Heirloom vegetables--those old, open-pollinated varieties that have stood the test of time--have become popular all over again, and for good reason. The best of them are among the finest vegetables ever known. They would be well worth growing for their mouth-watering flavors alone, but they also have other important qualities.
What draws many gardeners to heirlooms is flavor. They want a tomato that tastes like a real tomato, not a plastic one. They long for corn that tastes like it did when they were a kid. They search for a sweet, juicy muskmelon, and wonder why cantaloupes are crisp and dry. After trying varieties that look good on the pages of seed catalogs but just don't taste like much, they turn to heirlooms.
Another vital reason to maintain heirlooms is to keep their genetic traits for future use. When old varieties of food crops are not maintained, the gene pool grows smaller and smaller. This may lead to increased disease and pest problems.
The loss of genetic seed diversity facing us today may lead to a catastrophe far beyond our imagining. The Irish potato famine, which led to the death or displacement of two and a half million people in the 1840s, is an example of what can happen when farmers rely on only a few plant species as crop cornerstones.
One blight wiped out the single potato type that came from deep in the Andes mountains; it did not have the necessary resistance. If the Irish had planted different varieties of potatoes, one type would have most likely resisted the blight.
We can help save heirloom seeds by learning how to buy and save these genetically diverse jewels ourselves.