Dr. Paul Francis

Raising chickens, beef, and other farm animals and homegrown herbs, flowers, fruits and vegetables, particularly heirloom plants, is seeing a resurgence, a University of Arkansas-Monticello professor of Agriculture told Southeast Arkansas TEA Party members and guests at a recent TEA Party meeting in Monticello.

Dr. Paul Francis, the guest speaker at the group’s February meeting, gave a presentation about heirloom plants with emphasis on the research being done with heirloom tomatoes at the UAM School of Agriculture.

Experimenting with heirloom plants began years ago because the sources for other plants were disappearing, according to Francis. “Seed markets were vanishing,” he said. “Now there is a big demand for heirloom plants and seeds, especially tomatoes.”

Francis listed the three traits of heirloom plants: age, open-pollination, and quality or uniqueness. “Some people believe that heirlooms must be 100 years old, but plant varieties that date before 1945, when hybrids first appeared, can be considered heirlooms,” said Francis, adding that he believes any plant variety that has been around for 50 years can be considered an heirloom.

Open-pollination means the plants have not been cross-pollinated with any others; and the uniqueness trait means just that. The fruit of these plants is different from any others, he said.

There are many reasons for growing heirloom plants, including unique flavors, colors or aromas; the historic or nostalgic nature of heirloom plants; the saving of one’s own seeds for the next growing season is economical, and swapping or sharing with others is often a social event. Heirloom plants preserve genetic diversity; and finally, discoveries are made of “new” old varieties of plants that “Grandpa” grew but were never introduced.

“Heirloom plants are all natural plants with pure genetics,” said Francis, who mentioned the “Doomsday Project” in Iceland where seeds are stored in vaults to ensure that if ever a disaster occurs on earth, there will be pure, genetically unaltered seeds to replace the plants that were destroyed.

Seeds can be stored indefinitely in a freezer as long as the temperature and the relative humidity equal 50 degrees or less. “Fifty degrees is the magic number,” Francis said. “Cold preserves. Heat and humidity are the enemies of seeds. If you store seeds in your hot garage, they will not keep well. Even if they do germinate, the plants will lack vigor and will not produce well.”

Many places sell heirloom seeds. Locally they can be found at Atwoods, Wal Mart, Fred’s, and the Drew County Farmers’ Cooperative. All sell some heirloom seeds.They can also be found at some farmers’ markets, festivals, heirloom seed specialty dealers, seed swap meets, and many other sources.

When planting heirloom seeds, Francis cautions growers to take care because if another variety of the plant is planted nearby, cross-pollination may occur.

“Tomatoes, squashes, gourds and watermelons are among those plants which will easily cross-pollinate if care is not taken to prevent it. Gardeners can plant similar varieties far apart or can stagger the planting of seeds so that the plants bloom at different times to prevent cross-pollination. Otherwise, the seeds produced by these cross-pollinated plants will no longer be genetically pure heirlooms.” he said. “Besides variety purity, other problems gardeners may encounter are susceptibility to diseases, garden insect pests and animal pests to name a few.”

When speaking of the heirloom tomato project at UAM, Francis listed numerous varieties, the pros and cons of growing each, the histories of the origins of each tomato variety, and the technique for saving seeds from tomatoes.

“The steps for saving seeds are relatively easy,” he said. “First, scoop the pulp from the tomato with a spoon and put the pulp into a Styrofoam bowl and cover it with a coffee filter. Allow the pulp to ferment for several days till it is ‘smelly and scummy’. Scoop the scum off and rinse the seeds in a sieve. Dry the cleaned seeds on a plastic coated paper plate — not on a paper towel or newspaper because they will stick to it. When the seeds are completely dry, separate any that may be stuck together, put into a suitable container such as a glass jar with a lid on it, label the variety of seed and freeze till time to plant them.”

During his presentation, Francis gave the group a great deal of practical information about growing, saving and storing heirloom seeds; especially tomato seeds. There are many heirloom varieties available to gardeners.

“If you like a variety of vegetable, grow it yourself and save the seeds,” he said.

[Story and photo courtesy of Linda Davis, a member of the Southeast Arkansas TEA Party]