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Understanding Heirloom Varieties

For yesterday, today and tomorrow

By HELEN LAMMERS-HELPS

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There’s a growing interest in heirloom varieties. Many of them can be found in seed catalogues or even as transplants at your local garden centre. There are a multitude of reasons for their growing popularity. Preserving genetic diversity is one of the most noble reasons cited for growing heirloom varieties. But what do we mean by genetic diversity, and why should we care?
Genetic diversity is the natural variation found in plants and animals. With enough variation in a group, there will be a better chance that some individuals will survive, or even thrive, under changing conditions.
“With climate change, new pests and the increasing cost of energy and hence a need for local food, we can dip into the gene pool to find the characteristics that we will need in the future,” explains Bob Wildfong, Executive Director of Seeds of Diversity, a non-profit Canadian organisation committed to preserving our genetic inheritance.
The problem is that about three-quarters of plant genetics are no longer available commercially, says Wildfong. “For example, a hundred years ago there were 5,000 varieties of apples grown in Canada. Today there are only 15 apple varieties grown commercially.”
According to the book Every Seed Tells a Tale, published by Seeds of Diversity, only ten corporations control a third of the commercial seed market. The disappearance of a large number of small seed companies has resulted in the loss of accessibility to thousands of open-pollinated and regionally adapted cultivars. More than 80% of the world’s food production relies on only twenty crop species.
As a result, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has declared the number one danger to world food security to be the erosion of genetic diversity in food crops. A lack of genetic diversity makes crops more susceptible to attacks by pests or disease. History reminds us of the devastation caused by the fungal blight that hit Ireland’s potato fields in the middle of the 19th century, causing the death of a million people.
There are also many practical reasons to grow heirloom varieties, such as the taste. Many heirloom vegetables are more flavourful than modern hybrids. For example, tomato breeders have focused their efforts on developing tomatoes that ship well without bruising, explains Lynn Coulter, author of Gardening with Heirloom Seeds. Unfortunately, some of the flavour has been sacrificed in the process. There are no longer any Canadian tomato breeders, adds Wildfong, which means all of the tomatoes currently in development are geared toward American growing conditions.
Many old-fashioned flower varieties are more fragrant than their modern counterparts. “Bury your nose in a bouquet of modern sweet peas or hybrid roses, and you’ll find their rich perfume missing, dropped as breeders selected for colour or form,” explains Coulter. Renee Shepherd, owner of Renee’s Garden, sells 26 varieties of sweet pea. Of these, she says, Cupani is the most fragrant of all.
Old-fashioned varieties are often better sources of pollen and nectar for beneficial insects and butterflies than modern hybrids, adds Wildfong.
Local heritage varieties are adapted to local growing conditions, and will often outperform other varieties as a result. Heirlooms are a great choice for organic gardeners because they’ve adapted to whatever conditions they were grown in, explains Coulter. “Many are resistant to pests and diseases as well as extremes of temperature and rainfall.”
Heirloom plant genetics may hold the key to our future needs. For example, many processed food products require specific qualities, such as frozen dough that can only be made with wheat that contains a certain protein.
“Old varieties” may also contain as-yet-undiscovered nutrients. For instance, when nutritionists learned of the benefits of Omega-3, it was found that many of the older varieties of flax had high levels of this nutrient. Modern varieties may have been lower in Omega-3 because they were bred for size and yield, not nutritional content.
Last but not least, what about growing heirloom seeds for the sheer variety and fun of it? Even the names have personality, like the Lazy Housewife Bean (the first string-less green bean) and the Mortgage Lifter Tomato (said to have been developed by a man dubbed “Radiator Charlie” during the Depression who sold the tomatoes for $1 each). There’s the Black Zebra Tomato with its rich mahogany brown colour and green stripes, and the Red Pear Tomato: a cherry tomato shaped like a tiny pear. The variety is endless.
So what exactly is an heirloom variety? There isn’t one strict definition in use. Some would say an heirloom variety is at least 50 years old, says Wildfong, but others would say a plant with a special history would qualify, such as pepper seeds that Grandpa brought from the “old country.” The terms “heritage,” “antique” and “heirloom” are all used interchangeably in seed catalogues, adds Wildfong. All heirloom varieties are open-pollinated and not patented, which means anyone can grow them and market the seed.
Many heirlooms have a story to tell, says Coulter. “Some have a fascinating history or they have been part of the cuisine, politics, folklore or science of wherever they came from,” she explains. “They can tell us about other cultures by the way they were cooked or used or enjoyed.”
Wildfong cautions that the seed growing business has been so concentrated in one area, such as South America, that much of one variety may be traced to a specific field, even though it is sold through many different seed companies. This seed will all be very closely related and grown under one set of conditions, warns Wildfong. To avoid this potential problem, Wildfong recommends looking for companies who advertise that they grow their own seed. “Canada is a small market so it’s not worthwhile for seed companies to develop varieties geared to our short season, but many heirloom varieties were developed specifically for our conditions,” he continues.
Heirloom varieties are usually open-pollinated varieties, which means that they can reproduce themselves from seeds, will be true to type, and will look like the parents. Many varieties sold today are hybrids, which are crosses of two plant lines. These may bear sterile seed or, if seeds are produced, they may not look like the parents.
So there’s no need to grow the same old fruits, vegetables and flowers year after year when there is a wealth of heirloom varieties to try.

Some Basic Principles of Saving Seeds

? Write down all relevant information, such as plant name, origin, year when seeds were acquired, seeding dates, number of days to maturity, disease resistance and yield.
? Never sow all the seeds you have of a rare cultivar in case frost, insects, disease, hail or animals jeopardize the harvest.
? Correctly identifying seeds and plants is crucial. If you start seeds inside, label seed trays appropriately. After harvest, be careful to label seeds correctly.
? After harvesting seeds, dry them in a warm, dry and well-ventilated area. Do not use temperatures above 45 degrees C.
? A freezer is the ideal place to store airtight jars of well-dried seed. A refrigerator is the next best choice. If this is not possible, store seeds in a dry place in paper envelopes. Dryness is more important than coolness and most seeds will keep at least a few years at room temperature as long as they are reasonably dry.
Source: “How to Save Your Own Seeds” booklet from Seeds of Diversity

Get involved in preserving genetic diversity

Seeds of Diversity is looking for people to grow Canadian tomatoes, save the seeds, and pass them along to other Canadian gardeners.
More than half of the garlic purchased in Canada comes from other countries, and most of the domestic garlic is one variety: Music. Seeds of Diversity is looking for growers who can commit to growing two varieties of garlic for two years in a 15 foot square plot.

For more information:
Seeds of Diversity (formerly the Heritage Seed Program run by the Canadian Organic Growers) was founded as a non-profit organisation 25 years ago to help preserve the genetic base. Fourteen-hundred members grow and share 1,900 varieties of heritage vegetables, grains, flowers, herbs and fruit. They run a seed exchange for their members and maintain a database of seed companies selling heirloom and rare varieties of vegetables, fruits, flowers and herbs at bóng đá trực tuyến www.seeds.ca.
Heirloom seeds are also available through the U.S.-based Seed Savers, at http://www.seedsavers.org/, which is also a non-profit, member-supported organisation that saves and shares heirloom seeds.