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Heirloom Vegetables: A Taste of the Past

by Leslie Johnson

Scarlet runner beans.
Scarlet runner beans are an heirloom vegetable often grown by gardeners.

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Seed catalogs are full of new and improved vegetable varieties, each one the result of plant breeders' efforts to improve yield, quality and disease resistance, and introduce old favorites in new colors or more compact forms.

Alongside these new varieties are old-time varieties dating back to the arrival of the earliest European settlers in North America and earlier, to the indigenous people who lived here before that.

"Growing and using these crops is to literally get a taste of the past," says Mary McLellan, Extension Master Gardener program coordinator at Michigan State University. "Part of the attraction of these varieties is that they are a direct link with the past."

Definitions of heritage or heirloom vegetables vary, but a popular one has three components: they’re old, dating back at least 100 years; they have good flavor; and they grow true from seed -- that is, you can save seed from this year’s crop and be fairly certain that the plants that grow from that seed will be like the ones that produced it.

"This is not true of today’s hybrids," McLellan points out.

In addition to saving these varieties for their own sake, another reason to perpetuate them is to preserve their genetic material for use in future plant breeding programs, she notes.

Gardeners who want to grow these old varieties may be surprised to find at least some of them in any seed catalog. Look for scarlet runner and Kentucky Wonder pole beans, Fordhook lima beans, Connecticut field pumpkins, early Jersey Wakefield cabbage, Golden Bantam and Country Gentleman sweet corn, Jerusalem artichokes, Paris white cos lettuce, Hubbard and Mandan squash, Brandywine tomato, small-fruited gourds and Russian mammoth sunflowers.

Others -- such as banana legs tomatoes, deer-tongue lettuce and Irish cobbler potatoes -- may be available primarily from individuals and associations dedicated to preserving these crops. One of these is the Seed Savers Exchange.

"Some seed companies also specialize in old-time varieties," McLellan observes. "An Internet search for 'heirloom vegetables' will find numerous seed sources, both merchants and seed exchanges."


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