The term “heirloom” has increased in popularity in recent years, but what exactly does it mean? “Heirloom” describes a seed’s heritage, specifically a documented heritage of being passed down from generation to generation within a family or community. An heirloom variety of vegetable, fruit, or flower must be open-pollinated—or pollinated by insects, birds, wind, or other natural means—and “breed true,” or retain its original traits from one generation to the next.
While some organizations label seeds as heirloom according to dates—for example, a variety that dates back more than five decades—Seed Savers Exchange identifies heirlooms by verifying and documenting the generational history of preserving and passing on the seed, emphasizing the seed’s tie to a specific group of people. (Varieties introduced to the U.S. seed trade before 1950, meanwhile, are labeled as “historic” at Seed Savers Exchange.)
Though often also organic, heirloom seeds do not have to be. In many cases, heirloom plants do meet the guidelines of the USDA’s National Organic Program because they are typically grown by small-scale gardeners who have adopted organic farming practices.
Heirloom seeds constitute a critical part of the nation’s agricultural heritage and help ensure genetic diversity of plant species. Founded in 1975, Seed Savers Exchange helped pioneer the heirloom seed movement and continues its work to preserve, circulate, and sell rare and heirloom seeds to this day. You'll find hundreds of heirloom seed varieties in our seed catalog and online store.
Read more about the seeds we sell in our catalog.