What is a heirloom?

Heirloom Vegetables: 6 Advantages Compared to Hybrids

In addition to ship-ability, breeders and commercial growers have been steadily pushing for higher and higher yields. “But for home gardeners, a little difference in yield isn’t a big deal,” DeVault says. And even though hybrids may often outyield heirlooms, it turns out we’re now paying a hidden cost for this emphasis on higher yields. Recent research has revealed that in many cases, newer vegetables and grains are significantly less nutritious than heirlooms. (For more details, see Industrial Farming is Giving Us Less Nutritious Food.)

3. Many gardeners prefer heirloom vegetables because they are open-pollinated, which means you can save your own seed to replant from year to year.

“Seeds saved from heirloom vegetables will produce plants that are true to type, unlike hybrid seeds. If you try to save seed from hybrids, you usually won’t get good results,” says Andrew Kaiser, manager at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

Also, with heirloom vegetables you can choose what works best in your garden. If you save seeds from heirloom vegetables over several years, you can gradually select seeds from the plants that perform best in your local soil and climate. This will give you a seed strain that is more resistant to local pests and diseases. Plants are much more adaptable than most of us realize.

“Take a nice, old variety that has a lot of redeeming qualities, and select what performs well in your garden,” DeVault says. “Save those seeds, and you can create your own locally adapted variety.”

Locally-adapted heirlooms also fly in the face of one of the major criticisms vintage veggies endure. Are they really less resistant to pests and diseases? Again, there is a discrepancy between what works commercially and what works on a home or small scale. One hundred and fifty acres of French heirloom melons growing in Texas might be devastated by an infestation or illness, but when you’re talking about small, diverse gardens and heirloom seeds that have been selected to grow well in that region, heirlooms may actually be a better choice. “Varieties that are localized tend to survive attacks by pests and disease quite well,” Kaiser says. When you select and save seeds from the most successful heirloom vegetables from your garden, the more reliable those vegetables will become year after year. Not only do you get a better, locally adapted strain of a variety when you save you own seed; you also save money because you don’t have to purchase new seeds every year, as is the case with hybrids.

4. The fourth advantage of heirloom vegetables is that they are “less uniform” than hybrids, which means they often don’t ripen all at once.

Commercial growers love the uniformity of hybrids because they can pick the crop in one fell swoop. But for home gardeners, a gradual supply of fresh produce is usually preferable to the glut of the all-at-once harvest that many hybrids provide.

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5. In catalogs and on seed racks, heirloom open-pollinated vegetables are almost always less expensive than hybrids.

On top of that, if you save your own seeds, the price drops to zero for the heirlooms. (For more on which varieties are the easiest to save, see Grow Your Own Seeds.)

6. Many heirlooms have wonderful stories of how they came to America.

In many cases, these heirloom vegetables have been grown for many centuries all around the world. What a great feeling — to be connected through tiny, magical seeds to so many other gardeners from so long ago!

Try Heirloom Vegetables in Your Backyard

To learn more about the history of heirloom vegetables and how to grow and cook with them, we highly recommend Heirloom Vegetable Gardening: A Master Gardener’s Guide to Planting, Seed Saving and Cultural History by MOTHER EARTH NEWS contributing editor William Woys Weaver, which is now available on CD. And for heirloom vegetable mail-order seed catalogs with huge selections and glorious photos, top choices include the free catalogs from Seed Savers Exchange and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

Creating an heirloom that is perfectly suited for your particular garden can take years of seed saving and planting out. If you want immediate gratification, you can do a little legwork before selecting the variety of heirlooms you want to use. Ask around. Are there farmers at the local market who always have heirloom tomatoes or other gorgeous and unusual products? Talk to them about the varieties and what their experiences have been over the last few growing seasons. Dig into your family or community tree to see if any of your elders can recall names of varieties that grew well in the region or were particularly memorable. You may stumble across a gardener still growing a family heirloom.

“A particular variety can stay in a family for many generations and have quite a history,” Kaiser says. “They can be passed down just like other heirlooms — like a grandfather clock.”

Visit our sister site Heirloom Gardener. Heirloom Gardener covers all aspects of growing and using historic fruit and vegetable cultivars, along with fiber, ornamental, and medicinal plants.

Amanda Kimble-Evans is a writer and editor specializing in organic gardening and farming. Growing up surrounded by small farms and large gardens in rural Pennsylvania, Amanda was raised to have a close relationship with the food on her plate — a relationship she continues to cultivate at home and through her work.

What Does “Heirloom” Mean?

Heirloom plant species are vegetables, flowers, and fruits grown from seeds that are passed down from generation to generation, says Barbara Richardson, horticulturist with the National Gardening Association. Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated, meaning they rely on natural pollination from insects or the wind.

Generally, heirloom plants are grown on a small scale using traditional techniques, and are raised from seeds that are at least 50 years old. Over time, growers save the seeds of their best plants—whether those are the most vigorous, disease resistant, flavorful, or beautiful. With unique shapes, sizes, and colors, heirloom plants often look different from commercial hybrids, which make up the bulk of supermarket fruits and vegetables. Unlike heirlooms, these hybrids are bred to produce uniform-looking and -tasting, high-yield crops at low cost. Most seeds from hybrids are sterile and cannot be passed down.

