Dinosaurs in the Garden: Discover heirlooms’ long-forgotten tastes

In this time of environmental worries, it’s refreshing to know that there is something that you and I can do that will make a measurable difference: Save seed. Garden space and farmers’ markets have suddenly become the front lines in the fight to save plant species from extinction.

The species in question are the vegetables, fruits and flowers referred to as heirlooms. Named because, like other family treasures, these seeds have traditionally been passed down through generations of gardeners, heirlooms have qualities that distinguish them from widely marketed hybridized produce. Many gardeners are familiar with some varieties of heirloom tomatoes, such as the massive Brandywine or the green-when-ripe Green Zebra, but these are just the surface of a rich and uncommon tradition of plants.

One of the largest heirloom gardens in America is Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa. It is home to the Seed Savers Exchange, a non-profit seed bank. According to Aaron Whaley, associate director, SSE maintains about 25,000 varieties of fruit, vegetable, herb and flower seeds including several thousand varieties of tomatoes. Heirloom tomatoes come in red and orange but also yellow, pink, green, white, purple, black, speckled, striped, dappled and spotted. Melons, squash and cucumbers also come in a striking array of colors, shapes and coats. One of the most notable is the Jelly Melon cucumber, whose bright yellow skin encases an emerald green flesh. There is also purple broccoli, white-fleshed watermelon, dry beans that hold their markings when cooked and radishes that are cultivated for edible seedpods that grow above ground.

Heirloom fruits and vegetables are far more than just their anomalous features, though the definition of heirloom has been a bit of a moving target. SSE and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds define an heirloom seed broadly as “one that has been passed down within a family and carries a history.” Other definitions attempt to specify an age and suggest that heirlooms must be at least 50 years old. Other sources say that 1951 is the cutoff, because that’s when the first commercially developed hybrids were introduced.

“Non-hybrid” is another defining characteristic of heirlooms. “In order to be considered an heirloom, a plant must be open-pollinated,” explained Whaley. “This means that when the seeds are collected, the plants will reproduce true to type, producing the same variety year after year.” In other words, open-pollinated varieties are pure and do not represent cultivated qualities of two separate varieties. “Seeds usually cannot be saved from hybrids,” said Whaley. “Since they are a cross, the seeds from those plants often are sterile; if they reproduce, the plant will revert back to the qualities of one of the parent plants.”

But the real essence of an heirloom seems to be much more elusive than its age or reproduction method. Heirlooms connect us to our history. For most of the past 10,000 years, humans have practiced seed saving out of necessity. The grains and beans that formed the basis of most diets were grown in large quantities; the best were saved for planting, and the rest were eaten. Before 1950, immigrants carried seeds into the United States, often smuggled in the hems of dresses and the bands of hats. St. Louis’ history is reflected in its gardens; in parts of South City you can find Romanesco Italian broccoli and Czechoslovakian Black hot peppers.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in Mansfield, Mo., owned by
Jeremiath “Jere” Gettle, has the world’s largest selection of heirloom melons and more than 115 varieties of tomatoes. “When you look at an heirloom garden and see six colors and 10 shapes of tomato alone, you have to realize that each of these plants represent somebody’s history,” said Gettle. The United States has experienced a surge of interest in heirlooms, and Gettle said that his largest market is in Missouri.

Sometimes the preservation of heirlooms is almost accidental. Ingrid Abraham, a co-owner of Berger Bluff Farm near Hermann, said, “I don’t actually seek out heirlooms, though we do tend to grow quite a few of them. It just sort of happened that way. One of my favorites is the Jimmy Nardello [Sweet Italian] Frying Pepper. I don’t grow it because it’s an heirloom; I grow it because it’s dependable, it produces year after year, and the flavor is superior to most other peppers I’ve grown.”

This is partly because the original character is not bred out of heirlooms in the pursuit of commercially desirable traits. But another reason Abraham’s peppers taste so good is that heirlooms have the capacity to adapt to their environment. “Heirlooms are as much a product of place as they are of seed stock,” said Gettle. “If you save seed and plant the same heirloom year after year, those plants become acclimated to your backyard.”

Preserving heirloom seeds is more than just an exercise in nostalgia and culinary adventure. Diversity is nature’s survival wild card. Plants are estimated to be disappearing at the same accelerated rate as animals, but the impact might be larger. Plants are the basis of the food chain, and it is estimated that for every plant that goes extinct, 10 to 30 organisms dependent upon that species will also disappear. “There are about 80,000 edible plants in the world today,” noted Gettle. “Prehistoric people consumed about 1,500 wild plants and cultivated about 500. Today we depend upon 30 or so plants for 95 percent of our food needs. Thanks to hybridization, rice, corn, wheat and soybeans have become the staple of the world’s food supply.”

Hybrids are genetically crafted to produce large, uniform crops that are suitable for mechanical harvesting and bear traits that commercial growers want: firm skin, even color, higher productivity and longer shelf life. Some hybrid traits are beneficial, such as greater crop yield, but anyone growing his or her own food will tell you that hybrids often sacrifice flavor in exchange for these other traits.

Large-scale use of hybrids brings the risk of major crop loss. Identical plants will suffer an identical fate when unanticipated disease or pestilence moves in. This happened in 1960 when 15 percent of the U.S. corn crop fell to blight. The hybrid market has severely narrowed the genetic base of our food supply, so any disease that threatens these plant monotypes threatens the entire food web. In addition, hybrids often produce infertile seeds or seeds that can’t reproduce true to form, which leaves farmers and gardeners reliant upon seed manufacturers each growing year.

As heirlooms grow in popularity, the diversity of the food chain is strengthened. If you want to try them in your garden, Gettle recommended tomatoes, peppers and beans. “These are all pretty easy to manage in the home garden and require no special methods or techniques to preserve purity.” And if you just want to taste the incredible flavor of a Boxcar Willie tomato, check out the list of local farmers and markets that offer heirloom produce.