The first time I learned about heirloom seeds and plants was about a year ago. Up until that time, I had purchased all of my seeds and plants from local hardware, home, and big box stores. For the most part, I’d experienced good success with germination, growth, and production rates – I really had nothing to complain about.
One of my favorite flowers to grow were sweet peas. ( Now, you have to know what a fan I am of sweet pea flowers – I love them! – especially the old spice mix. They bloom in a variety of colors – white, pink, red, purple, maroon… – some are even bi-colored, like the ones in the lower right side of the picture that are deep purple and blue, and they smell like nothing else!)
The first year I planted them, they came up like the ones in the photo: with all of their beautiful colors and magnificent fragrance. What a joy it was to sit out in my garden, gazing at their splendor and taking in their perfumy scent. I truly enjoyed them all season long!
As spring came to a close, and the hotter days of summer took over, they began to look a little scraggly and dried out. However, I let them remain in the ground a while longer in the hopes that they would drop their seeds and produce the same, multicolored, sweet-scented clones the following year.
Well, you can imagine my surprise, the following spring, when I noticed that the next generation plants were blooming in only a single color. Oh, there were variant shades of purple but no other, distinct colors. What had happened to the pinks, whites, blues, and reds? Furthermore, where was the wondrous fragrance? It hadn’t completely waned, but it definitely wasn’t as noticeable as it had been the year before.
“What happened?” I wondered.
Knowing something about genetics, I made a simple deduction (and I mean sim-ple!) – that only the seeds with the purple genes had been strong enough to survive the winter, and it was just too bad that the “dominant fragrance” gene hadn’t been passed down along with it (shows how much I knew about hybrids and GMO’s).
“Oh well”, I thought. “I like the color purple, and I guess I won’t miss the smell that much.”
“I can live with these”, I rationalized.
At least they were free – and I liked free! So, I was considerably tolerant of the single-colored, weakly-fragrant annual’s return to my springtime garden each year. That is, until the day I learned about hybrids and GMO’s.
I happened to be doing an internet search on organic gardening one day, about a year ago, and came across a most extraordinary and magnificent website: Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds – a company offering the largest selection of heirloom varieties in the United States. It was my first introduction to the common vocabulary of heirloom growers, words like: “open-pollinated”,” hybrid”, “GMO”, “treated” and “certified organic”. I quickly learned about companies, like Mansanto (who is currently facing a class action lawsuit, regarding their genetically modified seeds) and organizations like the American Seed Trade Organization, who promote hybrid and genetically altered food and seed. It opened the door to a whole new realm of gardening for me.
While I don’t have time, here, to go into all of the commotion about heirlooms, GMO’s, hybrids, and the like (look for a post in the future, though), suffice it to say that I now have the answer to what happened to my favorite old-fashioned sweet peas. I was partly correct in assuming that the problem lie in the DNA of the daughter plants. According to Bountiful Gardens, “the plants you get when you buy hybrid seeds (seeds from the first generation of a cross between two related varieties) are very uniform and predictable… however, the next generation of plants won’t be so predictable because it is not a stabilized variety. Hybrids are like mutts, whose puppies might all be different.” Aha! Now I know what you’re talking about. I’ve always had mutts for pets and it’s true: you simply cannot predict what the pups are going to look like – it all depends on how their DNA is arranged. With a variety of genetic information available, chances are, none of the younglings is going to look exactly like its parent. Hybrid plants are no different in that sense. And, although there is nothing wrong or bad about how they are made, it is impossible for the gardener to predict what future generations of the parent plant will look, smell, taste, grow, etc. like. In my case, since my sweet pea seeds were hybrids, if I’d wanted to get the same color and smell of the parent plants back, I would have had to have bought an entirely new packet of seed for planting in the following season. So, with hybrid seeds, if you want to keep the original characteristics of a plant you love, you pretty much have to plant only first generation seeds (making you dependent on the seed companies, like Monsanto, who develop the seed).
Not so with heirloom seed, however, which allows gardeners to save their own seed and produce future generation plants that are very much alike their parent plant. In the plant world, heirloom, open-pollinated seed, are like “poodles”, according to Bountiful Gardens. As Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis puts it, “when one breeds poodles with poodles …only poodles will be produced… a poodle is the end of the line for a dog—there is not enough variety left for anything different to develop.” According to Bountiful Gardens, heirloom seeds have been around for a long time – at least 50 years. “Their seed has been stabilized”. So, as they explain, “every time you plant that kind of seed, the plants give similar results” with only “slight variations”.
Baker Creek carries seeds that date back to the 19th century and from all over the world. I love reading about the history of these seeds. It’s incredible to know that the fruits and vegetables growing in my garden may have also grown in Thomas Jefferson’s garden at Monticello, in someone’s back yard in the former Soviet Union, or in a farmer’s plot in Iraq.
While I am new at seed saving and am learning that there’s quite a bit more to it than just letting a plant go to seed at the end of the season and collecting the little kernels, I am hopeful that by using heirloom, open-pollinated seeds now, I will be able to grow next generation plants that are (close to) identical images of their parents.
I’m certainly looking forward to this coming spring, when the old spice mix of sweet peas return to my garden, where I planted an heirloom variety last year. I’m expecting to, once again, enjoy relaxing in my chair while I take in the sweet and spicy scent of the vibrantly colored blooms that mimic the petals of a plant whose origin dates back to 1901, and daydream about what kind of garden they must have grown up in and what a wonderful woman it surely must have been who took great care in preserving them.