Heirlooms have become increasingly popular as organizations like Slow Food and Seed Savers Exchange continue to promote the genetic diversity of plant species. You’re likely to find heirloom tomatoes, melons, carrots, potatoes, and more at local farmers’ markets and many grocery stores.

But heirloom doesn’t just apply to plants; heirloom animals like turkeys—often referred to as heritage breeds—are prized for their flavor.

Got a Nagging Question of your own? Email us.

What Is An Heirloom

In antique stores, we’re drawn to old maple rockers, ornately carved oak mantelpieces or delicately hand-painted china not just because of their form or materials but for the sense of history that clings to them and the way they warm the imagination. They make us wonder about the hands that have held them and the people whose lives they have passed through.

That’s true of heirloom plant varieties too. To the gardeners who love them, it matters that ‘Mortgage Lifter’ tomato came from a man who bred his own tomato plants, selling enough of them to pay off his mortgage.

At estate sales, you encounter styles far beyond whatever is the standard fashion today. So, too, heirloom vegetables offer a spectacular range of flavors and shapes. They may be more tart or more sweet, green instead of supermarket red, long instead of the standard oval, ribbed or striped rather than smooth. Often they have a depth and complexity of flavor you would never find at the grocery store.

What is an “heirloom”? The definition is open to dispute. But the term is usually applied to fruit, flower or vegetables varieties that were being grown before World War II.

Back then, what we now call “organic gardening,” based on manure and mulch, was standard practice for home gardeners, who accepted risk and variation from weather and disease just as farmers had to.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, hybrids dominated the commercial vegetable market, and the older varieties became hard to find until a growing interest in cooking and food sparked a resurgence of the more flavorful heirlooms.

Heirloom varieties are open-pollinated–meaning that unlike hybrids, seeds you collect from one year will produce plants with most of the characteristics of the parent plant. And that’s key to their survival.
Many heirloom varieties were preserved by home gardeners who saved seed from their family gardens from year to year. Other seeds travelled around the world in the pockets or letters of immigrants, which is why, though the tomato evolved in Central America, we have varieties from Russia, Italy, Japan, France, Germany and Kentucky.

But many other heirlooms are commercially-bred varieties from the seed catalogs of the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Since W. Atlee Burpee & Co. was founded in 1876, the name “Burpee” turns up in many an heirloom vegetable catalog.

So if heirloom varieties are so wonderful, why aren’t all vegetables like that? Breeders didn’t just wipe out old varieties out of sheer perverseness. They developed hybrids for two main reasons: To make large-scale commercial production and distribution of vegetables easier and more profitable, and to make growing vegetables less labor-intensive and more sure-fire for home gardeners who may not have been as sure of their skills as their farmer ancestors.

Flavor may not have been the highest priority for 20th Century breeders, but they created hybrids with a number of useful qualities.

Disease resistance: Many vegetables are plagued by diseases that can wipe out a crop. Hybrids, especially tomatoes and corn, were bred that are resistant to a number of these diseases. When you see codes such as “VFF” or “VF1” in a seed catalog, they refer to diseases the variety was bred to fight off.

Higher yield: Many of the most flavorful heirlooms, such as the beloved ‘Brandywine’ tomato, don’t produce a whole lot of fruit. Hybrids were developed to produce much larger crops per plant.

Uniformity: Commercial growers quickly learned that fruits and vegetables that looked funny wouldn’t sell. Conformity was king. So hybrids were developed to have more consistent sizes, shapes and colors. Supermarket tomatoes all became red. Hybrids for the home garden came to reflect what consumers learned to expect at the supermarket.

Marketability: Fruits and vegetables that were all the same size to pack easily, didn’t bruise much and didn’t go bad quickly could be shipped longer distances. So hybrids made many fruits and vegetables available all over the country and often for many more months each year, even if they didn’t taste like their ancestors.

Hybrid vigor: First-generation hybrids tend to grow more vigorously and produce more than plants of a selected variety whose genes have been relatively isolated for generations. But the such hybrids can only be produced commercially, which means you have to buy new seed every year instead of saving it.

Timing: Determinate tomato hybrids–those that grow to a certain point, stop, and produce all their fruit at once–can be picked with big machines, rather than by workers who go out again and again to hand-pick whatever fruits are ripe. That greatly reduced the cost of canned tomatoes.

Today, breeders are trying to find the best of both worlds, crossing modern hybrids with older, more flavorful heirlooms to make old-style taste part of the equation along with disease resistance, consistency and higher yields. There are a number of hybrid versions of ‘Brandywine,’ for example.

These new hybrids are less risky, but they also aren’t open-pollinated, so you won’t get consistent results by saving the seed.

So should you choose heirlooms or hybrids? It’s a polarizing question.

Some gardeners believe strongly that the flavor of heirlooms is so superior that no growing season should be wasted on anything else. Others feel it’s their responsibility to grow heirlooms in order to preserve diversity in food crops so that we don’t lose valuable genetic variation we might need down the road. And some gardeners are determined to taste as many different flavors of tomato as they can in a lifetime.
But other gardeners are focused on results. They want what they’re used to. They place the highest priority on getting a lot of predictable tomatoes just when they expect them with as few problems as possible. For them, modern hybrids seem a better bet.
Fortunately, there’s plenty of middle ground. You can choose one dependable, disease-resistant hybrid variety as a fail-safe and take a greater chance on two or three heirlooms each year. Or you can add one of the new hybrids derived from popular heirlooms into the mix. If you’re growing tomatoes in containers, it might be wise to choose a dwarf, determinate hybrid variety.

