'Heirloom' vegetables have stood the taste of time
By Gordon Dritschilo
Staff Writer | July 09,2006
Those tomato plants longing for sunshine in your yard might have been put into the ground with your own two hands, but do you know where their parents came from?
You might not have given it any thought, but attention to a plant's lineage is becoming more and more popular among even casual gardeners as "heirloom" plants increase in popularity.
These older varieties evoke the gardens of yesteryear, before anyone bred a tomato the size of a basketball or oddities like Crayola-colored corn.
"More and more seed houses seem to be carrying heirlooms," said Gregg Banse of Montpelier, a gardener and owner of the Web site www.farm-garden.com. "Some of the larger ones seem to be catering to the heirloom market, which indicates they're growing in strength."
Heirlooms have become a selling point in food as well, with restaurants listing heirloom ingredients on their menus. A number of food writers strongly endorse heirloom tomatoes over the commercial hybrid strains found in most grocery stores.
"There are certainly folks who are most comfortable with old standbys" found in any supermarket or seed catalog, said Philip dcAckerman-Leist, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Green Mountain College who oversaw a project gathering heirloom vegetable seeds for the college farm. "For some, though, the old standbys are heirlooms."
The definition of "heirloom" isn't precise. Some growers seem to use the term to refer to any less-frequently cultivated strain of a flower, vegetable or fruit — although the term has also been applied to rare breeds of livestock. But most agree that an heirloom must be a long-existing strain. How long is also a matter of disagreement, with some saying 50 years and others saying 100.
Another definition calls plants grown before the end of World War II heirlooms, as a number of new hybrids were introduced in the postwar period.
Regardless of age, to qualify as an heirloom a plant must be "open pollinated," meaning pollinated naturally by birds, insects and wind. They tend to remain true to type, producing offspring with consistent characteristics from year to year.
This differentiates them from hybrid plants, generally created through manual pollination and often varying as to which of the crossed parent plants they resemble. Hybrids are also frequently sterile, unable to propagate from year to year.
While commercial fruit and vegetable hybrids are bred with an eye for transportability and long-term storage, many gardeners believe taste has been overlooked and that older strains give more flavorful product.
Banse — who said he is "between gardens" — has grown a number of heirloom plants in the past. Two that stood out were Indian pit potatoes and silver queen corn.
"Indian pit potatoes had a really nice texture that was great for grilling — far better than the varieties in the store," he said. "Silver queen is a good old standard corn. It has great flavor."
Ackerman-Leist said that roughly 70 percent of the crops grown at the college farm are heirloom strains, many gathered locally from other gardeners.
"We've been trading and swapping with various folks," he said. "We save tomato seeds, pepper seeds — the things that are easier."
Rutland County potato farmer Donald Heleba said about 20 of the 50 or so strains of potatoes he grows are heirlooms.
"The advantages are flavor, and some are adapted to our own growing conditions locally," he said.
Heleba said his best-seller is an heirloom — a yellow potato called the German butterball.
"It doesn't make any difference how you cook it — mashed, fried, boiled — it always comes out perfect," he said. "I've tried 14 varieties of yellow potatoes and that one always seems to hit the spot."
Ackerman-Leist said people like having a story to tell behind their vegetables as well.
"People feel like they're investing in culture and history when they're buying these," he said.
Banse said that heirlooms play an important role in sustainable agriculture by encouraging diversity in what's grown and sold, beyond the crop types normally available from commercial seed gardens.
However, Banse said gardening with heirlooms has a downside that neophytes need to beware. He said most heirlooms are adapted to local conditions and don't do well when removed from their home territory.
"We have heirlooms here in Vermont that do well in the cold northern climate," he said. "Try to put them in the heat of Texas and you won't get the same result."
Heirloom seedlings are available at many farmers markets, and there are companies that offer heirloom seeds, but Ackerman-Leist said seed saving is at the heart of this philosophy of gardening.
Growers collect, dry and store seeds from their plants for sprouting another year. And before long, they can be proudly tending a new crop of great-great-grandseedlings.
Contact Gordon Dritschilo at firstname.lastname@example.org.