When I was a small child, I vividly recall the early fall afternoon my mother taught me where marigold seeds came from. Plucking off a spent bloom from a plant, she removed the crisp, dead petals with her fingers to reveal many pin-straight, straw-like seeds. She placed a number of them in my tiny hand and instructed me to sow them into a flowerbed so we could exponentially increase the amount of colorful flowers lining our house. It was then that I realized the power of seeds.
People all over the world have been carefully saving seeds from their home gardens and family farms and sharing them with friends, family members, and gardeners near and far though seed exchanges for decades.
Seeds tell stories. Seeds sustain life. Allow me to briefly outline the types of seeds below.
Heirlooms, Hybrids, and GM—Oh my!
An heirloom is defined as anything that is passed down through generations and, in the seed world, the same holds true albeit with a little debate—the exact year of which a seed can be considered an heirloom. Most can agree on anything that was around before the late 1940s—before hybrid seeds became widely used—can hold the title of heirloom seed.
There are many that carry with them a family name, such as Grandpa Ott’s Morning Glory. Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated—meaning they are either self-fertilized or fertilized by birds, insects, or the wind, without human intervention. Heirlooms have naturally adapted to their climate, and perform best when grown in conditions specific to the region. However, they can gradually adapt to a different location, improving year by year.
Hybrid seeds came about in the mid-1920s to speed up a plant’s breeding and are designed to be successful in a wide range of climates and growing conditions. Hybrids are the offspring of a genetic cross, and are not necessarily genetically modified. Hybrid seeds cannot be saved.
The first genetically modified seeds were available in the 1990s. They have been engineered through their DNA to take on new characteristics to cause them to be resistant to certain pests, diseases, environmental conditions, or chemical treatments. Many developed countries do not consider crops that were genetically modified to be safe, and many studies in favor of them were sponsored by the very companies that sell them. There is a movement afoot to resist genetically modified seeds and that movement is fueled by the distrust in the safety of these seeds.
The importance of heirloom seeds
We rely on plants for food. The diversity of plants we grow and eat is crucial for the health of our bodies and our planet. Without it, our food supply can be prone to blights and other devastating diseases that can wipe out entire crops. One historic example is the potato famine that spread through Ireland in the 1840s. The impact would likely have been much less severe if more varieties of potato were planted.
Many varieties of plants that have once thrived on this Earth are now extinct. A study conducted in 1983 by the Rural Advancement Foundation International compared USDA listings of seed varieties sold by commercial U.S. seed houses in 1903 with those in the U.S. National Seed Storage Laboratory in 1983. The survey, which included 66 crops, found that about 93 percent of the varieties had gone extinct. Once gone, seeds cannot be resurrected. In the age of monopolies on seeds by large corporations, saving our heirlooms through seed saving is urgently needed for maintaining biodiversity.
Seed Savers Exchange: a Midwestern treasure
One of the nation’s largest non-profit heirloom seed exchanges is located 143 miles from Madison in neighboring Iowa. Started in 1975 by Diane Ott Whealy and Kent Whealy, its mission is to “save North America’s diverse, but endangered, garden heritage for future generations, by building a network of people committed to collecting, conserving and sharing heirloom seeds and plants, while educating people about the value of genetic and cultural diversity.”
Visiting Seed Savers Exchange’s 890-acre Heritage Farm makes for a wonderful day trip—a gorgeous trek through the Driftless region—however, you don’t have to go to Iowa to pick up some of their seeds. Willy East and West both stock a variety. You can also peruse their catalog online.
West Star Organics & Voss Organics
Located in Madison, WI and Cottage Grove, Wisconsin respectively, West Star Organics and Voss Organics offer tomato plants—all organic, many of which are heirlooms—for planting in your yard, garden plot, or container. Plant seedlings will greet you at the entrances of both Willy East and West.