A diversity of choices for the garden is as good a thing as diversity in the gene pool.

What is an heirloom plant? To put it simply, it’s an old variety that predates the hybrids being bred in the 1940s. Most heirlooms come from seed that has been handed down for generations in different regions. Below a list of different heirloom crops.

All heirloom vegetables are open-pollinated, which means they’re pollinated by insects or wind, not through human intervention. Sometimes heirlooms might look odd because they aren’t grown for uniform shape and size, but most heirlooms have unbeatable flavor.

Heirlooms include plants developed by seed companies and market gardeners in the past; beloved backyard mongrels that have emerged from home gardens and been carefully saved and passed along through families but that have never been in circulation as commercial varieties; and non-hybrid varieties that are coming into this country from Europe, South America, Southeast Asia, and Russia.

Heirlooms have endured because people cared enough about their flavor and/or their disease resistance or growing habit to keep planting them and saving their seeds from one season to the next. Unlike hybrids, bred to grow anywhere, ripen uniformly, ship well, and keep longer, heirlooms have maintained their intrinsic personalities.

Try growing a beautiful, authentic, American Heirloom Garden! Save the seeds and grow heritage varieties that are colorful, full of flavor, and can’t be bought at the store…

20 Heirloom Vegetables and Fruits

(Days to maturity are listed in parentheses.)

BEANS (POLE)
‘Kentucky Wonder’ (65)
‘Oregon Giant Snap’ (58)
‘Potomac’ (67)

BEETS
‘Bull’s Blood’ (55)
‘Chioggia’ (52)
‘Early Blood Turnip’ (60)

BROCCOLI
‘Calabrese’ (58)
‘De Cicco’ (49)

CANTALOUPE
‘Collective Farm Woman’ (80)
‘Jenny Lind’ (70)
‘Minnesota Midget’ (60)

CARROTS
‘Danvers Half Long’ (75)
‘Red Cored Chantenay’ (65)
‘Scarlet Nantes’ (65)
‘St. Valery’ (70)
‘Touchon’ (65)

CORN
‘Ashworth’ (69)
‘Golden Bantam’ (78)
‘Utah King’ (50)

CUCUMBERS
‘Bushy’ (46)
‘Double Yield’ (55)
‘Straight Eight’ (58)
‘White Wonder’ (58)

EGGPLANT
‘Diamond’ (65)
‘Ping Tung Long’ (65)

LETTUCE
any heirloom variety

PEAS
any heirloom variety

PEPPERS (HOT)
‘Black Hungarian’ (70)
‘Hot Lemon’ (70)
‘Hot Portugal’ (65)

PEPPERS (SWEET)
‘Bull Nose’ (58)
‘Healthy’ (70)
‘Klari Baby Cheese’ (65)

RADISHES
any heirloom variety

SPINACH
any heirloom variety

SQUASH (SUMMER)
‘Black Zucchini’ (45)
‘Nimba’ (45)
‘Yellow Crookneck’ (55)

SQUASH (WINTER)
‘Table Queen’ (60)
‘Waltham Butternut’ (85)

SWEET POTATOES
‘Carver’ (90)
‘Georgia Jet’ (90)
‘Ivis White Cream’ (90)
‘Jumbo’ (90)

WATERMELON
‘Blacktail Mountain’ (76)
‘Cream of Saskatchewan’ (80)
‘Sweet Siberian’ (80)

Enjoy this article about heirloom catalogs and pioneer seedswomen!

Some people collect charms. Some people collect comic books. I collect seeds.

Whether I need them or not, I can’t seem to stop myself. Sure, I already have 18 different varieties of tomato seeds, a dozen types of pepper seeds, and seeds for something called a “rat’s tail radish” in my refrigerator – and only a city lot on which to plant them. But when my favorite seed catalog appears every year, how can I pass up the chance to grow vegetables with names like “jaune dickfleischige” (cucumber), “lipstick” (pepper), “Ukranian beauty” (eggplant), or “Ruby Wallace’s old time white” (cucumber)? These are all heirloom varieties that are available thanks to the diligence of passionate seed collectors from all over the world.

Seed companies that specialize in heirloom varieties offer primarily open pollinated seeds – allowing growers to collect seeds for future planting – rather than the hybrid seeds more commonly found in nursery centers. Interest in heirloom seeds has surged in recent years due to concerns over genetically modified seeds. Whether you’re a first time gardener, as Ariane was last year, or an old hat, heirlooms offer us all a chance to grow some really unusual specimens.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

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Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

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Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

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Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

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Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

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Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

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Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

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Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

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Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

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Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

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Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

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The selections above are all from Baker Creed Heirloom Seeds, but they’re by no means the only option for unusual heirloom seeds. Others to try:

  • Johnny’s Selected Seeds
  • Seed Savers Exchange
  • Terroir Seeds
  • High Mowing Organic Seeds
  • Territorial Seeds

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There is an amazing variety of fruits and vegetables out there, yet, we seem to get in the groove of buying the same ones over and over again. Not only is this boring, but we are missing out on such a wide variety of other produce out there – and much of that tastes and looks fantastic.

