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Heirlooms, the Garden Treasury
This article is courtesy of Vegetarians in Paradise
By Zel and Reuben Allen

Vegetarians who treasure the moments spent in the vegetable garden can find even greater treasures with heirloom seeds that may be as old as their grandfather. Anyone who has lovingly tended the plants for that specially awaited day to pluck a ripe tomato or a squash off the vine can agree that homegrown heirloom vegetables have unmatchable richness of flavor, sweetness, and juiciness, but wait--it can get even better.

When you discover the many unique features of heirloom varieties, you'll surely be hooked. You'll find seeds that have a long history, a pedigree, so to speak. You may be growing purple string beans, tomatoes of unusual shapes and colors, little round white eggplants, and beans for drying and soup-making that your great grandmother might have grown in her garden.

Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, placed such high value on his garden, he sought out fruits and vegetables brought to America by explorers from all parts of Europe. Today, visitors to Jefferson's home in Monticello can see varieties of vegetable and flowers that Jefferson himself once grew. Some of the seeds planted at Monticello may be almost 200 years old, an awesome concept and a perfect example of treasured heirlooms. 

VegetablesEach year, in December and January, commercial seed companies sell attractive, relatively inexpensive seed packets to home gardeners through seed catalogs and garden shops. Anything from root vegetables and beans to eggplant, tomatoes, and okra are available. Though these catalogs are filled with appealing color photographs of your favorite vegetables, what they're selling are hybrid seeds, seeds that have actually been bred for the commercial grower.

Hybridized plants are the result of a cross between two varieties. For instance, two varieties of tomatoes are chosen because each has particular traits the grower wants to cultivate. When seeds are taken from the cross-pollinated tomato, these seeds will not be able to reproduce this crossed variety, but will revert back to one of the parents. Heirlooms, which are open-pollinated plants, on the other hand, reproduce themselves generation after generation.

Commercial growers who grow only hybridized crops risk the danger of a fungus or plant disease destroying their entire crop. It happened in the famous Irish potato famine in the 1840s where farmers were growing only one variety of potatoes. Disease destroyed their entire crop and millions of people died. Their variety of potato had no resistance to that particular disease, one of the pitfalls of hybridized vegetable crops. With the diversity of plant varieties offered by preserving heirlooms, many plants develop resistance to certain pests, preventing the total crop loss experienced in Ireland.

The commercial grower wants to breed fruits and vegetables that are uniform in size, ripen all at once, have the same color and shape, and that can be transported to market without spoilage. Invariably, it's the flavor that's lost. We've all purchased fruits and vegetables from the supermarket that tempted us with their bright colors and plump appearance but have too often given us that flavor let-down. The home gardener, too, may not always have success with these hybrid seeds and may feel discouraged.

Flavor is not the only feature lost with breeding hybrids. Thousands of varieties of unique vegetables and fruits have been lost to us. In the early 1900s nearly 7,000 varieties of apples existed in this country. Today, that number has shrunken to less than 1,000. Unfortunately, a similar pattern exists for most of our fruit and vegetable varieties.

Consider, instead, ferreting out companies that specialize in heirloom seeds. Many of these seeds are of varieties that are more than150 years old, such as lettuces with exotic names like Rouge d'Hiver and Little Gem. Some heirloom seeds come from other parts of the world and have enriched our table with such treats as exotic peppers from South America, Mache, a delicate variety of lettuce from Europe, or Pintong Long, bright purple, long thin eggplant from Taiwan.

Vegetables Preserving heirloom seeds gives people a sense of history and cultural heritage. By growing heirloom plants and saving the seeds, we can all participate in saving many varieties from extinction and preserving plants with special genetic traits. In becoming a seed saver of heirlooms, we can pass on the rich history with which many plants are endowed. If you can learn the origins of your seeds, pass this heritage on to your family members and share these seeds with other growers of heirlooms. In this way it is possible to save special varieties not commonly grown.

Today, many of us are concerned about the widespread practice of genetic engineering and the unknown consequences of genetically modified foods. Taking up heirloom gardening reassures us that we can enjoy vegetables and fruits that are pure, natural, unchanged, and in complete harmony with nature.

Heirloom seeds have special features that distinguish them from hybrid seeds:

  • The variety of seed should be able to reproduce itself. For example, one variety of tomato that has been saved for generation after generation of plantings will produce that same variety of tomato.
  • Antique seeds are always self-pollinated or open-pollinated and will produce plants with the same traits planting after planting, generation after generation. Hybrid seeds will not be able to reproduce plants with exactly the same traits.
  • The variety of seed must have been introduced at least 50 years ago, though some heirloom gardeners say they must be at least 100 years old. In recent years, however, varieties with shorter histories are considered heirloom because of their uniqueness.
  • The particular cultivar, or variety, must have a special history. Perhaps one can trace the plant's origins to a particular region of the country. Or, perhaps seeds have been saved by farming families who can recall that their great grandparents brought them from Europe.

Today there is a growing interest in preserving heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables along with their histories. Among the groups that have made special efforts to collect and save heirloom seeds are the Amish, the Mennonites, and Native Americans. There are seed companies devoted exclusively to saving and selling heirloom seeds and plants. Many universities are developing ecology departments that take a special interest in the preservation of heirloom seeds.

Tomatoes Many of us don't have the time or opportunity to grow our own heirloom vegetables, but we can make an effort to support those who do. In recent years, there are many small farmers who grow heirloom tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, and eggplants and bring them to the shoppers who frequent farmers' markets. What a delight to introduce the family to varieties of tomatoes with unique shapes and colors never seen in the supermarket! Unmatchable sweetness, fragrance, and juiciness are the outstanding features that beckon us to choose historical tomatoes over the hybrids. By seeking out these farmers and enjoying their treasures, you're helping to preserve old time varieties and encouraging farmers to sustain the tradition of the heirloom garden.

