Heirloom Vegetables and Fruits

Cathy Olson
Adams County Master Gardener in Training

The Brandywine tomato is one of the most popular heirloom vegetables in our area

People in every generation must decide what they will preserve for those who follow. Some hope to leave fortunes, homes, or works of art, freedom or religious faith. Today, growing numbers of us are trying simply to save the other living things that populate our planet; we want our children to know whooping cranes, blue whales, Esopus Spitzenburg apples and Hopi blue corn.

Apples? Corn? How did they get on the endangered list? We see apples in every market and corn in most home gardens. Yet these two varieties, prized one hundred years ago for their fine flavor, have come close to extinction. They have been rescued and preserved as heirlooms, but hundreds of other old fruit and vegetable varieties have quietly disappeared.

Why should we mourn the passing of these old varieties? Mainly, to preserve choices. The essence of freedom is the opportunity to choose among alternatives. By keeping heirloom fruit and vegetable varieties alive, we preserve choices in food. Many of the old varieties were extraordinary. Red Narragansett corn was popular in the 1860s because it matured extra early and its reddish kernels were particularly tender. Alma Gem melon was so delicious that it brought prosperity to the entire town of Alma, Illinois. Mr. Topp tomato produced fruit even in the coldest seasons. However, despite their unique qualities, these varieties and countless others like them have disappeared.

The Seed Savers Exchange was founded to blow the whistle on these losses and encourage gardeners to save the seed each year of their best, open pollinated plants for planting the next year. People who ask why we need more than a few variety of beans or corn might as well wonder why we need more than one book per subject in a library. Each heirloom variety has individual characteristics. One grows in clay, another in sand. One tolerates drought, another does best in humid conditions. One keeps well, another is resistant to disease.

Selecting one’s best plants for seed had been largely intuitive for centuries (the Incas "bred" plump tomatoes, Middle Eastern gardeners chose the fattest carrot roots and Chinese farmers in the 11th century shortened the growing season of rice from 180 to 100 days) but the practice received scientific validation from Charles Darwin's theories of natural selection. As a result, 19th century plant breeders began selecting not only to enhance crops but to alter them. The sugar content of the sugar beet, for example, was tripled through their efforts.

Enter the age of hybrids. Instead of open pollination with plants naturally reproducing themselves, the breeders hand-pollinated each flower, using the pollen of the same plant producing large quantities of plants that were genetically identical, then crossing these reliably re-produceable plants with others that would show hybrid vigor. Fortunately for the breeders (unfortunately for the seed savers) these new hybrids were usually sterile so had to be purchased each year from the breeder.

Most farmers were willing to do that because the new hybrid crop seeds produced so much more food on less land than before. During the first 50 years of the 20th century, hundreds of old, open-pollinated varieties were dropped in the rush to buy hybrids. The gains in productivity made the United States the best fed country in the world with enough extra to sell or share with others. Yet the very success of the plant breeders led to dangers: the mass planting of new crops that are genetically identical is an invitation to an epidemic. A disease or insect that attacks one plant attacks them all. This fact was tragically illustrated by the Irish potato famine of 1848. The Irish grew a single strain of potato, the Lumper, and a new blight wiped out the entire crop.

Another item to consider in abandoning varieties is this: most plant breeding today is done for the benefit of commercial growers, not home gardeners, and the concerns of the two groups are often at odds. Uniformity, the goal of the big guys, is often a nuisance for home gardeners. Commercial growers want everything to ripen at the same time for uniform, one-time-through harvesting. Home gardeners would like their beans to ripen gradually so they can pick just enough for dinner every other day. Commercial growers want uniformly sized vegetables for easy processing. Home growers want tomatoes in several sizes, for sandwich slices, salad wedges, for stuffing or sauce. Commercial growers like tough-skinned vegetables that ship well. Home growers are perfectly willing to baby their veggies on the trip between garden and kitchen.

Fortunately planting heirloom vegetables has become easy for anyone interested, as there are seed companies who specialize in these varieties. Some examples, in no particular order of preference ,are: Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, www.rareseeds.com. They offer 1300 varieties of vegetables, flowers and herbs. "About Our Seeds: All of our seed is non-hybrid, non-GMO, non-treated and non-patented. We do not buy seed from Monsanto-owned Seminis. We boycott all gene-altering companies." Comstock Seeds www.comstockferre.com. They have been in business in Connecticut since 1838, with over 250 heirloom varieties that have been in their catalog for more than 50 years. "All of our seed is non-patented, non-hybridized, non-GMO and untreated." Territorial Seed Company, www.territorialseed.com. In their 32 years of selling seeds, "the original purpose of the company has never changed: The home gardeners' needs are always in the forefront of our minds. It is more important to us how a variety tastes than how it looks. Gardeners want varieties that have high vitamin content rather than being durable to ship across the country."

There are many regional seed companies that specialize in heirloom seeds that grow well in, for example, the Northwest, the South, etc. After all, plants that have acclimatized themselves to your area, without chemical fertilizers, using local manure, are the plants that should do well in your garden.

An excellent source of information for all aspects of growing old and rare varieties of vegetables and fruits is Carolyn Jabs' book, "The Heirloom Gardener," Sierra Club Books, 1984

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