Heirloom fruits and vegetables are one great way to get out of your comfort zone. Although the definition of these is loose, the term basically refers to an old cultivar of a fruit or vegetable that is maintained through open pollination. There are many of these different cultivars out there, often isolated to specific regions.

While heirlooms might be great options for gardeners who grow their own, the rest of us are out of luck, as these varieties rarely ever turn up at supermarkets. If you’re lucky, you might find some of them at farmer’s markets, but even that is rare. Nevertheless, as these 17 examples will show you, keeping an eye out for heirlooms is certainly worth the effort.

Heirloom Vegetables & Fruit

Watermelon Radish

Watermelon radishes are heirloom Chinese Daikon radishes. With green skin and a red/pink interior, it’s easy to see where these radishes got their name from. The flesh of the radish tends to be relatively mild, although it does have a slightly peppery taste. Like normal radishes, watermelon radishes can be used either cooked or raw, cold or hot. So, there are lots of options for using them.

Scallop Squash

This type of squash is also known as the pattypan squash, and both names come from the round and shallow shape of the squash along with its small size. The squash can be found in white, green or yellow varieties, which are similar in taste. One approach for using the squash is to scoop out the inside and mix them with herbs and spices before reinserting them. Once the flesh has been removed, the empty husk is also sometimes used as a dish to serve other foods in.

Pineberry

A pineberry is a much more unusual cultivar of the strawberry, although the popularity of this cultivar is growing. When the berry is completely ripe the flesh is almost entirely ripe, although the seeds remain red. Along with their unusual appearance, pineberries don’t taste like traditional strawberries. Instead, their taste resembles the taste of a pineapple. Despite increased interest in the berry, it is still hard to find, as it is not particularly profitable to grow.

Purple Daikon Radish

The purple daikon radish certainly stands out, especially as we don’t eat a whole lot of naturally purple foods. It is categorized as a winter radish and grows throughout the winter months. Not only does the vegetable survive the frost with ease, but it also grows well in frost conditions. Like most winter radishes, the purple daikon tends to be tougher and hardier than the typical radishes eaten in the summer. Yet, it is still a delicious and healthy addition to a winter meal.

Beef Tomato

The beef (or beefsteak) tomato is an unusual variety of cultivated tomato. In general, the tomatoes tend to be much larger than the more common varieties that you see in stores and their appearance is also much more unusual. Their size makes them a good choice for sandwiches and some other applications, but they are not commonly grown commercially. One of the key reasons for this is that the unusual shape and size of the tomato makes many mechanization processes more difficult.

Fire Beans

Also called tongue of fire beans, these heirloom beans are especially unique because of their appearance. When the pod is fully ripe it has a red-streaked appearance, which is probably what gives the variety of beans its names. In a similar way, the beans themselves are also mottled. Their flavor tends to be on the nutty side, and they are a particularly useful ingredient for stews and casseroles. The beans absorb the flavors that they are cooked with, which can make many dishes more unique.

Chinese Yam

One of the most interesting things about the Chinese yam is that you can eat it raw. This is unusual, because just about every other type of yam must be cooked prior to consumption. A common approach for using the yam is adding it to noodles, although it is sometimes also eaten plain as part of a side dish. Other uses of the vegetable include stir-frying slices of yam and including the yam in stews.

Amana Orange Tomato

The Amana orange tomato is another unusual member of the tomato family. The most unusual part of this variety is the orange color, although the rest of its visual appearance is similar to the beef tomato. The flesh itself tastes similar to a normal tomato, although it does contain both sweet and tart components. While the fruit is not often sold commercially, the seeds can be readily purchased, giving gardeners the option of growing their own.

Hopi Corn

Hopi corn is one example of the many different colored varieties of corn. This particular variety is frequently used in Central and Southern Mexican cuisine, including in a dish called tlacoyo. Likewise, the corn is also an important component of Hopi culture and is associated with a number of traditions. The corn is also used in the production of some more widely recognized products, such as blue corn chips.

White Carrot

image source: flickr

Traditionally, most of us consider carrots to be an orange vegetable (or root to be precise), but that isn’t always the case. Indeed, in Europe in historical times white carrots were the prominent type of carrot found. Although they might look similar, white carrots are not simply parsnips, and white carrots maintain many of the characteristic flavors of carrots. However, the flavor of white carrots does tend to be a little smoother, which can make them more desirable in some dishes.

Purple Artichoke

image source: flickr

The purple artichoke is another vegetable that defies our standard expectations of what color a given vegetable should be. This type of artichoke has a rich and nutty flavor. The variety is particularly popular because of the taste and also the appearance, as they work well in a range of dishes. In general, the purple artichoke can be treated like a regular in terms of preparation and cooking.

Banana Legs Tomato

image source: flickr

When ripe, banana legs tomatoes are bright yellow, long and narrow compared to many other tomato types. The appearance of this type the tomato alone makes it an interesting addition to salads. They also work well in ketchup, resulting in yellow ketchup that can be an interesting talking point. The taste of the tomato is relatively mild and it has a meaty texture. As with most items on this list, it is hard to find these tomatoes in stores, but there are many different sources for the seeds for those inclined to try and grow them.

