“It takes a while to grasp that not all failures are self-imposed, the result of ignorance, carelessness or inexperience. It takes a while to grasp that a garden isn’t a testing ground for character and to stop asking, what did I do wrong? Maybe nothing.”
Eleanor Perenyi, Green Thoughts (1981).
Heirloom and heritage seed varieties
I see Kings Seeds define “heirloom” seed varieties as being selected strains dating back to pre-1960s. Anything grown from seed will be a selected cultivar from the original species over time and may be very different from wild forms. While, by definition, heirloom varieties are open pollinated (by insects or wind), so too is the vast majority of seed we grow. I tried to work out whether there is an agreed difference between “heirloom” and “heritage” but generally the terms seem to be used loosely and interchangeably.
A number of people and organisations have been working for years to preserve our heirloom varieties in this country but none more so than the Koanga Institute and Kay Baxter in particular. Why does it matter? It is really important to keep genetic diversity in a world where commercial production is driven by other imperatives – particularly high productivity. The kiwifruit industry is a clear example of the perils of depending on a single cultivar of yellow fruit. If disease (PSA, in that case) takes it out, the impact is devastating.
Heirloom is not a synonym for high health. Some will be, some won’t and some will not perform well outside their original area. While most of us like to think it is synonymous with better flavour, that is not always true, either. It has nothing to do with being organic although many organic gardeners will favour heirloom varieties. Essentially, all “heirloom seed” means is that a particular seed strain has shown sufficient merit in some area of performance for people to keep it going for over fifty years. And long may we continue to preserve these different strains of seed.
First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.