An heirloom is a plant that has been passed down within families of farmers and gardeners from generation to generation. To be considered an heirloom, a plant must be open-pollinated. Saving heirloom seeds and using them helps protect the genetic diversity of our plants.
Since the 1940s, most large seed companies have sold seeds that have been bred to meet the needs of large farms, including standing up to mechanical harvesting and shipping (for example, tomatoes that have skins that are tough enough to handle cross-country shipment and potatoes that will pass the uniformity tests of fast-food chains). These are not standards that home gardeners want or need, which is why many people have turned to heirloom seeds.
Reasons to Grow Heirlooms
1. Variety: There are thousands of seeds from which to choose.
2. Superior flavor: The modern hybrid is not necessarily bred for taste.
3. Unusual colors and shapes: Heirloom seeds come in colors you don't normally get from a traditional hybrid seed.
4. Unique history: You can get seeds from all regions of the world, dating back hundreds of years.
Heirloom seeds are becoming easier to find because of companies that specialize in saving seeds and selling them to gardeners. Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in Missouri are two such places -- they each have thousands of seeds in their catalogs from which to choose.