There are a lot of words to describe seeds that are not hybrid seeds– heirloom, heritage, open-pollinated or standard. No matter which word is used, heirloom plants have been handed down for generations. Originally, seeds from heirloom varieties were saved for the next year because whoever grew them fancied one or two particular traits. This means that single plants of older heirlooms may not look completely like their decedents. Now heirloom varieties are relatively stable, even though heirloom plants of the same variety are not perfectly identical to each other.
Heirloom plants self- and cross-pollinate with the help of wind and insects. Those which self-pollinate, such as beans, lettuce, peas and tomatoes, are easier to grow year after year. Varieties which cross-pollinate are a little bit more challenging. Since they can cross-pollinate, they have to be kept isolated if they are to produce seeds that are good for saving. When plants which can cross-pollinate are kept isolated, the seeds they produce will be true to type.
Plants which are not kept isolated produce seeds with traits that differ from the accepted standard. Over time, this can result in genetic drift. To protect heirloom varieties from genetic drift, commercial and home growers both pull up and destroy any unusual plants. This sounds harsh, but it is important. By pulling up rogue plants, you prevent them from pollinating other plants.
Even though heirloom seeds are a little bit of work in that isolation and rouge-plant destroying may be necessary, many say they are more delicious than their hybrid counterparts. Plus, you can save seeds from heirloom plants for next year. Overall there are many pros and cons to choosing to grow heirloom seeds. The two lists below will help you decide.
Pros of Heirloom Seeds:
- Provide genetic variety for future breeding
- Often adapted to the local climate
- Possibly a better taste and texture
- Handed down for generations
- Great to bring to seed swaps
- Can save seeds for next year
- Relatively stable
Cons of Heirloom Seeds:
- Plants are not perfectly identical to each other
- Cross-pollinated varieties must be isolated
- Unusual plants should be destroyed
- Harder to find at the store
- No hybrid vigor
There is a lot to consider as you choose seeds for your garden. Heirloom or hybrid or both may be the way to go for you. If you get stuck, leave a comment below or contact your local Cooperative Extension office for help.