It's contrarian to look at old, and even ancient, plant varieties as one of the paths to future gardening. They are not genetically engineered, not marketed, and many have been lost.
Some modern and upcoming varieties may be genetically engineered. They work out well for big suppliers, who can grow them in one area and ship them in semi's to locales that have different soils, different micro climates, different water and temperature. There are advantages to some. I wanted Buddleias for fast growth and to supply nectar for bees and butterflies. In the NW, older Buddleias are banned due to invasiveness. Some new varieties are sterile - no seeds, therefore not invasive. New ones are also more compact. They are also illegal to propagate - patented - and are expensive. Some hybrid tomatoes are more disease resistant and prolific, compared to some heirloom varieties. Some newer apple varieties are better for organic growers due to disease resistance - fire blight, black spot, and other diseases. Liberty apple is a good variety. Some new varieties are more colorful, larger, available in shapes and combinations that did not exist before.
There are many challenges with new varieties. They are not usually locally adapted. So it's harder to predict if they will do well in a particular garden or yard. They are highly bred, far from original types. So they less likely to resist disease. More likely to need fertilizers and pesticides. Most are patented. So when the gardener is taking a cutting or two, or 20, for their own use or to give away or trade, that's illegal. It makes the gardener into a minor criminal. Modern varieties are produced by a small number of companies. So they are controlled by companies that may have other agenda, such as wanting to phase out older, nonpatented varieties, so they can profit from the newer varieties they patent, even if the older varieties are valuable, better, or more locally adapted.
Most modern gardeners, I suspect, have lost the links to their parents / grandparents / great grandparents varieties. That's due to not gardening as much, moving into town off the farm, moving across the country, forgetting how to propagate, grow from cuttings, graft, save seeds and bulbs. There is the easy availability of varieties in big box stores, grocery stores, and nurseries. I like to promote local nurseries, but here most of the plants seem to be shipped in same as from big box stores, are not locally grown, and the nursery workers don't seem to know much about them.
That's where heritage varieties enter.
Heritage varieties connect us to our ancestors. Even if we don't have a start from Grandma's bearded iris, or Grandpa's apple, heritage varieties of irises and apples were passed down from someone's Grandma and Grandpa. Some are salvaged from homesteads, or neighbors, or were in a yard when the house was bought.
If from a local garden, they are more likely to be well adapted to local conditions, resistant to local diseases, and the poor survivors and poor producers have been weaned out when they didn't flourish is local gardens and farms.
Heritage varieties are completely legal to propagate. Instead of making the gardener into a small time criminal, the gardener becomes a conservator of precious history and future resources. In many cases, the small gardener is the only to these varieties. By learning to propagate these plants - often easy, or they would not have been passed down through generations - the gardener is empowered and discovers freedom from the big ag companies and big box stores that might have seemed like the only ready source.
When exchanged among friends, neighbors, family, heritage varieties are free. That's much cheaper than even bargain varieties. Even when purchased, heritage varieties can be - not always - much cheaper than the modern choice. I bought heritage bearded iris rhizomes from Historic Iris Preservation Society. Those were much less costly than most modern varieties, and by buying them, I supported the organization and the people who like to collect old varieties.
When we save heritage varieties, we save genetic resources - DNA - that might otherwise be lost. So we are giving a resource to those who follow.
In my garden, I've become more and more interested in growing heritage varieties. I have beds of heritage bearded irises, my orchard has heritage varieties of apples, figs, grapes. I collect seeds from heirloom beans, some herbs - or let them seed themselves. I'm disorganized about growing these varieties, but I like to think of my yard as a - very minor, small - test garden or botanical garden for some heritage varieties.
This year it was difficult to grow as many vegetables as I wanted. I did attempt some heritage melons, tomatoes, chilis, okra, and edible pod peas. The perennial types - rhubarb, perennial onions, garlic, fruit trees - were much easier and keep themselves going. Also herbs, which in many cases are undeveloped as modern varieties. I have herbs of one variety or other, planted by almost every fruit tree.
I have an order in for some additional heritage bearded iris. I like the sense of history from those, and their fragrance. In many cases, they are more compact and don't fall over and look like wet tissue in the Spring rain. And Spring rain is always part of maritine Pacific NW life. Having that order in is a bit of a stretch, taking for granted I'll be alive when they come in April, but statistically I should be here. So it gives me something to look forward to I've also planted some other heritage bulbs, aiming now for some that I hope the deer and rabbits and mice and voles wont decimate - Hyacinthoides, Fritillaria, Narcissus. Something has been eating the muscari, so no plans to add more of that one. The plan is to discover which ones do well here, under local circumstances, local climate and local fauna, with minimal effort. It's somewhat Darwinian - no effort beyond the usual organic gardening and weeding, no protection from the varmints, just testing to see what will flourish.
For vegetables, I want to try some other snowpeas, okra, and do the usual with heirloom tomatoes and chilis. I did not save seeds from those this year, but by buying them from heirloom variety sources, I am supporting those sources financially.
I do have modern varieties, and doubtless will continue those as well, for what they have to offer. But I will continue to emphasize heritage varieties when I can.
