Heirlooms are heirlooms for a reason

May 13, 2011

Heirlooms prove their worth in organic gardens

There’s been something of a backlash in national gardening circles about heirloom varieties, which I suspect is being egged on by seed suppliers.

You may recall that an heirloom variety of a plant is one that has become traditional, such as in our neck of the woods the Arkansas Traveler tomato (bred in Arkansas for its ability to withstand heat and humidity) or the Marion tomato (which was the staple of south Mississippi’s truck farming tradition).

In late March, there was a rather heated debate about heirlooms in The New York Times, of all places (“Heirloom Seeds or Flinty Hybrids?,” March 23), the gist of which was that if heirlooms were any good there would be no hybrid varieties.

Modern seeds, which are generally hybrid crosses, produce a “more vigorous plant, better resistance to diseases,” said the owner of Johnny’s Seeds, for example, noting in a car analogy: Why not buckle up in a 1936 Oldsmobile coupe?

Expecting a sound retort, I was surprised that the article went downhill from there, the consensus being that heirlooms are outdated, susceptible to disease, don’t produce well and generally ought to be discarded in favor of the more “modern” hybrids. By the same token, some commented that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) take that a step farther. After all, they are products of Science and can even include animal genes in them to take on Nature!

Well, needless to say, as an organic grower, I was stunned by the whole tenor of the piece, and its commentary, but have since seen its premises knocking around the Internet like an echo chamber, with the article serving to legitimize those points of view.

I could almost buy it, if I didn’t know better. It’s astounding to me that anyone with any knowledge of actually growing plants could swallow such inorganic manure.

By its very nature as an open pollinated plant (as opposed to a forced hybrid – or GMO – that can only produce once, then die, along with its unique mix of selected genes), an heirloom adapts to changing conditions in its environment.

If there’s a drought and only a few Arkansas Travelers make it, for example, then save those survivors’ seeds and the next Arkansas Travelers you plant are likely to be drought resistant.

Diseases? Insects? Fungus? Odd growing season? Save those seeds, and the next editions will be tailored to survive those conditions.

As opposed to hybrids – or heaven forbid, Frankenfood GMOs – successive heirloom generations adapt to the conditions where you live!

The reason heirlooms are heirlooms is because they are so desired and adaptable with consistent qualities that people want. That’s the definition of heirloom: A valued possession passed down through succeeding generations; in this case, a plant of enduring value.

So, I guess folks can have heated debates in the Times and on the Internet about how “outdated” are heirloom varieties.

But seedsavers and folks who actually grow what they eat and eat what they grow know better. Heirlooms prove their worth in the organic garden again and again.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

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