The seeds are what make an heirloom tomato an heirloom tomato. They are passed down from season to season, taken by the farmers from the tomato plants that produced the best fruit. The seeds are open-pollinated, meaning they rely on pollination from insects or the wind. Usually, heirloom plants are grown using traditional techniques and are raised from seeds that are at least fifty years old, but many are hundreds, and a few are thousands of years old. This means that they have either never been hybridized by man, or the variety has been known, unchanged, for at least fifty years.
Why should we care how old a plant is, or whether or not man has hybridized it? Besides, say the pleasure of eating something that’s exactly the same as our ancestors ate a sort of epicurean visit to the past? There are a number of very important reasons, for ourselves for our children, and for our planet:
Heirloom plants are the opposite of GMO (genetically modified organisms) plants. They are from a “wild” stock, which means they naturally adapted to the living conditions where they grow. They did not need pesticides, hormones, chemically induced resistance to insects or the weather in fact, no interference or “help” from a man in any way. GMO plants have been artificially modified by man to become, in some way or other, more efficient, and therefore more profitable, for the person selling the food.
An heirloom vegetable, flower, or herb is completely free of any artificial modification, adapted naturally to its environment, and pure creation of nature. This makes it easier to grow in that environment, hardier, with natural disease and insect resistance, able to reproduce naturally, there are no sterile heirlooms and usually, because it needs no extra care or chemicals, cheaper and more fruitful. It is also part of a naturally occurring ecosystem, think strawberries in the forest.
Most of the vegetables, herbs, grains, and cut flowers we consume or use are grown commercially. If they are not GMO plants, they are almost always hybrids.
Hybrids are plants selected by man and artificially crossed under controlled, not natural conditions to produce desirable (for the person doing the hybridizing) traits. These traits, in flowers, is often longer-lasting blooms, or larger flowers. In herbs, it is usually larger sized and greater yield.
In vegetables, hybridizers seek disease and insect resistance, greater yield, and most importantly, the ability to travel and be stored with minimal spoilage.
What does this do to taste, texture, nutritional value, and esthetics? Let’s use the tomato as an example. It is widely used, well known, and grown all over the world. At the market, (not a farmer’s market, but a store) you might find three varieties.
Are they offered for their taste, their aroma, their suitability for eating raw or for cooking? No. Their primary value, to those selling them, is that they have thick skin (so they’ll travel well) slow to ripen (so they can be sold for a longer time) and uniformity (so people will get the same thing each time they buy).
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