeds have been saved by farming families who can recall that their great
grandparents brought them from Europe.
Today there is a growing interest in preserving heirloom varieties
of fruits and vegetables along with their histories. Among the groups that have made
special efforts to collect and save heirloom seeds are the Amish, the Mennonites, and
Native Americans. There are seed companies devoted exclusively to saving and selling
heirloom seeds and plants. Many universities are developing ecology departments that take
a special interest in the preservation of heirloom seeds.
of us don't have the time or opportunity to grow our own heirloom vegetables, but we can
make an effort to support those who do. In recent years, there are many small farmers who
grow heirloom tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, and eggplants and bring them to the shoppers who
frequent farmers' markets. What a delight to introduce the family to varieties of tomatoes
with unique shapes and colors never seen in the supermarket! Unmatchable sweetness,
fragrance, and juiciness are the outstanding features that beckon us to choose historical
tomatoes over the hybrids. By seeking out these farmers and enjoying their treasures,
you're helping to preserve old time varieties and encouraging farmers to sustain the
tradition of the heirloom garden.
There are a number of web sites devoted to heirloom gardening
that may be useful in helping you get started. Here are a few:
"Heirloom Vegetables," Backyard Gardener http://www.backyardgardener.com/article/heirloom.html
"A Delicious Inheritance," Healthwell Exchange
"Heirloom Vegetables," The Wisconsin Gardener (Wisconsin
Public Television) http://www.wpt.org/garden/about/transcripts/701a.html
"The Heritage Garden: Heirloom Vegetables," Le Bep's
Garden Magazine http://www.lebepsgarden.zipworld.com.au/archive_index.html
"Nostalgia You Can Eat," Dave's Gardenhttp://davesgarden.com/showthread/heirloom/1988.html
"Green Bay's Heirloom Vegetable Archive," Cofrin Arboretum
Center for Biodiversity http://www.uwgb.edu/biodiversity/Heirloom/index.htm
"Heirloom Vegetables," The Clemson University Cooperative
Extension Service, http://hgic.clemson.edu/factsheets/HGIC1255.htm
Shepherds Garden Seeds http://www.shepherdseeds.com
Heirloom Seeds http://www.heirloomseeds.com
Renee's Garden http://www.reneesgarden.com
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange http://www.southernexposure.com
P.O. Box 170
Earlysville, VA 22936
Over 500 varieties of open-pollinated heirloom plants including vegetables, flowers,
herbs, garden supplies, and books.
Books on heirloom gardening are invaluable guides. Your local
library may be a great resource to get you started. Here are just a few we can recommend:
by Mimi Leubbermmann, Chronicle Books, 1997
Vegetables by Benjamin Watson, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996
Edible Heirloom Garden by Rosalind Creasy, Periplus Editions, 1999
The Heirloom Gardener by Carolyn Jabs, Sierra Club, 1984
Below is a list of organizations that are devoted to saving
heirloom seeds. Some are seed banks only and focus on preserving seeds for their
historical value. Others sell heirloom seeds to encourage gardeners to join in their
efforts and offer opportunities for seed exchanges between members.
Abundant Life Seed Foundation
P.O. Box 772
Port Townsend, WA 98368
A nonprofit seed company that operates the World Seed Fund, a project devoted to sending
seeds worldwide to community groups working to reduce hunger. They sell heirloom vegetable
seeds, and carry seeds for herbs, flowers, trees, and shrubs. Catalog available for a
nominal fee. Membership fee is about $30 and includes the catalog and periodic
c/o Carl L. & Karen D. Barnes
Rt. 1, Box 32
Turpin, OK 73950
Saves and sells corn varieties including popcorn. Send a SASE for information and price
Eastern Native Seed Conservancy
CRESS Heirloom Seed Conservation Project
P.O. Box 451
Great Barrington, MA 01230
CRESS (Conservation and Regional exchange by Seed Savers) is a regional heirloom seed
exchange for varieties acclimated to the Berkshire bioregion (western New England and
eastern New York state). Some of their varieties are also adaptable to the Northeast. This
is a membership organization with a fee of about $18 a year. Members can order seeds to
grow at home and must return a portion of the saved seeds to CRESS.
Seeds of Diversity formerly Heritage Seed Program
P.O. Box 36, Station Q
Toronto, Ontario M4T 2L7 Canada
A living gene bank. A grassroots seed exchange dedicated to preserving heirloom and
endangered varieties of vegetables, fruits, grains, herbs, and flowers. The program was
started by the Canadian Organic Growers in 1984. An annual membership fee of about $18
allows members to receive the organization's seed listing magazine three times a year.
KUSA Research Foundation
P.O. Box 761
Ojai, CA 93023
KUSA is a nonprofit organization devoted to saving rare and endangered cereal crops. For a
catalog send a SASE plus $2.
Landis Valley Museum Heirloom Seed Project
2451 Kissel Hill Road
Lancaster, PA 17601
A historical site that operates an heirloom seed program listing more than 100 heirloom
varieties and their histories. For information send SASE plus $2.50.
2509 North Campbell Avenue, #325
Tucson, AZ 85719
A nonprofit organization devoted to saving traditional crops of the U.S. Southwest and
northern Mexico. Specializing in native beans, corn, melons, chilies, and vegetables.
Annual membership is about $18. Seed catalogs available for a small fee. Write for
Old Sturbridge Village Museum Gift Shop
One Old Sturbridge Village Road
Sturbridge, MA 01566
A living museum featuring planted kitchen gardens overflowing with heirloom varieties
grown in the mid-19th century. Send about $1 for a seed list.
Seed Savers Exchange
3076 North Winn Road
Decorah, IA 52101
The largest organization worldwide devoted to saving heirloom varieties of vegetables and
fruits from extinction. Members return seeds and offer them to other members through their
annual yearbook. Founded in 1975 this organization is an international clearinghouse for
information on rare and heirloom vegetables. They publish Garden Seed Inventory,
a catalog of catalogs, listing all open pollinated varieties available in U.S. and
Canadian seed companies. They sell a limited number of heirloom seed packets to help
support their work. Membership is about $20 annually in the U.S., slightly higher in
Canada and overseas. One of their interesting projects has been to establish a plant
collectors' network in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
P.O. Box 226
Earlysville, VA 22936
A gardener's seed bank that helps preserve rare, heirloom and unusual seed varieties, this
organization is affiliated with the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Send SASE and about
$1 for seed list.
The Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants
P.O. Box 316
Charlottesville, VA 22902-0316
Many people may not be aware that Thomas Jefferson was an avid gardener who devoted hours
to collecting unique food plants from other parts of the world. At Monticello, his now
historic home, visitors can appreciate the abundant gardens and can view many of the
varieties he collected. For a small fee one can purchase a Jefferson Sampler that includes
10 varieties of flowers and vegetables that Thomas Jefferson grew himself. Seed lists
available for a nominal fee.