Heirlooms: Discover the Wealth of our Collective Plant Heritage

Occidental Arts & Ecology Heirloom Seeds in palms of many hands

By Doug Gosling, Manager of the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center Nursery

Did you know that, thanks to the incredible diversity of heirloom plants cultivated by our ancestors, humans can grow all of the food and medicine that we need to survive?

The term “heirloom” is a nonscientific term that refers to any variety or crop that has been around for at least fifty years. Most heirlooms are open-pollinated, which means they grow true to type when sown from seed generation after generation. This does not happen with genetically modified and hybrid varieties. Sadly, the age of industrial agriculture has meant the loss of much of the genetic diversity of plant species and varieties. Since the beginning of the 20th century, we have lost about 97% of the varieties known in the Western world.

However, at the OAEC Nursery, we have seen that when people get to known heirloom varieties, they fall in love with them. We have seen that protecting biodiversity takes reintroducing the beauty and value of rare plants into the culture. This is why the goal of the OAEC Nursery is to educate visitors about the incredible array of plants from around the world—particularly food crops—that are available to us, and to encourage gardeners to understand the importance of preserving biodiversity through the sowing and planting of heirloom varieties. We hope to promote cross-cultural understanding by introducing crops that have been important and valuable to peoples throughout the world and throughout history. We also aim to promote regional food security by offering hundreds of perennial food crops and culinary herbs that thrive in the Bay Area.

Occidental Glass Gem CornMany of the heirloom varieties that we offer come with interesting stories. One of our favorites is that of Glass Gem Corn, an incredibly beautiful and colorful popcorn developed by a Cherokee man who started growing and selecting traditional varieties of corn as a way of connecting to his heritage. Another is a tomato variety called Ailsa Craig, which was brought to this country from the British Isles by the English gardener and teacher Alan Chadwick in the late ‘60s. Being a Scottish tomato, it is one of the best cool climate varieties out there, ripening beautifully our climate!

We would love for you to come get to know the plants at the OAEC Nursery in 2016 through our seasonal Plant Sales (Spring: Apr. 2-3 & 9-10; Summer: Apr. 23-24 & Apr. 30-May 1; Fall: Aug. 20-21 & 27-28) and Perennials Weekends (Summer Weekends: May 14 – Jun. 19; Fall Weekends: Sep. 10 – Oct. 30).

As one of the few nurseries in the Bay Area that is completely California Certified Organic, we are passionate about providing organic heirloom and open-pollinated perennial food crops, medicinal and culinary herbs as well as ornamental plantings to our wider Bay Area community. All of our plants have been started from seed on site, many collected from OAEC’s 40-year-old Mother Garden (which you can tour on many Sundays to see mature plants from our nursery thriving in place). We guarantee a high quality of attentive care and health from inception to point of sale.


Our nursery events give us the opportunity to share our experiences with the heirloom, open-pollinated and often rare plants we nurture and offer to Bay Area gardeners and landscapers. We look forward to seeing you at the OAEC Nursery this year to tell you their stories!

For inventory lists and more information, visit our website at OAEC.org/nursery.

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