When it comes to heirloom varieties, gardeners get the added bonus of learning a little horticultural history.
It’s time to look through the seed catalogs, one of my favorite activities this time of the year. Once I start flipping through the pages of gorgeous images and fanciful descriptions, it’s hard to put them down. I really enjoy reading about heirloom vegetables. For those of you suffering from nostalgia, you can grow heirloom vegetables to satisfy a trip down horticultural memory lane. When it comes to heirloom varieties, you get the added bonus of learning a little horticultural history.
So how do you tell if a seed is an “heirloom,” or just old? Most gardeners agree that fruits and vegetables can be called heirlooms if they have been around for at least 50 years. Others consider their plants as heirlooms, regardless of age, if they have been passed down through generations or if they have a story attached to them. These “living antiques, handed down from one generation to another”are an “inheritance of flavor or beauty from long ago and, often, far away,” says Lynn Coulter in her book, “Gardening with Heirloom Seeds” (University of North Carolina Press).
If heirloom seeds could talk, they would spin some fascinating yarns. Some of the seeds of these plants were tucked into immigrants’ dress seams or carefully hidden under suitcase linings to avoid the sharp eyes of customs officers.
Take the Jimmy Nardello Italian sweet pepper. Giuseppe and Angela Nardello grew these sweet frying peppers in their garden in the small village of Ruoti, in southern Italy. When they sailed from the port of Naples in 1887 for America, Angela carried her 1-year-old daughter Anna and a few pepper seeds. After the family settled in Connecticut, they grew peppers and 11 children.
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Their fourth son, Jimmy, saved the seeds and donated some of them to the Seed Savers Exchange (www.seedsavers.org) in Decorah, Iowa, before his death in 1983. Today these seeds are offered by several seed companies, including Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Seed Savers Exchange, LocalHarvest, Heirloom Seeds, Bountiful Gardens, and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.
These peppers are about 1 inch in diameter and 8 to 10 inches long. The banana-shaped fruits turn bright red and are sugary sweet when ripe. They are the most productive and disease-resistant heirloom sweet peppers. You will reap huge harvests no matter where you live since these peppers grow well in most climates around the country. With a height of about 2 feet, they are also great in container gardens on your deck or patio.
This pepper has such a rich flavor that it was placed in “The Ark of Taste” by the Slow Food organization (www.slowfoodusa.org/index.php/programs/details/ark_of_taste). According to Bountiful Gardens (bountifulgardens.org), the peppers’ “thin walls have a perfect combination of sweetness and crunch, with smoky, delicate, complex flavors. Arguably the finest frying pepper — becomes perfectly creamy and soft when fried. Roasted, it caramelizes: sweet with a tinge of heat.”These intensely flavored peppers are not only great for grilling, frying or drying, but for use in salads and salsa, too.
I encourage you to save your own seeds. Through the generosity of others, I received seeds that gardeners had saved and sent me to defray the costs of my Twenty-five-Dollar Victory Garden last year.
Collect the heirloom seeds when the fruits have reached the color of their maturity, red in the case of these sweet peppers. Remove the seeds from the peppers and spread them out to dry on a plate. Once they are dry, store them in a cool, dry place. I place my saved seeds in old film containers and store them in the refrigerator with the intent of planting them the following season. The fresher the seed, the greater the chances of germination.
Seed saving links us to the past. What a great way to pass on a taste of long ago to our children. Jimmy Nardello not only thought about his family when he passed down the pepper seeds, but about sharing these living antiques with the whole world.
Joe Lamp’l, host of “GardenSMART”on PBS, is a Master Gardener and author. For more information visit www.joegardener.com.