What is an Heirloom Seed?
You can barely walk through a farmers market or produce stand without seeing signs proclaiming “heirloom vegetables for sale” — and who doesn’t want to snack on an heirloom carrot or cook with heirloom squash? The word “heirloom” pulls at our heartstrings and reminds us of simpler things and slower times. Heirloom has also become a hot marketing buzzword for vendors and a term that’s often confused with other phrases, such as “certified organic,” “locally produced,” “non-GMO,” and “non-hybrid.” Some people simply use the term to mean odd, unique, or somehow nonstandard in appearance; however, the term has a specific meaning that’s often overlooked by vegetable vendors and seed salespersons.
The Origins of Today’s Heirloom Craze
What exactly is an heirloom seed? The heirloom history started with an enthusiastic vegetable breeder and bean collector named J.R. Hepler (“Hep”) and his son, Billy, who both recognized that there’s something special about vegetable cultivars that have been passed down from generation to generation as if they’re valuable family keepsakes. The first published usage of “heirloom” as a descriptor for vegetable cultivars is likely Billy Hepler’s 1947 seed catalog, Novelties, Specialties, and Heirloom Beans. Billy promoted himself as America’s youngest seed grower at age 12, and it was hard to argue with him. But young Billy’s use of the term “heirloom” to describe the cultivars he was selling was just a repetition of a term his dad, Hep, had been using for more than a decade.
Billy recounted the origins of Hep’s usage of the word in a 2012 Seed Savers Exchange publication. Billy wrote that his father started collecting beans in 1919 and first used the term “heirloom” in the 1930s to describe old bean cultivars because Hep felt that “these plants were as valuable as pieces of furniture, jewelry, and trinkets that were handed down through generations.” He started using the term “heirloom” with respect to the beans because these cultivars were indeed family treasures. He then applied the term to all cultivars that had been maintained by families through generations.
When Hep and Billy talked about heirlooms, they weren’t talking about what a cultivar looked like, how it was grown, or where it was grown. They were talking about cultivars that brought meaning to someone’s world and that connected people to their ancestry. Americans needed that anchor to the past then, just as we need it now.
Importantly, the heirlooms need us, too. Every heirloom cultivar that’s still around today has been saved and shared by generations of home gardeners rather than by seed companies — and if not for the home seed-saving efforts of individuals, all these great-tasting artifacts of our past would be extinct. For an example of an heirloom seed story, see “‘Michels’ Heirloom Cowpea” at the end of this article.
As American as Apple Pie
In many places around the world, people with a shared culture and lineage have tended to stay put, continuously occupying the same region for hundreds or even thousands of years. In these places, the food that’s grown, the way it’s prepared, and the traditions that surround its eating are strongly tied to that particular place; examples include ibérico ham in Spain and Portugal, haggis in Scotland, and pho in Vietnam.
However, the American experience is different — and this difference may be part of the reason heirlooms appeal to us. Nearly all families in the United States, including the original settlers — the Native Americans — live where they live today because of historic (or recent) displacements. Sometimes this has been voluntary, but often it has been forced. As a result, the typical strong bond that people feel to a homeland where their ancestors once lived has been replaced with a deep connection to the tangible things that represent those places and those ancestries. One of the interesting ways this connection materializes is in our gardens with the carrying on of seed-saving traditions and the passing of beloved cultivars from one generation to the next.
It’s interesting, too, to think about the practicality of traveling with seeds from far-off places with little money and few possessions. Cultivars that have taken long journeys, such as ‘German Pink’ tomato, which came to America from Bavaria in the 1870s, were valued and beloved. They were easily transported and had the added benefit of making a strange land a bit more habitable because at least the vegetables were familiar.
Consider this: Perhaps today’s trend in heirloom vegetables is the direct result of the world in which our lives are more and more portable and therefore less and less anchored to a specific place. In this case, the importance of family heirloom cultivars will only intensify as people discover they’re a convenient and useful way to preserve lore and memories, to stay connected to our heritage, and to retain a sense of belonging no matter where we actually live.
A Modern Take on an Old Idea
How old does a cultivar need to be to be considered an heirloom? That depends on who you talk to. Some authors and heirloom aficionados say that cultivars must be at least 50 years old to be deserving of the term. Others say the cultivar must predate 1950 (a rough demarcation of the beginning of modern industrial farming practices).