Purple Majesty Potato

Like the other purple items on this list, the purple majesty potato isn’t artificially colored in any way. Instead, this is a potato variety that is deep purple inside and out. The potatoes have a sweet and buttery flavor, and can be used in the same way as any regular potato. They work particularly well in dishes where the color contrasts other ingredients, such as in potato salads or even just mashed potatoes. The rich color of the potatoes also means that they are high in natural flavonoids, which can help to improve health.

Peter Pepper

image source: flickr

Peter peppers are heirloom chili peppers and they are most well-known for their unusual shape. When they are ripe, they can be red, yellow, or shades in between. The pepper has a very high Scoville rating, which indicates that it is very spicy. Because of this, some people have argued that the pepper is best suited for ornamental use, rather than human consumption. Despite this, the pepper is sometimes used picked.

Red Celery

read more on: rareseeds.com

Red celery is a relatively new variety of celery and the biggest difference between this and regular celery is simply the coloration. Red celery was intentionally created through many generations of cross breading, with the aim of creating a celery variety with red coloration that retained both the flavor and the texture of normal celery.

Turkish Eggplant

image source: flickr

At first glance, these little beauties look more likely heirloom tomatoes than eggplants. Visually, the orange fruits have very little in common with standard eggplants. However, Turkish eggplants are just as versatile as regular eggplants and they even have a pretty similar interior. So, you can use Turkish eggplants in pretty much any application where you might use a normal eggplant. The eggplant can be used in the mature or immature stage of growth, and many people do use it when the fruits are immature and still green.

Vintage Wine Tomato

photo credit flickr

The vintage wine tomato has the unusual distinction of having a pastel shade, which is offset by golden stripes. The taste of the fruit is sweet and mild, which complements a wide range of different dishes. The tomatoes are also relatively large, which makes them work especially well when it comes to sandwiches.

Heirloom fruits and veggies are all the rage, and here’s why:

They taste as wonderful as they look!

Heirloom carrots are available in an array of nutritious and flavorful colors.

From green striped to crenelated yellow, they’re a feast for the eyes and the tummy.

Grown from seeds referred to as “rare,” these treasured varieties have been lovingly passed down from generation to generation, and harken back to days when we had many more types of produce. And more kinds meant more genetic diversity, which made plants stronger, better tasting, and healthier.

Sadly, many of us have become accustomed to produce like the pale, mealy-fleshed, flavorless tomatoes often available in grocery stores. If this is you, it’s time to try your hand at growing your own vegetables and be sure to include some rare seeds in the mix.

Stay with us as we explore the value of produce with a traceable heritage, and discover 11 yummy, old-time vegetables and fruits to grow at home.

Understanding Heirlooms (Plus Our Top Picks for the Garden!)

  • Something Old
  • Tried and True
  • Culinary Attributes
  • 11 Old-Time Fruits and Veggies to Love
    • Yellow Pear Tomato
    • Lolla Rossa Lettuce
    • Moon and Stars Watermelon
    • Henderson Lima Bean
    • Brandywine Pink Tomato
    • Rainbow Carrots
    • Big Jim Peppers
    • Blue Hubbard Squash
    • Purple Orach
    • Royal Burgundy Beans
    • Lemon Cucumber
  • A Proud Heritage

Something Old

Heirlooms are the direct and unadulterated descendants of old varieties that have been producing outstanding crops for generations.

Tomatoes like the ‘Brandywine Pink’ are one of the more popular varieties of heirlooms that have been making a comeback.

Each season, their seeds are harvested for use the next year. When people share seeds, they preserve a time-honored tradition and the genetic diversity that makes for the best crops. Seeds planted in home gardens acclimate to their surroundings and come up better each year.

The age requirement for a variety to be designated an heirloom is debatable. Some authorities say that a cultivar must have been introduced prior to the year 1951.

This is when plant breeders introduced the first hybrids. Conversely, rare seeds have a direct line of ancestry and are never genetically engineered. Many are hundreds of years old, with international origins.

Many are named for folks who grew large gardens or ran small grocery stores. Mrs. Elizabeth “Marm” Hubbard is the namesake for hubbard squash, a commonly cultivated variety. It was introduced to the American market by Massachusetts seedsman James J. H. Gregory some time during the late 1800s to early 1900s.

Unfortunately, as plant breeders developed new varieties that were perhaps more disease-resistant, or easier to transport to market, old-time varieties faced possible extinction. But thanks to the many gardeners who saved their seeds, and organizations like Seed Savers, these varieties are now flourishing at nurseries all over the world.

Tried and True

Collecting seeds, sharing them, and saving them for the next planting season is the essence of heirloom vegetable preservation.

In the past, this was necessary, as there were no nurseries from which to buy seeds. And, it ensured a crop of the same great tomatoes year after year!

The seeds harvested yearly from the preserved varieties of old reproduce “true,” meaning they grow into plants identical in every way to their parent plants, but stronger over time as they acclimate to a garden. This “true to seed” nature comes from open pollination.

Now, when we grow heirlooms in the garden, there’s always the possibility that they will cross pollinate with non-heirloom varieties nearby. Fostering open pollination and practicing good seed saving techniques are topics beyond the scope of this article, however, there is much scholarly research available for you to consult.

Culinary Attributes

Heirloom vegetables are some of the most beautiful and best tasting types of produce I’ve ever grown. They come in an array of both familiar and unusual colors, shapes, sizes, and textures, many you probably haven’t tried before.

