Celebrating Seed HeritageMonday Feb 16 2015
The third Monday in February is now officially a holiday in Nova Scotia: Heritage Day or Fête du patrimoine. Here at Hope Seeds, it seems fitting to take some time and reflect on what it means to be working with heritage seeds.
The words heritage and heirloom are often used interchangeably. Sometimes they're even mixed around with the term "open pollinated". In common use, open pollinated refers to seeds that aren't hybrids; that aren't patented; and they're varieties that you can save seeds from in your own backyard (while expecting that the next generation of plants will be quite similar to those that you saved the seeds from). Heritage or heirloom seeds are open-pollinated in this sense, but they also refer, historically, to some important markers in agricultural practices. In "Organic Seed Production and Saving: The Wisdom of Plant Heritage", Bryan Connolly explains how a plant will lodge (or fall over) if it grows too quickly, sending all of its energy upward without building a strong, healthy plant to support that growth. After World War II, the surplus of nitrogen leftover from bomb making, that went into fertilizer production, just wasn't suitable for early commercial crop varieties. So, new varieties were soon bred to take advantage of high nitrogen fertilizer. When people talk about heirloom or heritage varieties being 50-100 years old, they may be using that timeline to refer to plants which have "retained the ability to grow without intensive fertilizers" (Connolly 2011), varieties that existed prior to World War II.
Seeds of Diversity in Canada and the Organic Seed Alliance in the United States tend to share a similar, and possibly simpler definition. They generally define heirlooms as an open pollinated variety of seed that has been passed down from generation to generation, usually a long time family favourite. What I like about that definition is that it is action-oriented. It doesn't couch our thoughts in a time or place. It implies that growing seeds out from year to year is part of an adaptation of a variety. And it says that our heritage isn't just something that we look back fondly on. It is something that is a part of us, something that is passed on, that we are responsible for.
In the world of seeds, heritage can mean also mean collecting and telling stories. A seed can pass with it family memories or cultural significance. Take for example, Tribe's Tobique tomato. I know this tomato as one that was selected for cold hardiness and its “perfect” fruit. But there is something else wonderful about this variety too – and it is told through the story of a man named Fred Tribe who came across a tomato plant while canoeing on the Tobique River.
I wonder which varieties we will hold dear to us 50-100 years from now – what stories we will tell about the seeds we kept and planted and grew. And, which seeds we will continue to pass on from generation to generation, even when this generation of seed-savers passes on?
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