Most gardeners have heard of heirloom seeds and probably have a fairly
good idea what they are. Gardeners often refer to heirloom seeds as
"Grandmother's seed" or something similar.
As the name implies, heirloom seeds are carried down from generation to
generation, similar to handing down a desired antique from generation
to generation. What is so special about this? Isn't that what a seed
company can do? In short, yes. But the full answer to this question is
a little more complicated.
Most gardeners are familiar with "hybrid seed. Hybrid seed is
essentially the opposite of heirloom seed. Hybrid seed is seed that is
a cross between two distinctly different parents that have been inbred
over numerous generations.
Why do plant breeders inbred? Primarily because they want to be able to
produce reliable offspring that contain certain desirable traits.
Essentially, the breeders are breeding plants to produce certain
For example, in large-scale vegetable production, growers prefer hybrid
seed because they know the seed is reliable (they will get a uniform
crop of vegetables with certain desirable characteristics). Those
desirable characteristics might include things like: disease
resistance, early fruit development, larger fruits, rounder fruits, and
tougher skins on tomatoes for easier harvesting, handling, shipping and
longer storage and so on. With flowers, it might include larger flower
blooms, "double" blooms, blooms with bright, flashy colors, pizzazz,
One major disadvantage to hybrid seed is the loss of genetic
diversity. When plant breeders develop hybrid seed, many unique genes
are lost in the process.
For example, when a tomato breeder is breeding hybrid tomato seeds,
many of the unique genetic characteristics (distinct smells, tastes,
textures, flavors, colors, shapes, etc.) are lost and do not show up in
the hybrid plants. If you've ever eaten sweet corn, tomatoes, peppers,
or other crops from "Grandma's" heirloom seed, you might recall very
unique tastes, smells, textures, and other qualities not found in
With hybrid seed, where did all those unique characteristics go? They
were lost in the breeding process. With heirloom seeds, many of these
traits are passed on from generation to generation.
Many traits that are desirable to the home gardener are
weeded out on purpose with hybrid seeds. For example,
some carrots are bred to be 'super strong.' They are bred to be very
tough to allow machines to pull the carrots out of the ground without
breaking the carrots. This characteristic makes it easy to harvest
carrots by machine, but it makes the carrot less enjoyable for the
consumer because it's really tough and hard to chew.
Home gardeners have a distinct advantage: they are harvesting carrots
by hand in their back yard and therefore do not need a "tough" carrot
or a tomato with a tough, thick skin that will ship long distances or
last long on the shelf. Many heirloom seeds have the juices, tastes,
flavors, textures, smells,
and other desirable characteristics found in "Grandma's seed." Home
gardeners can take advantage of the benefits of growing
heirloom fruits, vegetables, and flowers.
Another disadvantage of hybrid seed is that seed collecting from
Hybrid plants is pointless. Why? Because the offspring from hybrid
plants is extremely unpredictable and will not produce true to type. In
other words, the desirable characteristics from the hybrid plants will
usually not be present in their offspring.
Conversely, heirloom seed is obtained from open pollination and
produce seed that is not a clone of the parent plants but typically
looks a lot like the parent. You can usually collect
seeds from heirloom plants (plants grown with heirloom seed) and obtain
offspring that resemble the parent plants.
During tough economic times like the Great Depression, people relied
heavily on collecting their own seed and growing their own food.
Passing seed on from generation to generation was very common in the
Heirloom seeds also pass on many different genes from generation to
generation. With hybrid seed, genetic information is "fixed," and only
certain genes are preserved with most genetic diversity lost. Heirloom
seeds are like genetic
diversity banks that maintain many unique genes from generation to
generation that are constantly being lost with more and more hybrid
Heirloom seeds are a major way of preserving genetic diversity, which
is a good thing. By growing heirloom seeds, you're preserving genetic
information that is otherwise disappearing for good.
seeds is not only growing, tasting, and enjoying the fruits of flowers
of the past; it's also preserving the past.
Heirloom seed will usually not give the brightest blooms, the most
disease-resistant vegetables, perfectly round fruits, and many of the
flashy bells and whistles seen on hybrid plants. Plants grown from
hybrid seed tend to have more vigor, more uniformity, and certain
traits that they were bred for.
These traits (such as disease resistance, brighter flowers, bigger
tomatoes, etc.) are the reasons people buy hybrid seed. However, if
unique tastes, textures, smells, forms, and other unique traits are
more important to you, consider heirloom seeds.
University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and
There are varieties of
beans and zucchini and peas, and many other veggies, that grow rapidly
and mature quickly. They are acclimated to high altitudes and short
growing seasons. If we lose them, like my family lost
they are gone forever.
Heirloom Flower Garden
and Garden Center
Guide to Heirloom Vegetables