Heirloom Websites

There are a number of web sites devoted to heirloom gardening that may be useful in helping you get started. Here are a few:

"Heirloom Vegetables," Backyard Gardener

"A Delicious Inheritance," Healthwell Exchange

"Heirloom Vegetables," The Wisconsin Gardener (Wisconsin Public Television)

"The Heritage Garden: Heirloom Vegetables," Le Bep's Garden Magazine

"Nostalgia You Can Eat," Dave's Garden

"Green Bay's Heirloom Vegetable Archive," Cofrin Arboretum Center for Biodiversity

"Heirloom Vegetables," The Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service,

Shepherds Garden Seeds

Heirloom Seeds

Renee's Garden

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
P.O. Box 170
Earlysville, VA 22936
Over 500 varieties of open-pollinated heirloom plants including vegetables, flowers, herbs, garden supplies, and books.

Heirloom Books

Books on heirloom gardening are invaluable guides. Your local library may be a great resource to get you started. Here are just a few we can recommend:

Heirloom Gardens by Mimi Leubbermmann, Chronicle Books, 1997
Heirloom Vegetables by Benjamin Watson, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996
The Edible Heirloom Garden by Rosalind Creasy, Periplus Editions, 1999
The Heirloom Gardener by Carolyn Jabs, Sierra Club, 1984

Heirloom Organizations

Below is a list of organizations that are devoted to saving heirloom seeds. Some are seed banks only and focus on preserving seeds for their historical value. Others sell heirloom seeds to encourage gardeners to join in their efforts and offer opportunities for seed exchanges between members.

Abundant Life Seed Foundation
P.O. Box 772
Port Townsend, WA 98368
A nonprofit seed company that operates the World Seed Fund, a project devoted to sending seeds worldwide to community groups working to reduce hunger. They sell heirloom vegetable seeds, and carry seeds for herbs, flowers, trees, and shrubs. Catalog available for a nominal fee. Membership fee is about $30 and includes the catalog and periodic newsletters.

c/o Carl L. & Karen D. Barnes
Rt. 1, Box 32
Turpin, OK 73950
Saves and sells corn varieties including popcorn. Send a SASE for information and price list.

Eastern Native Seed Conservancy
CRESS Heirloom Seed Conservation Project

P.O. Box 451
Great Barrington, MA 01230
CRESS (Conservation and Regional exchange by Seed Savers) is a regional heirloom seed exchange for varieties acclimated to the Berkshire bioregion (western New England and eastern New York state). Some of their varieties are also adaptable to the Northeast. This is a membership organization with a fee of about $18 a year. Members can order seeds to grow at home and must return a portion of the saved seeds to CRESS.

Seeds of Diversity formerly Heritage Seed Program
P.O. Box 36, Station Q
Toronto, Ontario M4T 2L7 Canada
A living gene bank. A grassroots seed exchange dedicated to preserving heirloom and endangered varieties of vegetables, fruits, grains, herbs, and flowers. The program was started by the Canadian Organic Growers in 1984. An annual membership fee of about $18 allows members to receive the organization's seed listing magazine three times a year.

KUSA Research Foundation
P.O. Box 761
Ojai, CA 93023
KUSA is a nonprofit organization devoted to saving rare and endangered cereal crops. For a catalog send a SASE plus $2.

Landis Valley Museum Heirloom Seed Project
2451 Kissel Hill Road
Lancaster, PA 17601
A historical site that operates an heirloom seed program listing more than 100 heirloom varieties and their histories. For information send SASE plus $2.50.

Native Seeds/SEARCH
2509 North Campbell Avenue, #325
Tucson, AZ 85719
A nonprofit organization devoted to saving traditional crops of the U.S. Southwest and northern Mexico. Specializing in native beans, corn, melons, chilies, and vegetables. Annual membership is about $18. Seed catalogs available for a small fee. Write for information.

Old Sturbridge Village Museum Gift Shop
One Old Sturbridge Village Road
Sturbridge, MA 01566
A living museum featuring planted kitchen gardens overflowing with heirloom varieties grown in the mid-19th century. Send about $1 for a seed list.

Seed Savers Exchange
3076 North Winn Road
Decorah, IA 52101
The largest organization worldwide devoted to saving heirloom varieties of vegetables and fruits from extinction. Members return seeds and offer them to other members through their annual yearbook. Founded in 1975 this organization is an international clearinghouse for information on rare and heirloom vegetables. They publish Garden Seed Inventory, a catalog of catalogs, listing all open pollinated varieties available in U.S. and Canadian seed companies. They sell a limited number of heirloom seed packets to help support their work. Membership is about $20 annually in the U.S., slightly higher in Canada and overseas. One of their interesting projects has been to establish a plant collectors' network in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Seed Shares
P.O. Box 226
Earlysville, VA 22936
A gardener's seed bank that helps preserve rare, heirloom and unusual seed varieties, this organization is affiliated with the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Send SASE and about $1 for seed list.

The Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants
P.O. Box 316
Charlottesville, VA 22902-0316
Many people may not be aware that Thomas Jefferson was an avid gardener who devoted hours to collecting unique food plants from other parts of the world. At Monticello, his now historic home, visitors can appreciate the abundant gardens and can view many of the varieties he collected. For a small fee one can purchase a Jefferson Sampler that includes 10 varieties of flowers and vegetables that Thomas Jefferson grew himself. Seed lists available for a nominal fee.


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