1. All illustrations are public domain, via commons.wikimedia.org, from historic botanical illustrations.
2. This is all opinion. I can't necessarily back up all of the info from verifiable research.
3. I hope this discussion is worthwhile for my friends, and that you have opinions and experiences to share as well.
4. I did research, as thoroughly as I could, on the Buddleia issue. The patented varieties are VERY expensive - can be $20 for a 1 gallon shrub. I splurged on those last winter, buying most as nursery hold-overs "rejects", planted in Jan or Feb, and they grew like crazy. But the states of Oregon and Washington designate all of the older varieties, and all Buddleia davidii seedlings as noxious weeds, it is illegal to propagate them, and due to patent law it is also illegal to propagate the new varieties. So it's the expensive nursery ones, on none at all. Which is too bad. Buddleias grow very easily from cuttings.
5. Any heritage variety that I mention as being in my own garden, I'm always more than happy to share via starts, offsets, seeds, cuttings, as available / right time of year / when I have the energy! Over the years, I've given away hundreds of fig cuttings, dozens of bearded Iris starts, and a fair number of saved seeds. To local people, and via mail.
6. I don't know the distinction between heritage, heirloom, and historic varieties. It seems kind of arbitrary. They all start with "h" and have overlapping - in some cases the same - meanings.
7. In some ways, passing on starts and seeds is a form of "underground" gardening, a little subversive against corporate hegemony. I like that.
I like your heritage garden principles. Saving seeds and other means of propagating heritage plans will keep gene stocks for future generations. "Underground" gardening makes sense to me.
The "underground" gardening appeals to me, but most of the time I try to make do with what I find. But do I read from this that Monsanto cum suis are already threatening small gardeners?
Yes, Monsanto wants to own patents on all seeds, thus putting the price of seed out of reach for small farmers. Monsanto wants to use chemicals that kill living organisms in the soil, thus creating different problems beyond the ability of small farmers to correct because of costs. Monsanto wants to kill home gardens because it takes away consumers from the big store green grocer.
Not a very pretty picture. Suble thefts not noticed by consumers and even by small farmers until they are forced out of business and have to sell the farm.
Chris, Joan is right. In the larger market system, we are reaching a point of near monopoly, by Monsanto especially but a few others as well. Those organizations use whatever means they can to bully, harass, the little guy out of business. It's not just about making a better product, or having a better system, it's about eliminating the competition.
This map illustrates some of the challenges. from organicconsumers.org From that article: " Let's say you go to a popular online seed retailer and get some Burpee Hybrid II cucumber seeds. Those seeds are actually produced by Seminis/Monsanto. To see if any of your favorite vegetable seeds are produced by Seminis, go to the following link: us.seminis.com/products/hg_products.asp You may also be buying seeds from Rogers (originally bought by Sandoz), a company now owned by the Swiss multinational Syngenta, a pesticide and herbicide manufacturer also involved with GMOs. "
So even when you think you are buying from an independent company, the seeds may be produced by a subsidiary of Monsanto.
Another good article "In 2005, Monsanto grabbed 40% of the U.S. seed market and 20% of the global seed market when it bought out Seminis, making them the largest seed company in the world—supplying the genetics for 55% of the lettuce on U.S. supermarket shelves, 75% of the tomatoes, and 85% of the peppers, with strong holdings in beans, cucumbers, squash, melons, broccoli, cabbage, spinach and peas!
ABout.com article on how the gardener can avoid supporting Monsanto. Uh oh. Some of my favorite tomato varieties, Better Boy, Lemon Boy. I have some old seeds of those I might grow, but in the future will not buy them.
Thanks for the info! I knew what Monsanto cs does to farmers, but I never dreamed that they have gone this far!
I've been very confused by the meanings of heritage, heirloom, and historic varieties. Thanks for clearing it up for me Sentient. I like your beautiful illustrations also.
I especially like that they have better flavor and different flavors for different tastes.
I'm now going to start looking for Heritage/Heirloom/Historic plants. Are they always or usually labeled as such?
Not wanting to mislead... Here is one discussion of how old varieties are labeled. After reading through it, I still cant tell the difference. I think most of the time, most of the terms are interchangeable.
For seed sources, there are a lot of good resources -
here are some on Treehugger.com
I've been thinking about ordering from Victory seeds but will review them all again before I choose. I'm especially interested in early or cool-tolerant okra. Possibly an impossible dream.
Thanks Sentient. I'll check those sources out in the morning when my brain is working.
I did take a quick look at a couple and saw that Victory Seeds sells a Heritage variety of Moon and Stars watermelon that average 10 pounds, as opposed to the ones I tried this year that were 30-50 pounds. I'm tempted to try the 10 pounders next year. They're still supposed to take 95 days, but what the hey. Fun trying anyway. Especially since I got a 50 pounder this year with less than ideal conditions.
My brain is not working well now either!
I also thought about Burpee for some Okra, but I bet the seeds I wanted are Monsanto. Dammit.
Daniel, Excellent article, "Confusion: Are They Heirloom, Heritage, Antique, Vintage, or Historic Plants?"
Are you familiar with "Wild Garden Seed - www.wildgardenseed.com" in Oregon?