What Makes a Vegetable an Heirloom?

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It seems like ‘heirloom’ has become a bit of buzzword in recent years, (see also ‘farm-to-table’), with Heirloom Tomato salads popping up on menus all over the place. There are a lot of pretentious menu phrases out there – haricot verts (its string beans), aioli (mayonnaise), aubergine (eggplant) – but an heirloom vegetable is something special and not just for tomatoes.

An heirloom is a variety (or cultivar, if you want to get scientific) of a plant that has been around for a long time. There is no hard and fast rule for how old it has to be, but some rules of thumb are that the variety needs to be at least 50 years old, pre-WWII, or pre-industrialization of agriculture. Some heirloom varieties have been passed down for many generations (hence the family heirloom connotation).

Did you know there were once THOUSANDS of varieties of apples and tomatoes?  If you flip through a seed catalogue today you can still find dozens of varieties of heirloom fruits and veggies you can grow yourself. Some come in colors and patterns you wouldn’t associate with the vegetable you find in a supermarket – purple string beans and carrots, blue corn, and striped tomatoes for example. I will admit I thought all carrots were orange till I saw a bag of purple, white, and red ones in a Trader Joe’s a few years ago (I’ve come a long way.)

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So why is there such a limited variety available in the average supermarket? I’m not an expert on the topic of industrial agriculture (I sort of want to read the Farm Bill one day), but essentially certain varieties were picked that traveled well without damage, looked uniform and pretty for display purposes, and were resistant to pests and diseases. These varieties are typically hybrids – varieties created by cross-pollinating two different varieties of a plant, aiming to produce an offspring, or hybrid, that contains the best traits of each of the parents.

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There are advantages to hybrids – I’ve got a hybrid cherry tomato variety in my garden called a Sungold that is delicious, been bearing fruit since mid-June, and holding up decently among whatever blight is making the rest of my tomato plants look like they are on their last leg. But there are reasons why heirlooms are very important as well:

  • So many choices – you can pick which variety you want to grow based on flavor characteristic, color, size, shape, fun name (why not try a Hillbilly tomato, Gold Nugget or Mortgage Lifter). You can also choose a variety that is best suited to your geographic region (look up your local university’s agricultural extension for a list).
  • Protecting biodiversity – large scale commercial crops today are grown in monocultures, where just a few varieties are grown in huge quantities.  (Don’t get me started on corn and soy.) This results in a loss of genetic diversity and increased vulnerability should a new pest or disease emerge that effects those few varieties. Organic farming doesn’t completely escape this issue either – there are certainly large scale monocultures of organic crops that face similar issues.
  • You can save the seeds – well this one is kind of obvious, that’s how these varieties have been around for so long. But one of the essential differences of an heirloom vs a hybrid is that the offspring of a hybrid plant will not be ‘true to type’. That is because these varieties are grown under strict control conditions (i.e. not letting birds, insects, blowing wind, etc introduce the pollen of another plant.) So if you wanted to grow only hybrids you would be beholden to seed companies. Heirlooms are open pollinated, so you can save the seed year after year (except for plants in the squash family..they make it weird).

Hopefully that (possibly overpriced) Heirloom Tomato salad will now have some more context next time you see it on a menu. If you’re interested in heirloom varieties, best place to check out is Seed Saver’s Exchange (http://www.seedsavers.org/).

Bonus if you’ve read this far:

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I wanted to track down the real story of why almost all carrots sold today are orange. I came across something fantastic called the World Carrot Museum (www.carrotmuseum.com). Sadly it’s a virtual-only museum, or I’d be tempted to hop on the next flight and visit wherever these fellow vegetable-nerds are located.

They have lovingly compiled a history of the carrot over thousands of years (not kidding!) – and its actually super interesting.

According to the history, carrots were originally purple or white, with mutations leading to yellow, then the ubiquitous orange. The domesticated variety of carrot originated with the wild carrot, and was developed over time by plant breeders to be larger, better taster, and better able to be stored over the winter.

Orange carrots appear to have become popular in the 16th century when Dutch and Spanish paintings began depicting orange carrots in market scenes. Folklore says they were then adopted as the Dutch Royal vegetable in honor of the House of Orange, but there is actually no evidence of this. According to the World Carrot Museum (I’ll go out on a limb and call them the definitive experts on the cultural history of carrots), the Dutch people developed and stabilized the orange carrot in the 1500s, and then adopted the color orange and carrots as their national vegetable. So the orange carrot came first, then the House of Orange. The more you know.

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