Heirloom. Varieties grown in certain regions, that have stayed the same for generations. People swap and share seeds and the variety becomes indigenous, specific to a region because they perform well in specific climate or soil conditions.
Good example is Daniel O’Rourke Pea. Perfect round and delicious green peas in a pod! Daniel O’Rourke Pea is considered an Irish heirloom from the 1800s by Irish Seed Savers Association. They found this long lost variety preserved since 1921 at the Vavilov Institute for Plant Industry in Russia, and brought it back into cultivation and circulation in Ireland. It was named after a winning British thoroughbred racehorse, perhaps because it was known as the earliest pea cultivar at the time. The horse was named after a character in an Irish folktale who was carried to the moon by an eagle. Some report that this is the same pea as horticulturalist, breeder, and seedsman John Sangster’s “Sangster’s No. 1 Pea”, a very popular variety in the mid- and late-1800s on both sides of the Atlantic. It is used as a fresh shelling pea, and also as a dry pea for soups. Thanks to Irish Seed Savers for this seed, and to artist Christine Mackey for her research on this pea’s history.
Back in history, most seeds were local to communities. Of course as society evolved, railways and transport allowed people to move around, seed varieties became commercial products and more widely used.
Most Heirloom seeds are Open Pollinated. “Open pollinated” generally refers to seeds that will “breed true”. When the plants of an open-pollinated variety self-pollinate, or are pollinated by another representative of the same variety, the resulting seeds will produce plants roughly identical to their parents. (Wikipedia)
So the genetics of Heirloom seeds are quite stable. For example, the Daniel O’Rourke pea has been tested from one generation to the next over many years and shows no change.
It should be said that change can and will occur in Heirloom seeds – as Open Pollinated seeds have the ability to adapt their genetic structure to changing climate conditions. This change will happen over multiple years, responding to changes such as average temperatures, rainfall etc.
Example of Open Pollinated seeds:
MUSSELBURGH LEEK. The Musselburgh leek was originally imported from France and first cultivated in the town of Musselburgh in Scotland. This area of Scotland is not renowned for its mild weather and this variety of leek is perfectly suited to the very cold winters in this area. The same inherent genetic structure (ignoring changes in response to climatic conditions) will have existed for over 100 years.
Open Pollinated seeds are available from niche suppliers who offer varieties that are not usually found in the mass market retail trade. Examples:
Brown Envelope Seeds (West Cork)
Real Seeds (Wales)
W. Robinson & Sons (Seeds and Plants) See Heritage Pages
Irish Seed Savers Association (Clare)
The mass market seeds most commonly found in retail and online stores are Hybrid F1. These seeds are generally combinations of two different species of plant which are crossed to produce an offspring that delivers specific characteristics such as higher yield, sweeter, uniform shape or taste, ease of processing, size, uniformity of ripening/harvesting. These characteristics are often targeted at commercial growers who want to optimize harvesting costs and shape to meet retailers’ quality (sic) requirements. These of course are frequently in direct conflict with the objectives of small growers who look for staggered ripening and harvesting.
Crossing two genetically different plants produces a hybrid seed. This can happen naturally, and includes hybrids between species (for example, peppermint is a sterile F1 hybrid of watermint and spearmint). In agronomy, the term “F1 hybrid” is usually reserved for agricultural cultivars derived from two parent cultivars. These F1 hybrids are usually created by means of controlled pollination, sometimes by hand-pollination. For annual plants such as tomato and maize, F1 hybrids must be produced each season. (Wikipedia)
In summary, Hybrid F1 is essentially a form of genetic modification. And it is very difficult to retrieve a heirloom variety once it is lost along with the skills. If you save Hybrid F1 seeds you will not get the same results in the second year. It is likely the crop will be lower in quantity and or quality.
Evidently we have lost 80% of the Heirloom varieties over the past 50 years. It’s also important to note that the major seed producers are huge corporations, often bringing seeds to market under numerous well-known brand names such as Suttons, Unwins etc. Clearly we have become very dependent upon just a very few large corporations which concentrates skills and knowledge in relatively few heads that you might consider represents a risk to our ability to feed ourselves.
In contrast, saving our own seeds allows us to have control and independence over our entire growing process.
Annuals (peas, beans, tomatoes, sweet pea etc) can be saved in one life cycle (6 – 8 months). These seeds are genetically stable and produce the same results year after year. Annual seeds will last literally thousands of years. (E.g perfectly usable seeds were found in the pyramids of Giza!)
Tomatoes very easy to save – take a jam jar, some water, squeeze the tomato and it will release its seeds. Cap and shake the jam jar, leave for 3 – 5 says. The acid in the tomato breaks down the gelatine around the seed and allows the seed to separate. Leave for further 3 days. Pour into sieve, wash and allow to dry. Then pick off seeds into a brown envelope.
When saving seeds, select plants to save from that are healthy, ripe, vigorous. Have no disease, pest damage.
Biennials – Onions, brassicas etc
After harvesting onions – store best examples. Not from bolting plants. Plant out in spring next year and allow to go through to flower. Collect seeds.
Same for carrots, parsnips, beetroot. Note carrots will grow in 2nd year to huge size (6’ x 4’)
Harvest seeds when the plant is fully ripe and when dry so seeds have little moisture. Cut flowers and leave lying in a tunnel to dry. The objective is to achieve a balance between losing moisture and yet not fully drying out. Store in brown envelopes or glass jars. Brown envelopes are best.
The seed is still a living part of the plant. But the moisture content has dropped so low that growth has almost stopped. Need to keep cool and dry, but not too dry.
There are differing requirements for specific seeds, see sample references below.
University of Minnesota Saving Seeds https://extension.umn.edu/planting-and-growing-guides/saving-vegetable-seeds#storage-823211
Gardening Knowhow – Storing Seeds https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/garden-how-to/propagation/seeds/storing-seeds.htm
RHS Seed: collecting and storing https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/profile?pid=675
US Dept. of Agriculture https://naldc.nal.usda.gov/download/CAT87208646/PDF
United Nations Seets Toolkit http://www.fao.org/3/ca1495en/CA1495EN.pdf
Johnny’s Selected Seeds – Storage Guide https://www.johnnyseeds.com/on/demandware.static/-/Library-Sites-JSSSharedLibrary/default/dw913ac4d0/assets/information/seed-storage-guide.pdf
Question: Tomato ripening but browning. Why?
Answer: Probably giving it too much water. Remember tomatoes come from Mexico, and they don’t have a lot of water. Water 1litre every 3 days is sufficient.