Resurrecting Heirloom Vegetables – The Vegetables of Yesteryear
Many would be inclined to think that all beetroots are purple and all beans are green and any other colour is a product of modern science and technology. Well, there are actually beetroots that come in white and yellow and beans that are purple – all naturally occurring and not the result of modern technology. These seemingly quirky varieties with unusual colours, patterns and shapes are known as heirloom vegetables. Heirloom varieties have been around for hundreds of years and are treasured for the diversity of nutrients, flavours, textures and colours they bring to the dinner table. Many probably aren’t familiar with heirlooms as they aren’t commonly found supermarkets and are generally not commercially grown. By growing heirlooms you’ll play a vital role in their preservation and add to the biodiversity.
Characteristics of Heirlooms
There isn’t a definitive agreement amongst experts as to the definition of heirloom vegetables. Broadly speaking, they have been passed down from generation to generation, are often over 100 years old, produced through open pollination (as this is more likely to produce a seed that will grow to original form), non-hybrid and most importantly, they are grown for their superior flavour. Heirlooms may also grow erratically, have longer growing seasons and their seeds may germinate slower.
Trying Growing These Heirlooms
If you are not keen on growing them, see if there are any available at your local markets.
Lazy Housewife Beans (climbing bean; perhaps not that unusual looking, but it is still a heirloom)
Appearance: Broad, thick, fleshy, stringless, grows to around 14cm, medium green pods measuring 5 to 6 inches long with white gray veins, contains around 5 to 7 beans
Taste: Distinct rich flavour; fine flavour when picked young
Rattlesnake Bean (climbing bean)
Appearance:Pods are mottled with purple streaks (resembling a rattlesnake) and grow up to 7 inches; beans have dark brown markings
Taste:Similar to the pinto bean – soft when cooked and have an earthy flavour
Dragon’s Tongue Bean (bush bean)
Dragon’s Tongue Bean (bush bean)
Appearance: Creamy coloured pod with purple streaks and flecks; pod is flatter and wider compared to other beans; 4 to 5 inches long
Taste: Sweet tenderness and juiciness when eaten raw
Appearance: Deep red flesh with white concentric circles
Taste: Sweet, wholesome flavour
Appearance: White flesh with red concentric circles; no ‘bleeding’
Taste: Sweet and mellow flavour
Ideal Growing Conditions: For further information, please visit GardenSeed.com’s Chioggia profile.
Golden Beetroot/ Burpees Golden
Appearance: Orange/yellow flesh which turns a deep golden yellow colour when cooked; non-staining
Taste: Sweet flavour
Appearance: Globe shaped, ice-white colour, non-staining
Taste: Sweet flavour, reputedly better tasting than red beets
Australian Yellow Leaf
Appearance: Open headed lettuce, bright green yellow leaves that are frilled
Taste: Slightly sweet, crunchy texture
Appearance: broad open head, bright red frilly leaves
Taste: Sweet, mild flavour; crisp texture
Appearance: Green frilly, curly and crinkled leaves
Taste: Mild flavour
Ideal Growing Conditions: For further information, please visit Seed Savers Exchange.
Appearance: 6 to 12 inch long thick leaves with maroon speckles
Taste: Buttery flavour and crisp centres
Where to Find Heirloom Seeds
Where to Find Heirloom Seeds
· A first place to start is to ask other gardeners or local nurseries if they grow heirlooms and enquire if they have any seeds left over.
· Browse through seed catalogues – heirloom vegetables are usually clearly stated
· In the majority of cases, commercial seeds companies don’t cultivate heirlooms and your best bet would be to find a gardener in your local area. Halcyon has a list of seed societies and networks that specialise in saving and exchanging heirloom seeds. The list covers societies and networks from North America, UK and Australia.
Tips for ensuring that heirlooms grow ‘true to form’
- For crops that cross pollinate easily, i.e. cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli, it is best to isolate their plants or flowers in order to prevent unwanted crossings.
- Be on the lookout for rogue seedlings in order to maintain the seed line.
- To ensure the likelihood of the seed growing to the original form, the seed should be collected directly from the garden.
- For further information on collecting, drying and storing seeds, visit Flower Garden News.
Is Open Pollination an Accurate Description for Heirlooms?
Open pollinated varieties produce a seed that will grow to resemble their ‘parents’, or in other words, grow to their original form. They reproduce by cross pollination (pollination between two plants through natural elements, such as wind, insects and water) or self pollination (pollination between male and female flower parts within the same flower or separate flowers on the same plant). Many modern varieties are hybrids. Hybrid seeds result from cross mating between two different plant varieties and as a result this may lead to seeds not germinating or not growing to their original form. Arguably, to classify heirlooms as open pollinated would be misleading as some vegetables, i.e. pumpkins and squash, produce mongrel offspring if left to open pollinate; some crops grow vegetatively, not from seeds, such as potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes; not all open pollinated seeds grow to original form; and many open pollinated varieties are actually true breeding hybrids.
Are Heirlooms Really Better Than Hybrids?
Proponents of heirlooms say they produce better yields and have good disease resistance. However, there are claims that hybrids have better vigour and growth as they originate from different plant varieties, are easier to breed disease resistance as open pollinated varieties have more genes involved in disease resistance and can withstand harsher climates. There are even suggestions that growing heirlooms is a step backward towards more disease prone varieties. This is the case for tomatoes and cucumbers. There are also many modern open pollinated varieties that offer superior disease resistance.
A downside to hybrids is that their seeds cost more due to the costs of creating them and maintaining their breeding lines.
Do Heirlooms Really Taste Better?
Reputedly, heirlooms taste better as they are grown in one’s own garden; hence, freshness and flavour are guaranteed. This contrasts strongly with modern hybrid varieties, which focus on qualities other than flavour, such as the ability to be harvested by machine and withstand transportation. Hybrids are also bred to ripen at the same time and to produce crops that have the same size, shape and colour. It has been suggested that hybrids can taste just as good as heirlooms, given that they are home grown as opposed to commercially grown. Ultimately, whether you go for open pollinated or hybrid varieties is a matter of personal preference.