Treasured heirlooms: Old-time vegetables won’t win beauty contests

A generation or two ago, heirloom seeds were a bit of a mystery.

“Nobody knew what heirlooms were – a piece of jewelry from Grandma?” John Torgrimson says. “Now it has a certain panache.”

Torgrimson is the executive director of Seed Savers Exchange (, a nonprofit organization that over the past 35 years has helped create that panache by educating gardeners about heirlooms and preserving the heritage of hundreds of vegetables. Seeds from its collection have ended up in gardens around the world, whether sold directly to gardeners or to seed companies.

“I think we helped develop the heirloom concept for people,” he says. “More recently, with the whole food movement, you can’t watch a TV food channel show without some reference to heirlooms.”

But just what is an heirloom seed? Some definitions say the seed variety has to be 50 years old. Others ascribe “heirloom” to any seeds that have been handed down through a family. Heirlooms are also open-pollinated. As Chris McLaughlin explains in “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Heirloom Vegetables,” that means the seeds breed true: “Baby plants that come from the seeds of an open-pollinated plant will produce seedlings and fruit that resemble the parents.” That’s how they can get handed down generation to generation.

Why plant heirlooms?

They’re just cool. Enough said.

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Chicago Tribune
Published: Thursday, Jun. 9, 2011 – 1:00 am