In the opinion of our Seed Savers Exchange staff, any cultivar that has a history of being saved and shared by generations of home seed savers can rightfully and accurately be called heirloom, with the following caveat: Only those cultivars that retain their distinct characteristics when they’re propagated are eligible for heirloom status. This means they’re either open-pollinated cultivars that reproduce true to type from saved seed (unlike most hybrids), or they’re crops that are traditionally propagated by cuttings, tubers, roots, bulbs, or the like. Most heirloom vegetables, herbs, and flowers fall into the former category of open-pollinated cultivars, while in the latter category are grafted fruit trees (apples, grapes, and stone fruits); perennials (chives, roses, and some asparagus); and some root crops (potatoes and sweet potatoes).
An important distinction we make at Seed Savers Exchange is between heirlooms and cultivars that have been primarily preserved within the commercial seed trade for decades. We call these “historic commercial varieties” when they’ve been around since before the 1950s. They were usually developed by plant breeders, many within the rich tapestry of small and regional seed companies that blanketed the United States. Many others were developed by publicly funded plant-breeding programs at universities and by the U. S. Department of Agriculture, especially in the golden age of public plant breeding between 1900 and 1960. These historic commercial cultivars represent their own valuable tradition and should be recognized as such. But they’re not heirlooms.
That being said, the important role that the commercial seed trade has played — and continues to play — in keeping old cultivars on the market cannot be understated. While the safest place for an heirloom cultivar is in the hands of many capable gardeners, the sale of heirloom seeds by seed companies keeps at least a few heirlooms in the hands, hearts, and minds of gardeners and allows these old cultivars a venue to be rediscovered by a larger audience.
Take the controversial case of the ‘Green Zebra’ tomato, a fine cultivar that was released in 1983 by breeder Tom Wagner in his Tater-Mater seed catalog. This novel cultivar stays green when fully ripe and is often bestowed heirloom status by seed companies and vegetable vendors because it’s a bit of an odd duck. However, even though the cultivar has been around for a good while, the fact that it hasn’t been stewarded and shared by generations of gardeners means it’s not, strictly speaking, an heirloom — at least, not yet!
While Seed Savers Exchange does a considerable amount of work finding heirlooms, documenting their stories, and keeping the seeds and the stories alive, this work happens in partnership with ordinary gardeners all over the world. And we need your help to do this. Learn to save seeds, adopt, and steward a few cultivars that you love to grow, and share those cultivars and everything you know about them with your friends. Join in on the tradition of saving and sharing seeds so that great heirloom cultivars can survive for another generation of gardeners to fall in love with them.
‘Michels’ Heirloom Cowpea
‘Michels’ cowpea came to Seed Savers Exchange in 1987 from Audrey (Michels) Kreutzer of Osage City, Kansas. For a while, Seed Savers Exchange knew little about the cultivar except that Audrey’s family had maintained it for many years. Here’s Audrey’s original letter to Seed Savers Exchange, which included her cowpea seeds:
After watching your program on victory gardens, I’m wondering if you could put a name to this bean. The habits and height of the bean resemble the black-eyed bean used for New Year’s Eve recipes, only this has a natural tan-colored pod. The plant sends up a stem producing two cream- and lavender-colored blossoms. Then the long pods form eight to 10 beans inside. Originally, a few seeds were brought from Tennessee in 1941 and my family has kept the seeds growing through the years. However, we could never find a name. It’s a good producer for a small garden and last year we raised 20 pounds.
Seed historians reconnected with Ms. Kreutzer in 2012, when she was 96 years old, to learn the rest of the story (see letters, below). Shortly after sharing her account of this family heirloom, Audrey Kreutzer passed away. In 2016, Seed Savers Exchange exposed a wider audience of gardeners to this great-tasting family heirloom by selling packets of the seed. ‘Michels’ cowpea is available at http://www.SeedSavers.org/Michels-Organic-Cowpea for $3.75 per packet of 50 seeds.
My brother was in the Army at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri, in WWII and in 1942 they held their maneuvers by walking from Ft. Leonard Wood across to Tennessee.
While walking in a field, my brother noticed they were in a field of something planted with pods on it. So he picked some pods and put them in his duffle bag and took them along until he got to a more appropriate place where he could mail those pods home to his dad.
And, of course, my dad took over from there. Every year he would plant several rows in the garden. When he had accumulated some seeds my Mom soaked some overnight and then the next day cooked them in a soup (like Navy Beans). But they had a different flavor, and when cream, salt, and pepper were added mom had the soup fixed for the day. My dad always planted enough for his winter supply of soup. This went on for years.
In later years, I sent some seeds to Decorah, Iowa, to see if Seed Savers Exchange knew what kind of seed that was…My Mom & Dad are dead. The brother that was in that field in Tennessee that year is long dead, too. I am 96 years old and living in an Old Folks Home so that about ends the life story of that brand of Cow Pea.
Those seeds you have there are the only ones around in the area, so you had better take care of them!
Audrey C. Kreutzer