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livingchoice's avatar

What are Heirloom seeds?

Asked by livingchoice (538 points ) April 12th, 2012

I hear a lot of talk about Heirloom seeds but what are they really? I know that they are Non-GMO but is that all. Can they be Hybrids as well? What are the other criteria for calling a seed an heirloom?

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15 Answers

ro_in_motion's avatar

Heirloom seeds, I believe, are ‘ancient’ seeds that have been historically planted as opposed to the seeds you buy today. It’s one way of creating and preserving genetic diversity. Here’s a ‘sort of’ example: Indians used to grow some 20 different potatoes (number might be way off) but since the advent of McDonalds really only one is grown.

Likewise, you may have seen the colour wheel of carrots. The different colours all come from different seeds,

SpatzieLover's avatar

Yep^ they’re the ancestor seeds to today’s hybrids (or cross seeds).

Coloma's avatar

^^^^ Yes, all of the above.
“Heirlooms” are also more delicate and disease prone than their modern day hybrids, but, they are also much more delicious, flavorful and colorful. The usual 6 on one hand half a dozen on the other.

I grew Heirloom Pineapple tomatos last year, they were sensitive little things but sooo delicious.

WestRiverrat's avatar

Basically any more, they are seeds that once you harvest the seeds, you can plant the seeds and expect them to grow.

The modern hybrids are being designed so that their seeds are sterile after one or two seasons so you can not grow your own food from the previous years crop. This means you have to go back to the seed producer to buy more seed every year.

marinelife's avatar

No, they cannot be hybrids.

They are original varieties of plants before hybridization.

Coloma's avatar

Oooh Brandywine tomatos…oooh, ooh, ooh…lol

incendiary_dan's avatar

They’re a variety that has been grown successively for long enough that, provided that you don’t interbreed it with another variety, will consistently grow in the same way. They are NOT more prone to disease, that’s just false. Many have been selectively bred for disease and drought resistance. Hybrids, in contrast, do not necessarily bear seeds that will grow into the same variety. All heirlooms were once hybrids that were grown long enough to be reliable.

wundayatta's avatar

You can have your Brandywine’s @Coloma. But give me all your Cherokee Purples! Now that is the tomato for me!

WestRiverrat's avatar

@Coloma and @wundayatta You can keep the Branywines and the Cherokee purples. I grew up on banana leg yellow tomatoes.

Heck I didn’t know most tomatoe sauce was red until I got to grade school. Took my mom two years to convince me red spagetti sauce wasn’t poison.

ETpro's avatar

@Coloma, @wundayatta & @WestRiverrat Most of the current orange and yellow tomatoes are far, far higher in beta-carotene and phytonutrients than the classical red variety. And since we are in the General area, to stay on topic, there are heirloom orange and yellow tomatoes out there.

incendiary_dan's avatar

@ETpro Got any nutritional knowledge on the purple varieties? I’m aiming to grow Cherokee Purple and Black Krim this year. In general it seems darker plants have higher nutrient density, though I admit to mostly wanting to grow them because it’s a frickin’ purple tomato.

wundayatta's avatar

@incendiary_dan It may be purple, but it is the most tomatoey tomato I ever tasted. Fabulous for BLTs. Very juicy. Also, it is as much green as purple, in skin color.

Of course, it also depends on the ground you grow it in. There is a distinct difference between the various Cherokee Purple heirloom tomatoes the farmers at my farmer’s market grow. Their land is spread out from the Pine Barrens of New Jersey to the dark earth of Amish territory around Lancaster, and equally far North and South from Philly.

My heart belongs to Cherokee Purple, but there have been times when, ahem, a Brandywine has tasted better, depending, I guess, on where it grew. I have a feeling that the genes of these things vary quite a bit more than the genes of hybrids. So sometimes it’s a crap shoot. They might be good and they might have an off year, too.

ETpro's avatar

@incendiary_dan I haven’t researched them, but the rule of thumb is that strong color usually equals a lion-sized helping of vitamins and phytonutrients. If I find something definitive, I’ll post a link.

incendiary_dan's avatar

@wundayatta Good call. My garden is teeming with life this year, whereas last year it was kind of sandy and I had trouble keeping water in the soil for lack of organic matter. I piled a couple hundred pounds of composted manure on it, so I think I’ve got some decent soil.

One trick for better flavor I learned over the winter is to not water them. This is of course only possible if you’re doing a myriad of water retaining techniques to minimize the number of times watering is needed, such as hugelkultur.

ETpro's avatar

@incendiary_dan Here’s something on which purple varieties are the most healthful. http://hort.oregonstate.edu/purple_tomato_faq

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