And, unlike many modern hybrids that produce a single crop, heirlooms are likely to produce throughout the growing season, instead of saddling you with a huge harvest you can’t use fast enough.

Heirloom spinach-like red orach grows in the garden.

In addition to tomatoes, heirloom peppers are gaining in popularity, with varieties featuring a color palette ranging from an ethereal white to a deep purple that are as intriguing as they are delicious. And old-time beet varieties in luscious shades of red and gold are featuring prominently in the root vegetable medleys of some of today’s finest chefs.

If your kids are like my gang, they’re going to love the funky colors of purple string beans and pink tomatoes. It’s always easier to get them to eat their veggies when they’ve picked them right out of the garden and they don’t look “real.”

11 Old-Time Fruits and Veggies to Love

Here are eleven delicious veggies and fruits. Each is a tried and true old-time heirloom variety – you’ll be glad you made room for them in the garden this year!

1. Yellow Pear Tomato

‘Yellow Pear’ tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum ‘Yellow Pear’) plants produce the perfect bite-sized snack, with a pleasantly mild flavor bursting with natural sweetness.

Lycopersicon esculentum ‘Yellow Pear’

Yellow Pear seeds are available from True Leaf Market in 1-ounce, 4-ounce, and 250-milligram packages.

Perfect for zones 6 to 13, this plant likes to ramble in full sun, so provide structural support and see if yours reaches a lofty 12 feet! Expect to begin harvesting in approximately 78 days. Certified open-pollinated and organic.

2. Lolla Rossa Lettuce

Italian ‘Lolla Rossa’ lettuce (Lactuca sativa ‘Lollo Rossa’) is a frilly, red-tipped variety whose loose leaves add a distinctive nutty flavor to salads.

Lactuca sativa ‘Lolla Rossa’

‘Lolla Rossa’ lettuce seeds (aka ‘Lollo Rosso’) are available from True Leaf Market in 2-gram, 1-ounce, and 4-ounce packages. And they are certified open pollinated and organic.

Grow this plant in full sun to part shade in zones 4 to 9. Any hotter and it’s likely to bolt. Matures in approximately 55 days.

3. Moon & Stars Watermelon

‘Moon & Stars’ watermelon (Citrullus lanatus var. ‘Moon & Stars’) is a true taste sensation. You’d never know to look at it that this dark green, lumpy, bumpy rind with bright yellow patches contains sweet, bright red watermelon like you haven’t eaten in years.

Citrullus lanatus var. ‘Moon & Stars’

‘Moon & Stars’ watermelon seeds are available from True Leaf Market in 1-ounce, 4-ounce, and 1-pound packages. They are certified open pollinated and organic.

Grow this beauty in full sun in zones 3 to 9 and expect to see mature oval or round fruit in about 100 days.

4. Henderson Lima Bean

You can make your own homegrown succotash with these buttery and delicious beans, and they’re available from True Leaf Market in 20-gram or 1 to 50-pound packages.

Phaseolus lunatus ‘Henderson’

‘Henderson’ lima beans (Phaseolus lunatus ‘Henderson’) do best in zones 3-9, and they’ll need plenty of sun. You can expect 60-90 days to maturity.

5. Brandywine Pink Tomato

Solanum lycopersicum ‘Brandywine Pink’ is one of my favorites. Seeds for this classic heirloom variety are available from True Leaf Market in 1/4, 1, and 4-ounce packets.

Solanum lycopersicum ‘Brandywine Pink’

This beefsteak indeterminate variety is known for its delicious flavor, and you can expect ripe fruit that’s ready to pick in about 90 days.

6. Rainbow Carrots

This rainbow blend of carrot seeds (Daucus carota subsp. Sativus) includes a variety of heirlooms so you can enjoy colorful salads or roasted side dishes.

Mixed Variety Daucus carota subsp. Sativus

Mixed packets of 1 or 4 ounces, or a hefty pound, of ‘Atomic Red,’ ‘Bambino Orange,’ ‘Cosmic Purple,’ ‘Lunar White,’ and ‘Solar Yellow’ seeds are available from True Leaf Market. These will reach maturity in about 70 days, and can be grown in a variety of climates, in zones 3 through 11.

7. Big Jim Peppers

These mild hot peppers (Capsicum annuum ‘Big Jim’) produce vibrant red fruit in about 75 days or less, and they can be picked early and enjoyed green, or allowed to ripen fully on the plant.

Capsicum annuum ‘Big Jim’

Perfect for eating fresh or drying, you can expect one large harvest with high yields. Seeds in a variety of quantities are available from True Leaf Market.

8. Blue Hubbard Squash

Blue hubbard squash (Curcubita maxima) has the typical orange flesh that you’re used to, with a visually arresting blue-gray skin that makes an unusual and attractive addition to the garden.

Blue Curcubita maxima

These are very sweet, great for making purees or pie filling. You can expect about 110 days to maturity, and seeds are available in various quantities from True Leaf Market.

9. Purple Orach

This tasty alternative to spinach that grows without complaint in the warm weather, purple orach (Atriplex hortensis) makes a colorful addition to salads and sautees in about 40-60 days.

Purple Atriplex hortensis

It reseeds easily and is cold tolerant as well, lending this leafy vegetable multi-season appeal, and making it a great option for a variety of climates. Seeds are available from True Leaf Market.

