If you ask any person on the street today what color carrots are, you’ll get one response: orange. But years ago, the answers could have been purple, white, yellow, red, orange or any of the shades in between. In fact, the orange carrots we eat today are descended from the original purple variety.
Over the past 100 years, we’ve lost about 96 percent of commercial vegetable varieties to extinction in the U.S., according to the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation. But there is an army of gardeners all over the world working to preserve our collective garden heritage and change everything you thought you knew about produce.
Dr. Toby Musgrave, author of the book “Heirloom Fruits & Vegetables” and avid garden historian, is one of those gardeners. He says there are lots of reasons heirlooms are coming back into the spotlight.
“I think a lot of people are starting to understand that it’s a heritage issue and this is part of our gardening heritage that we should conserve,” he says. “There’s also a very important genetic diversity issue going on that we need to keep this genetic diversity available. Personally, I think they taste better. Also, there’s something fun about them. They’re not the standard run-of-the-mill, picture-perfect things you get from the supermarket. I think they have character.”
Heirlooms are defined in many ways by different groups. Some say the cultivar has to be at least 100 years old; some say 50. Toby defines an heirloom as a variety that is not in commercial cultivation, but notes that there are exceptions to every rule. For example, the Cox’s Orange Pippin, one of England’s most popular apples today, dates back to 1825.
“If you just want to put it in two words, old-fashioned is the simplest way to describe it,” Toby says.
Cooking Up Something Good
Heirloom tomatoes and peppers have become a big hit in the U.S., if only for the taste. As cooking shows and celebrity chefs tout the advantages of heirloom varieties and the vast pallet of flavors they provide, more and more gardeners are branching out and trying something different.
“It certainly tended to be keen horticulturalists or gardeners that would grow heirlooms, but now they’re becoming more mainstream in the cooking fraternity,” Toby says. “Those who don’t have a garden or those who don’t want to grow fruits and vegetables, they can still get ahold of the heirloom produce at farmers markets, which I think gives an indication of how popular they’ve become.”
While shoppers used to be on the search for that perfect Golden Delicious apple, appearance is much less of an issue than taste to shoppers today, which makes heirlooms ripe for a revival. Taste is much more of a concern now, and old varieties and flavors are making their way into our kitchens, as well as our gardens.
“In those cases, it’s really fun to start growing different varieties and you can really taste the difference,” Toby says. “If you grow 20 different heirloom tomatoes, you’ll get 20 different tastes.”
Cauliflower is actually a descendant of the wild cabbage that was selected for its florets. Shown here is Romanesco.
The Stories behind the Produce
Besides the diversity of tastes and preservation of garden heritage, Toby loves the stories behind the fruits and vegetables. The Cox’s Orange Pippin is one of his favorites, simply because it’s a commonly grown apple, but also a heritage variety. In fact, the apple is Britain’s most popular dessert apple, and has more than 50 descendants.
“I like the stories behind these things, and maybe it’s not something that people automatically think of when they go to the supermarket or the farmers market, but all of these fruits and vegetables have an interesting story to tell.
The Moorpark apricot, another one of his favorites, even has a cameo in Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park.” “I think it’s quite nice that you can read about something that was grown a couple hundred years ago,” he says.
The names alone can spark some interest. For example, there are a few lettuces that will make you laugh out loud like Fat Lazy Blonde and Drunken Woman. “I look at them and think, ‘Who came up with that?’” he laughs. “Some dreadful Victorian misogynist, I would think.”
Grow your own heirlooms
Groups all over the world from the UK to Australia are hard at work to preserve heirlooms for the generations of gardeners to come. “In the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, there were enough foresighted people around the world that started to notice we were losing a lot of this plant heritage and they started to conserve, particularly the vegetable ones,” Toby says.
In the U.K., there are even European Union rules that come into play when selling seeds. Once a common practice, saving, swapping and selling any seed not registered with the National List or the European Union Common Catalogue became illegal in the 1970s. In the past few years, the rules have started to change, but the process is still difficult to navigate. “Fruits were a slightly happier tale,” Toby says, noting that the government set up a program for fruit farms to grow all of the different varieties of fruits.
Various organizations all over the world like Seed Savers Exchange in the U.S., the Heritage Seed Library in the U.K., the Irish Seed Savers Association, Seed Savers in Australia and the international Millennium Seed Bank (also located in the U.K.) are working hard to preserve heirloom varieties for generations of gardeners to come.
Toby says that heirlooms are no harder to grow than commercial varieties, and some even have better natural pest resistance. And because the cultivars aren’t all F1 hybrids, meaning that they’re the first generation of a new variety, their fruits or vegetables won’t all ripen at the same time. “You get a sort of succession of Brussels sprouts or a succession of tomatoes and not five tons of them all ripening in one day,” Toby says. “In that way, they actually give you a slightly longer progression of harvest, which can be helpful.”
Plum ‘Apricot Gage’ is a 20th-century introduction originally found in Worcestershire.
“By growing heirloom varieties, we’re actually making a really big contribution to conserving our genetic heritage,” Toby says.
Find Dr. Toby Musgrave online or on his blog at GardenHistoryMatters.
Photos courtesy of Clay Perry