Cultivating the Past- Heirloom Vegetables

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Supporting Heirloom Varieties Strengthens Vital Connections

When you sit down to dinner with the folks at the family homestead, a dish may circulate that sparks discussion. Not about the food, but about the vessel: an antique passed down through generations, carefully stored and brought out on special occasions. It often comes with a story about where the original owner got it, or how it has traveled to be in your hands.

What if the food inside that dish carried such a heritage?

In some cases, it does.

Our nation of immigrants and migrating native peoples is not too many generations removed from agrarian roots. Many travelers have carried their histories in their hands, tucked into a cigar box or sewn into the lining of their coats. In some cases, those valuable histories included seeds of the very food that nourished their ancestors.

Today we call them heirlooms: vegetables or fruit that come to us from another time, sprouted from seeds adapted to a new climate, just as their human carriers did. “Heirlooms are true survivors,” wrote entrepreneur Kenny Ausubel in his book “Seeds of Change,” which charted the beginnings of the seed company he founded. “These are plants with true breeding, the ‘greatest hits of the gene pool’.”

We can grow and eat food that is substantially the same as what was grown by our great-great grandparents, or by Thomas Jefferson, or by the Aztecs or ancient Greeks. How do we know? Etchings of peppers can be seen on pre-Columbian ceramics created 7,000 years ago. Varieties are named in historical writings. You will find references to chard in the writings of Greek philosopher Aristotle.

Defining an Heirloom

A common definition for today’s heirloom seed is one that has been passed down from generation to generation, is at least a half-century old (many are much more ancient) and is being singled out for preservation because of some danger of extinction.

A few heirloom vegetables and fruits can be found in commercial production, and you will find more in today’s burgeoning farmer’s markets, but the vast majority of our food consists of recent hybrids. Heirlooms amount to a few handfuls of seed being cherished and grown on small plots of land and stored in “seed banks” scattered around the world, like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, drilled into the permafrost beneath a small Norwegian island. In an unfortunate comment on the state of seed diversity, it has been called the Doomsday Vault.

“Because of consolidation and concentration in the seed industry, there has been loss of variety and loss of heirloom varieties,” explains Matthew Dillon, a founder of the Organic Seed Alliance of Port Townsend. “But the real concern from our perspective was that the skills of working with seed are being lost even more than the seed themselves. The [work of] farmers and gardeners who created the diversity we have today is no longer being regenerated—selecting varieties, seeing anomalies you like and saving it.”

Counteracting these trends are committed small farmers, seed-saving activists and home gardeners determined to perpetuate and enjoy heirloom varieties. Jefferson, who wrote in 1785 that “[c]ultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens,” would be overjoyed at this trend.

Garden Umami

Preservationists who value heirlooms also are driven by the desire to retain culturally significant foods. This effort builds on the work of Russian botanist Nikolay Vavilov who, in the first decades of the 20th century, charted the “center of origin” for most of our domesticated food crops. The recent “Ark of Taste” program from Slow Food has shined a light on foods that are important in different regions of the U.S.

Iowa-based Seed Savers Exchange was begun 30 years ago after one of its founders was given cherished seeds grown by her dying grandfather; SSE has since saved many varieties and even reintroduced some that had been thought extinct.

Perhaps the greatest driving factor to grow heirlooms comes from people who seek the flavors, aromas and uniqueness of the foods they remember from the past: the tangy sweetness of a vine-ripened heirloom tomato or delicate nuttiness of a unique potato. The search for that special sensory assault, “garden umami” as writer Felder Rushing called it in a 2008 talk at Jefferson’s home Monticello, can be a powerful force for the quest by gardeners and eaters to uncover unique, old food treasures.

Growing Our Heritage

When immigrants have introduced their heritage varieties that adapt to our growing conditions, they have added history and character to our horticultural landscape as well as their lineage to our gene pool.

Take, for example, Spanish Roja garlic. Not too long ago, a Northwest shopper had but one garlic choice on supermarket shelves—California white—and you’d be hard-pressed to find any bulbing allium with as much as a shade of pink. But in the Northwest, a new, old garlic was sprouting.