10. Royal Burgundy Beans

This purple variety of bush beans has strong resistant to pests and diseases, and harvestable pods may be ready to pick as soon as 50 days after sowing seeds.

Phaseolus vulgaris ‘Royal Burgundy’

Phaseolus vulgaris ‘Royal Burgundy’ loves full sun in cooler climates in zones 3-9, and seeds are available from True Leaf Market. Keep in mind that their vibrant hue will fade to green when they’re cooked, but they’re pretty on the plant – and they’re also delicious in salads!

11. Lemon Cucumber

With a round shape and pale yellow skins, it’s no surprise that this variety of Cucumis sativus is known as ‘Lemon.’

Cucumis sativus ‘Lemon’

Hardy in zones 4-12, they’ll grow well in full sun and reach maturity in 60-70 days. Seeds are available from True Leaf Market.

A Proud Heritage

Many people love heirlooms because they taste like the vegetables they grew as children with their parents or grandparents and harvested from the vegetable patch.

I know you’re eager to give heirlooms a try!

They serve as a reminder of a time when families sustained themselves with delicious homegrown produce because it was necessary, not fashionable. And they saved seeds and exchanged them with neighbors for the same reason.

Today, we have the luxury of choosing to plant rare seeds, our gardening ancestors’ legacy to us in modern times. Sometimes the seeds cost a bit more, but yields should more than pay for themselves.

In addition, heirlooms may be challenging at first. They sometimes grow a bit differently, take up more space, or need more time to develop to maturity than their hybrid cultivar counterparts.

Since they may not have the same disease and pest resistance, you may want to include modern-day varieties in your garden along with the rare ones to ensure an abundant harvest. (Just beware of “tainting” via cross pollination.)

On the other hand, I have had some take off right out of the seed packet, with no pests or diseases to speak of. These include historic ‘Brandywine Yellow’ and ‘Green Zebra’ tomatoes. They have withstood the test of time, after all.

Invest in a seed packet or two and see what develops. Once you taste the fruits of your labor, you’ll be hooked!

For more information on getting your seeds off to a good start early in the season, we suggest reading our article on starting annuals from seed indoors.

What are some of your favorite heirlooms to feature in the garden, and what are you considering adding to your veggie patch or raised beds this year? Let us know in the comments section below!

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Product photos via True Leaf Market. Uncredited photos: . Originally published by Mike Quinn on September 7th, 2014. Last updated May 30th, 2018. With additional writing and editing by Allison Sidhu.

About Nan Schiller

Nan Schiller is a writer with deep roots in the soil of southeastern Pennsylvania. Her background includes landscape and floral design, a BS in business from Villanova University, and a Certificate of Merit in floral design from Longwood Gardens. An advocate of organic gardening with native plants, she’s always got dirt under her nails and freckles on her nose. With wit and hopefully some wisdom, she shares what she’s learned and is always ready to dig into a new project!

Fruits and vegetables always move through popularity cycles (like high school, but edible). At the beginning of this decade, Brussels sprouts gained thousands of new fans when restaurants cooked them, likely in animal fat, until crispy and delicious. Kale went from an inedible plate decoration to beloved leafy green and graphic T-shirt star. Celery, too, is currently having a moment as people’s morning juice of choice. But there are some fruits and veggies that you’ll likely never see in the supermarket. These forgotten varieties are kept alive by seed savers and heritage gardeners but are rarely tasted by the general public who isn’t in the know.

Colonial Garden and Nursery

To learn more about some of the heritage produce currently being grown in the United States, we chatted with Eve Otmar — a journeyman gardener and supervisor of the Colonial Garden and Nursery in Williamsburg, Virginia — and Ed Schultz, Colonial Williamsburg journeyman historic farmer. They chose their four favorite forgotten fruits and vegetables that you should add to your diet this year.

Cypriot Watermelon

This sweet, refreshing melon dates back to at least 1700 and is a native fruit of Cyprus. “It was found in a market in the capital city of Cyprus, Nicosia,” Otmar says. “Our seed supplier mentions that it was found in 1996, grown by one farmer and was considered one of the most endangered of the Cypriot heirlooms.” This melon is easy to grow, and the vines do trellis well, so Otmar suggests growing it upwards if you don’t have a ton of ground space. Each Cypriot Watermelon grows to between 10 and 12 pounds, making it perfect to share with another person. “Refreshing and hydrating on a hot day right out of the garden,” she says. “All you need is a knife.”

Colonial Garden and Nursery

Gourdseed Corn

The name “Gourdseed” was given to this white corn variety because its kernels are shaped like the seed of a common gourd. It was a popular crop among 18th century Virginia planters and can exceed 12 feet in height. It always has one ear, but can often grow two or three. “Some of it is eaten ‘green’ prior to becoming starchy, though the vast majority was allowed to dry so that it could be processed into grits and meal,” Schultz says. “The leaves and the stalk above the ear were all cut to be used as fodder for livestock. Even the dry shuck after harvesting was used to feed horses and cattle.” When tucking into Gourdseed Corn, don’t expect the usual sweetness you’re accustomed to from the yellow stuff. Schultz explains that it has a very nutty, deep corn flavor. He suggests grilling the young green kernels inside the husk for the best flavor.

