06/29/2012 03:11 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Heirloom Boom

"It all started with two seeds handed down to me -- Grandpa Ott's morning glory and the German pink tomato," remembers Diane Ott Whealy, who cofounded Seed Savers Exchange in 1975 as a way for a few passionate "mailbox friends" to swap seeds. 

Seed Savers has since blossomed into a 13,000-member nonprofit whose mission is to preserve and spread heirloom (nonhybrid, that is) vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers by exchanging and selling seeds.

Hybrids were all but commercially nonexistent until the 1930s, when companies started selling seeds that produced fruits and vegetables identical in color, form, and taste. The result was bland but good-looking produce. 

At Seed Savers' 890-acre Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa, experts tend to one of America's largest heirloom-seed collections, with more than 600 varieties for sale. The colorful selection includes the Chioggia beet, with its tie-dye-reminiscent red-and-white-ringed flesh, and the dragon carrot, imbued with a deep purple.

"These days, everyone talks about heirlooms because of their taste and variety," Ott Whealy says. "But the real story is about preserving our heritage for future generations." 

--Cynthia Elyce Rubin; photo: iStock/Redmal

Read more: 7 Quirky, Easy-to-Grow Fruit and Vegetables

This article originally appeared in Sierra magazine.