I thought I wanted heirlooms, but I was told I really mean open-pollinated! If I want to save the seed, what do I want?

Posted: May 3, 2017

Originally published in Smoky Mountain Living Magazine, Gardener’s Corner (a Q&A series for gardeners by Chris Smith).

Themed garden seed collection - heirloom victory garden

The term heirloom is often misused and misunderstood, which is why this is one of the most asked questions at Sow True Seed.

Open-pollinated or OP seeds will produce a plant that will produce seeds that, if saved properly, will grow into the same plant the following season i.e. I can save seeds from my Cherokee Purple tomatoes and expect to grow Cherokee Purple tomatoes from those seeds. This is not true of F1 Hybrids, whose saved seeds will produce a range of different and unpredictable plant characteristics. So, as a seed saver, you should be looking for OP varieties.

So what are Heirlooms? Quite simply heirlooms are open-pollinated seeds that have been around for a long time. The exact definition varies but (in general) OP seeds that have been around since before World War II are considered heirlooms. We could think of them as old OP varieties.

I grow a mix of modern OP varieties and old OP varieties (heirlooms). Heirlooms offer great multi-generational stories that I like to be a part of and the mere fact that they have stood the test of time often means they have some great characteristics. Modern OP varieties are being bred to combat current day challenges, whether that is pest-pressure, disease, climate or something else. I love my heirloom beans, but I also love my modern OP powdery-mildew resistant cucumbers. The great thing is that I can save seed from both of them!

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Chris Smith

Community Coordinator and Communications at Sow True Seed
Chris Smith is an enthusiastic grower and permaculturalist from a green-thumbed family. He has immersed himself into the world of seed and southern growing. On his urban homestead, Chris is experimenting with landraces, selective seed saving, crop trials, grow outs and edible seed oils!

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2 responses to “I thought I wanted heirlooms, but I was told I really mean open-pollinated! If I want to save the seed, what do I want?”

  1. Erik Cole says:

    That’s a great article. I’m 27 years old and this Spring I’ve been watching some Candy Roaster Melon Winter Squash grow, which I planted from seeds that I saved from Candy Roasters that I harvested last year in my garden. They’re heirlooms from North Carolina, the state I was born in!

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