Colonial Garden and Nursery

Turkey or Armenian Cucumber

This muskmelon variety originated in Africa and is closely related to the cucumber you’re familiar with seeing in the grocery store. It looks and tastes like a cucumber, and the skin is edible. “The gardeners were able to harvest an early crop with the squirrels getting the mature later crop,” Otmar says. “They must have been delicious as they left us none.” You can eat this cucumber raw and sliced into a salad, but Otmar loves it pickled and suggests taking the time to brine it, even if it’s a “quick pickle” recipe. We reckon it would also be delicious drizzled with some salt and chili oil and enjoyed as a cooling side dish with spicy food.

Colonial Garden and Nursery

Radishes

We’re all familiar with the bright pink radishes that are available in supermarkets year-round, but the types of radishes that grow in the Colonial Garden and Nursery are much different. “Radishes are thought to have originated in China and then moved to the Middle East,” Otmar says. “The oldest varieties were long rooted like a carrot and mostly white, as well as black-rooted kinds. The small, round red radish of today started to appear in the colonies in the second half of the 18th century by way of Italy.”

Colonial Garden and Nursery

Radishes are a cool weather crop and easy to grow. Otmar and Schultz like the Black Spanish (round and long) and German Bier (white long and thick-rooted) varieties best, which are the 18th-century names for a plant that we simply call “radish” today. Both the Bier and Black radish are crunchy and spicy but don’t have the same woody taste you’ll often find in a late-harvested pink radish. And cooking with them is a breeze, especially because raw is the way to go. “Sliced on a salad, topped with a dressing or used as part of an appetizer—it’s all delicious,” Otmar says. “As a bonus, let some go to seed. The seed pod is a delicious spicy snack raw or delicious pickled.”

If you’re interested in growing these heirloom fruits and veggies in your garden this year, Otmar and Schultz suggest buying seeds from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Seed Savers, and Harvesting History.

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What Does Heirloom Mean for Fruits, Vegetables, and Other Plants?

Gabriela Herman

Heirloom produce, flowers, seed, and books about heirloom foods keep trending. But what exactly does “heirloom” mean? The first thing to understand about heirloom is that there is no single or legal definition for the term. It is open to some (occasionally heated) interpretation. This can be frustrating for gardeners who want to understand what they are planting, what they should plant, and why. It also complicates our eating and farmers’ market shopping lives: What is heirloom?

Reduced to a sentence, heirloom produce is the result of a type of pollination, repeated over time. Here is the heirloom equation: Open Pollination + Heritage = Heirloom.

Related: Just what is Natural Wine?

The first part is unequivocal: Heirloom plants are open pollinated—the result of natural selection rather than of controlled hybridisation. All heirloom seeds are open pollinated, but not all open pollinated seeds are heirloom. Open pollination is when wind and insects carry pollen spontaneously from one plant to another. The result of open pollination is seed that produces plants whose characteristics remain fairly—but not absolutely—consistent from one generation to the next. As a result, heirloom varieties may vary in appearance.

In open pollinated fields plants that veer too far from an established heirloom variety’s standards are generally removed. Culling highly unusual plants prevents them from pollinating others and producing too much variation.

By contrast hybrid plants are usually the result of controlled pollination (although hybridisation can occur spontaneously): two different parent plants are chosen by a grower to combine specific and desirable characteristics from each. These characteristics are reflected in the hybrid child plant. Hybrids are uniform and predictable from one generation to the next.

The broader sense of what heirloom means is associated with heritage, history, and nostalgia. In short, heirloom is seed saving. Heirloom plants are understood to grow from seeds handed down from one generation to the next. Hardcore heirloom wisdom suggests that a plant can only claim heirloom status if it has a minimum pedigree of 50 years. Or even before the hybrid breeding boom, post-World War II. So, in theory, you can begin a new heirloom tradition now, saving the seed of a new, open pollinated plant, knowing that it will only qualify as heirloom in 2059!

Related: Get the Lowdown on Pesticides in Organic and Conventional Produce

The heritage aspect of heirloom also encompasses plants that were not grown commercially, but by small farmers, families, and individuals within a community to be used by that community. Seed saving ensured the continuation of a plant that was not bred to travel long distances without blemish, for example, like the spookily perfect, round, scarlet 24/7 supermarket tomato. This sense of heritage can also mean the rescue or revival of a vegetable, fruit or flower that has come close to disappearing from cultivation. Seeds saved from a community that no longer exists, can bring that tradition back to life.

Understanding that heirloom plants grew for generations in a specific place is important. Seeds from heirloom tomatoes that grew for decades in the Hudson Valley, with its particular soils, humid summers, and local pests, will carry traits that are best adapted to those conditions. They will be different from seeds collected from tomatoes grown by families in southern California, with dry summers, and supplemental watering. The New York-origin plants will not fare as well in California. Because they can be better adapted to certain environmental stressors such as drought or flooding “this can make them incredibly delicious but also sometimes inconsistent in their performance,” says Sarah Owens, the author of the new cookbook, Heirloom: Time-Honored Techniques, Nourishing Traditions, and Modern Recipes.

Regional specificity is why heirloom produce is most often found at local farmers’ markets; and it is part of the heirloom appeal. Heirloom produce in its most true form belongs to a place. Regional seed saving companies address and market this aspect directly, while large seed companies sell ubiquitous heirlooms (think ‘Brandywine’) that anyone can cultivate, anywhere.

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