A Clear Definition of Open-Pollinated & "Heirloom" Seeds

What is an Heirloom?

Multiple heirloom winter squash varieties, storing nicely through winter!

Multiple heirloom winter squash varieties, storing nicely through winter!

by Justin Huhn

If you ask ten people this question, you will likely get ten different answers. Heirloom is a powerful word that conjures up feeling and emotion, a sense of nostalgia, and perhaps a personal history or memories of prior generations.

In this article, I will explain open-pollination, and give you my definition for Heirloom, clearing up any remaining confusion around this popular term. 

Heirlooms have a name, a place, and a story

To me, an heirloom vegetable variety is one with a name, a place, and a story. I was first introduced to this definition by my friend and fellow seedsman, Bill McDorman, and it just stuck. This definition captures the feeling I get when I hear the word, heirloom.

Some say heirloom varieties are a minimum of 50 years old...that is, they have been stewarded, grown and selected for the same traits/qualities for at least 50 years.

In reality, varieties are always changing, especially with the influence of different climates, soil types, and intentions (or lack thereof) of the grower/seed saver. A true heirloom has a name that goes unchanged, a place where it hails from (and ideally is adapted to...eg: 'San Francisco Fog' tomato), and a story...

The story is really what makes an heirloom an heirloom. Who originated the variety? Why? What qualities made the variety special enough to give it a name and impel one to steward the variety for those qualities? What does it taste like? 


Modern definition of Heirloom: Open-Pollinated

Today, the term 'heirloom' has become synonymous with 'open-pollinated,' or 'non-hybrid.'

Open-pollinated varieties are grown and allowed to pollinate freely, by themselves, by insects or by wind, and in some cases by hand. Pollen may cross between many individuals of the same variety of any given species.

Seeds saved from open-pollinated plants (that have not cross pollinated with another variety of the same species) will produce plants "true to type," resembling the parents that produced the seed.  


A hybrid (or F1) is the result of an intentional cross of two distinct varieties of the same species.

Most of the time we see or hear the term heirloom, it is simply referring to the fact that the variety has not been hybridized. Heirlooms in this case do not necessarily have a consistent name, a place of origin or adaptation, or a story to be carried with the variety.


Heirlooms of Tomorrow

As seed savers, one of the most important things we can do is grow and save seeds with intention.

A major part of this intention lies in the development of resilient, dynamic varieties for future generations...varieties like those our ancestors gave to us.

The new heirlooms begin with your place, your story. Why are you saving seeds, and for whom? What characteristics are most important? What are your favorite varieties, and can they be improved for the next generations? 

These are the questions we must ask ourselves when we set out to grow and save seeds. Much of the genetic diversity of our food crops has been lost over the past 100 years...but not for good! Together, we can bring back a diverse, resilient, genetically-rich seed wealth to be passed on to our kids. 

Why are you saving seeds? Leave a comment below and let us know!