Some gardeners and cooks of a different generation have shaken their heads at my enthusiasm over heirloom tomatoes and other vegetables. Not everyone thinks my Cherokee Purple tomatoes, with their color and texture variations, look quite right. Many consumers expect tomatoes to look a uniform hue of red-orange like they typically see in the grocery store. Even some canning enthusiasts old enough to be my parents tend to think the tomatoes should have certain uniform qualities. Many of them grew up in the golden age of the hybrid, when plant breeders tediously hand pollinated two strains to achieve popular characteristics.
I’m interested in what my grandparents and great grandparents would have grown in their gardens, before hybridized vegetables became the standard. Have you ever tried planting seeds from today’s grocery store tomatoes or melons? It doesn’t always work, does it? As North Carolina’s Sow True Seed explains about hybrids, “if you save the seed and plant them the following year, the next generation of plants will have unpredictable and wildly variable characteristics.”
Enter the brave new world of laboratory-based, genetically modified or transgenic foods and they’re altogether different from the hybrids we’ve become accustomed to. These new seeds are literally created with gene guns that shoot the genes of other things – that are not necessarily plants – into the plant’s genes. Sow True Seed’s primer says “GM organisms are created by inserting genetic material from one source – such as a bacteria, fungus, insect or animal – into another.” If you want more insight into this dramatic technique, search the term “tomato fish,” or see what latest GM food the Just Label It campaign is tracking at a grocery store near you.
GM seeds are considered patented and thus illegal for farmers and gardeners to save. Hybrid seeds are not reliable for saving. Which brings us back to those tomatoes that our ancestors may have been cultivating a century ago. Heirloom seeds, defined as being around as early as 1945, are a type of open-pollinated seed that we can save and replant over and over. Open-pollination is the way plants have always reproduced in nature, until humans started tampering with them. Agriculture Program Director Anne Hillson said of Sow True Seed‘s commitment to open-pollinated seed, “It’s really about making these varieties accessible to everyone.” Some of the characteristics considered strange by consumers today, like color variations, are part of what makes heirloom vegetables so special. And of course, they taste even better than they look. Our family really appreciated this year’s gift of heirloom seeds.