Spanish Roja was brought to the Portland area by Greek immigrants in the late 1800s. Its unusual name might be testament to the worldwide propagation of garlic, but perhaps its Greek heritage can account for the origin of the variety’s alternate name, Greek Blue. That moniker certainly does not come from the color; its cloves are beautifully streaked with shades of red. But in Greek folk legend, garlic has the power to ward off “the evil eye” cast upon you by blue-eyed people. Could Greek Blue be a reference to the variety’s particularly effective evil-banishing powers? Gardeners and cooks certainly swear by Spanish Roja’s robust spiciness, and growers often refer to it as the true flavor of garlic.


Rainbow chard, which today is a colorful staple of Maritime Northwest gardens, is another one of those signature heirlooms whose success story is attached to a colorful history.

Swiss chard in general has a grand lineage, revered by the ancient Greeks for its medicinal properties. Originating in the Mediterranean, it became quite popular throughout Europe and the Far East.

A relative of the bulbing beet, it too has been referred to by many alternative names, such as white beet, seakale beet, Sicilian beet and leaf beet, which gets my vote for the most appropriate. Other nicknames—strawberry spinach, Roman kale, perpetual spinach—fit no better than a pumpkin in a teacup.

But, too, it is neither Swiss nor chard. A Swiss botanist correctly categorized it into the beet family (beta vulgaris), hence its honorary first name. “Chard” is thought to be taken from the French word “carde” for cardoon, a relative of the thistle, to which the succulent, colorful, vitamin-rich chard leaves bear no resemblance.

Swiss chard is one of the most ornamental of vegetables, with a tall bouquet of stems topped with glossy, curling, rich green leaves. The stems can be green, white, or many shades of red, but the most showy of the bunch is the Rainbow chard, which has midribs of yellow, orange, red, white, purple and pink as the jumbled tent poles for its green canopy.

You will find Rainbow chard under alternate names, too: Five-colored Silverbeet and Bright Lights. It came to the U.S. from the English seed house Thompson & Morgan, but fell out of circulation. Its resurgence began in Australia in the 1970s: Five-colored Silverbeet was propagated by the Digger’s Club of gardeners and exported to the U.S., where it was championed and cultivated at Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa. Meanwhile, up in Maine, Johnny’s Select Seeds began to grow out and select for the finest-colored specimens and developed Bright Lights. All this attention shows the living, breathing nature of heirlooms, and the extent to which people will go to maintain them.


Another colorful beta vulgaris heirloom is the Chioggia beet, and this one has been clearly identifiable through its history. It comes from Chioggia, the market town on the southwestern edge of the harbor of Venice, Italy. Chioggia farmers provided the produce for the island city, and their prowess made their town the ancestral home of many well-loved heirlooms.

Just as Rainbow chard brings its ornamental color to the garden, Chioggia beets can elicit delight in the kitchen. When sliced, the ruby-red exterior reveals concentric rings of pink and white. I have seen it listed on a restaurant’s holiday menu as the Candy Cane Salad; sliced thin and lightly cooked, the rings do not lose their lollipop colors.

Active Preservation

These flavors and stories of our vegetable heritage have inspired gardeners and eaters, and their zeal has led to many preservation efforts. By seeking out and growing heirlooms, we can solidify their availability. Seed Savers Exchange, which turned 30 last year, is supported by 13,000 members, many of whom list their own seeds for exchange in SSE’s thick, annual yearbook. Heirlooms have become a growing segment of seed sales for SSE and bio-regional seed companies, like Oregon’s Territorial Seeds, that cater to home gardeners.

With the popularity of farmer’s markets has come the direct-marketing opportunity for farmers to try out smaller crops of unique, old varieties, so today shoppers will see “Heirloom!” on many of their signs. Buying from these farmers, and engaging them on the topic of heirlooms, is another path to heirloom cultivation.
When you sit down to your table with a dish of heirloom vegetables from your local farmer or your own garden, you will be nourished by a lot more than a healthy dose of vitamins; the bowl will overflow with history that is literally the stuff on which civilization was made.


Sidebar: Diversifying the Bean Pot
Bill Thorness is the author of “Edible Heirlooms: Heritage Vegetables for the Maritime Garden” (Skipstone Press, 2009).

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