Tricks for Finding Heirloom Seeds

Seven strategies to find heirloom vegetable seeds and save heirloom vegetables.

| March/April 2010

Heirloom plants play an invaluable role in our history – and in spite of the fact that many are lost each year, these varieties may well be the key to our future. Below are some tricks for finding heirloom seeds for both fruits and vegetables. Imagine never having the choice to savor the guava-like flavor of a Roxbury Russett, one of America’s oldest apples. Or imagine a world where the only sweet corn available is the super sweet hybrid developed for the global food system. Plant genetic riches are lost with each heirloom’s extinction, but, science aside, when it comes to the garden and orchard, diversity greatly enhances the interest, intrigue and flavor.

Many heirlooms are but a phone call away at your local seed house; many more are available in abandoned orchards and gardens, or in the hands of heirloom enthusiasts everywhere. If you are looking to grow something old and really unusual, you might even need to do a bit of detective work on your own. 

Apple archivist

John Bunker, an apple historian, never has enough variety in his apple orchard. A Fedco Seed Co. procurer in Maine and Massachusetts, Bunker often has five to 10 different apples grafted onto one tree.

In the 1970s, Bunker collected apples for cider from forgotten orchards in central Maine. Then one day, a local farmer brought into Bunker’s local food co-op a dark-purple Maine apple called a Black Oxford. Bunker was intrigued. He wanted to find other apple varieties that originated in Maine.

“I couldn’t help getting sucked into what amounted to an endless treasure hunt,” Bunker says.

Maine is a big state with many orchards, so Bunker needed to enlist others to help him look. Taking a cue from the FBI, he created “Wanted” posters of the heirloom apples he was seeking, complete with artist’s sketches and descriptions. He distributed the posters at festivals and events.

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