Heirloom Plants - Growing a Piece of the Past

Betty Jakum
Adams County Master Gardener

Two weeks ago, an article appeared in this column that defined heirloom plants and discussed some of their appeal for todayís gardeners. Today we continue our look at heirlooms, highlighting some of the easy-to-grow ones and some of the places where heirloom seeds and plants can be purchased.

Some gardeners might be hesitant to grow heirloom plants because they are generally unfamiliar with them. It has been my experience that they are as easy or as difficult to grow as any other plants. Itís important to remember, however, that heirlooms have stood the test of time; so chances of successfully growing them are pretty good. Granted, sometimes heirloom flowers and vegetables are not as picture perfect as some hybrid varieties, but flavor is generally better, scent is more aromatic, variety is almost endless, and seeds can be saved for next yearís sowing.

Some of the easiest heirloom plants to grow are vegetables, including:

  • Kentucky Wonder Beans. Introduced in 1864, they are still offered by many seed companies. They were called "Wonder" because of their great flavor and size, up to 9 inches long.
  • Golden Bantam Corn. Not as sweet as some of todayís more sugary types, but historically interesting and good tasting. As the name implies, the plants are relatively small, growing only to five feet and ripening in mid-season.
  • Improved Long Green Cucumber. Offered for more than 125 years and still a good choice because of their good flavor, ease in growing, and abundance of 10-12 inch cucumbers. Picked young, theyíre good for pickling; left a little longer, they are good slicers.
  • Hubbard Squash. A winter squash thatís purportedly been around since the late 1700s, it has good-tasting flesh and stores well. It is becoming increasingly rare because many of todayís gardeners prefer small, earlier squash varieties.
  • Brandywine Tomato. Probably todayís most popular heirloom. Many believe it was introduced by the Amish. When picked at its peak of ripeness, it sets the standard for what a tomato should taste like.

Literally, thousands of heirloom varieties are available worldwide. An organization known as Seeds of Change offers over 600 distinct varieties of 100% organically grown seeds for the home gardener. Another good source is Seed Savers Exchange that saves and shares heirloom seeds throughout North America. It trials thousands of endangered vegetable varieties each year at its farm in Decorah, Iowa and offers some of the best for sale. In its 2006 catalog, Seed Savers offers 72 different heirloom tomatoes, 45 different peppers and 27 different lettuces, not to mention a large assortment of herb and flower choices that are seldom found elsewhere.

What tomato loverís interest wouldnít be peaked by heirloom varieties with names like Black Krim, Blondkopfchen (Little Blonde Girl), Bloody Butcher, Christmas Grapes, Druzba (a Bulgarian heirloom), Green Zebra, Hillbilly Potato Leaf, Nebraska Wedding, Mortgage Lifter, and a favorite of mine, Riesentraube, which translated means giant bunches of grapes. I have grown this variety, and thatís exactly what the clustered fruit looks like.

Names of heirloom flowers are equally as intriguing. One can buy Outhouse Hollyhock, Jobís Tears, Kiss-Me-Over-the-Garden-Gate, Grandpa Ottís Morning Glory, Moonflower, Cup and Saucer Vine, Queen-of-the Prairie, Dutchmanís Pipe, Love-in-a-Mist, and Pincushion Flower.

If all this talk of heirloom plants is getting you interested, I invite you to plant some in your garden this summer. Not only will they give you the joy of planting a "living piece of the past," but more importantly they will offer you the opportunity to contribute to a diverse plant population that will benefit generations to come. The more gardeners grow and preserve heirloom varieties, the larger the future genetic plant pool will be.

Planting heirlooms is something everyone can do to maintain genetic diversity, a quality so critical to plant survival. According to the United Nations Foods and Agriculture Organization, crop genetic resources are being lost on a global scale at the rate of one to two percent a year. The large commercial growers that provide most of Americanís supermarket foods tend to grow one or two varieties over many acres with the result that other varieties become lost. What happens, then, when a new insect or virus finds its way into this type of growing community? We have evidence of the results of such a situation in the Irish potato famine which occurred in the 1840s. At that time, Irish farmers grew only one variety of potato; and when the potato blight struck, it destroyed the entire potato crop, and millions of people starved. Letís not make the same mistake again and store all our "potatoes" in one basket. Plant some heirlooms today and preserve diversity for tomorrow.

If youíre interested in finding out more about heirloom plants, check out some of the following sources.

W. Atlee Burpee Company
300 Park Avenue
Warminster, PA 18974

Heirloom Seed Project
Landis Valley Museum
2451 Kissel Hill Road
Lancaster, PA 17601

Seed Savers Exchange
3076 North Winn Road
Decorah, Iowa 52101

Johnnyís Selected Seeds
955 Benton Avenue
Winslow, Maine 04910

Seeds of Change
P.O. Box 15700
Santa Fe, New Mexico 87506-5700

Select Seeds
180 Stickney Hill Road
Union, Connecticut 06076-4617

The Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants
P.O. Box 316
Charlottesville, Virginia 22902

A great website is The Heirloom Vegetable Gardenerís Assistant at www.halycon.com/tmend/heirloom.htm.

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