Why and How Heirloom Seeds – from True Food
Many believe that the seed crisis is as urgent for the future of the planet as the threats of global warming and nuclear war. To understand it fully, we need to support open-pollinated heirloom seeds.
Heirloom plants are cultivars that have been passed down through generations. A cultivar is a variety of a plant developed from a natural species and maintained under cultivation. Many keep their traits through open pollination–that is, by the natural fertilization of nearby flowers by pollen, creating new seed–and others have been propagated through grafts and cuttings.
Open-pollinated seeds are constantly being modified in nature because the plants cross-pollinate with others in the locale. Called serendipitous crossing, it is the way that plants pass genes back and forth. The genes have been fine-tuned over centuries, responding to a variety of climate and soil conditions as well as adapting to blights and pests, which make the resulting plants capable of staving off a variety of threats.
Selection of favorable traits by generations of farmers and gardeners has led to the domestication of all our major food crops. Seeds survived in this way for millennium before chemical sprays and fertilizers existed. Modern farmers who caretake heirloom seeds almost always grow them organically. Whereas an heirloom seed will be native to a region, heirlooms do not necessarily imply native species–immigrants carry their native seeds with them.
To do our part to protect biodiversity, we need to request local farmers and gardeners who sell at farmers’ markets to offer us diverse foods. The genes passed on in heirloom seeds give life to our future. Unless the 100 million backyad gardeners and organic farmers keep these seeds alive, they will disappear altogether.
Seed Savers Exchange is a nonprofit group dedicated to saving and sharing the heirloom seeds of our garden heritage. Their catalog is a sight to behold, full of a gorgeous array of plant possibilities that will enrapture your senses. You can buy an abundant of heirloom seeds through their catalog or site.
Since 1975, Seed Savers Exchange members have passed on approximately one million rare garden seeds to other gardeners.
Learn more at www.seedsavers.org. Or write Seed Savers, 3094 North Winn Road, Decorah, IA 52101.
–Adapted from True Food, by Annie B. Bond, Melissa Breyer, and Wendy Gordon (National Geographic, 2010).