When perusing seed catalogs or seed displays, we often see the terms “hybrid,” “open-pollinated” and “heirloom.” It’s important to understand what they mean.
Hybrids are produced by cross-pollinating two plants of different species or varieties to create a new variety in a single generation; they’re often referred to as “F1,” meaning first generation. The downside is that if you save and sow seeds from this new variety, the resulting plants are highly unlikely to retain the F1 traits.
Open pollination occurs through the actions of insects, birds, humans and even from windy weather. Seeds from these plants will stay true to type. According to the Seed Savers Exchange website, “Open-pollinated plants are more genetically diverse. This can cause a greater amount of variation within plant populations, which allows plants to slowly adapt to local growing conditions and climate year-to-year.”
This brings us to heirloom seeds. These are varieties that have been passed down from one generation to the next, or throughout a community, over the course of many years. They are also open-pollinated.
Heirloom varieties should be at the top of our list when looking for seeds for some very important reasons:
Heirloom vegetables have exceptional taste and often are more nutritious. Hybrid varieties have typically been developed so vegetables ripen more uniformly and can withstand the rigors of shipping, often while sacrificing taste or tender skins in the process.
Because heirlooms have been grown for generations, varieties are more adapted to regional growing conditions. What’s more, the gardeners and farmers who have grown them have selected seed from the best-performing plants.
Most importantly, we can save seed from heirlooms and know they will produce offspring that are true to the parent plants. This enables gardeners to continue the legacy of heirloom varieties and ensure they will have genetically diverse seed that will perform reliably for future gardens.
Here are some examples of heirloom vegetables with appealing qualities:
• Cucumber, Early Russian – Introduced in 1854, this productive variety features a long harvesting season and more cold-tolerant vines, which makes it a good choice for Inland Northwest gardens.
• Kale, Nero di Toscana (a.k.a. dinosaur or Lacinato kale) – This variety is quite popular with gardeners now but did you know it’s been around since the early 1800s? The 24-inch-long, rumpled leaves are delicious in soups and stews.
• Leek, Bleu de Solaise – Dating from the 1800s, this member of the onion family is very cold-tolerant and known for its exceptional flavor.
• Lettuce, Merveille des Quatre Saisons (Wonder of the Four Seasons) – A French heirloom from 1885, it has crispy, red leaves that really stand out in the garden.
• Melon, Emerald Gem – Here’s an 1886 heirloom with green skin and orange flesh that ripens in 85 days.
• Onion, Wethersfield Red – This is a long-day variety, ideal for this region, that has been in existence since the 1700s. The large bulbs are purplish-red in color.
• Squash, Zucchino Rampicante – Here is a climbing variety of zucchini with 15-inch-long, curled fruits and exceptional flavor.
• Tomato, Henderson’s Pink Ponderosa – When it comes to heirlooms, everyone thinks of tomatoes, right? This variety features large, pinkish-red tomatoes weighing up to 2 pounds each; they ripen in 85 days.
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