Seeds of Time: Why Heirlooms Matter

For hundreds of generations, humans all over the planet have been growing crops and saving seeds from their best plants to sow the following season. Seeds have a rich history and are very important to agriculture.


| Winter 2013-2014


For hundreds of generations, humans all over the planet have been growing crops and saving seeds from their best plants to sow the following season. No one had a degree in horticulture, and it's safe to say the vast majority of them couldn't even read or write since most of the work was done before the invention of the written word!

What's important is that these gardeners knew what they liked and needed and, over millennia, domesticated crop plants emerged. With each new season, these crops became a little earlier, a little more productive, a little more suited to the local conditions.

Heirloom seed types are thus products of their environment and of their growers' selection. They are often superbly adapted to the conditions under which they were developed — as, for example, the drought-tolerant varieties native to Southwestern agriculture.

Such is the immense work that had already gone into creating these precious crop plants when scientific breeding work began, slightly over a century ago, and this irreplaceable heritage furnished the building blocks of modern breeding.

Modern science, giddy with its initial achievements, was quick to tout the alleged superiority of modern lines, which were often only a few generations removed from the original types received from various native peoples around the globe. A credulous public bought into these claims and within the space of a couple of generations, the old varieties were cast aside in favor of “progress.”

Today, something like 90 percent of the varieties that existed at the beginning of the 20th century are extinct — just gone, nevermore to return. So it falls to the generations living today to try to salvage the tiny fraction that remains, and then pass along, renewed, to our posterity. Hence the designation “heirlooms.” What other legacy could possibly be more precious?





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