Heirloom vegetables have character. Their seeds, saved, cherished and passed down for generations, hold the story of how people have nourished themselves for centuries.
HEIRLOOM VEGETABLES have character. Their seeds, saved, cherished and passed down for generations, hold the story of how people have nourished themselves for centuries. We seek out heritage varieties because they taste heavenly while bringing a sense of history to our gardens and cooking. As you learn more about the impressive biodiversity of heirloom edibles, you can’t help but ponder how we’ve ended up with so few choices in our supermarkets. Carrots come in purple, squashes in vivid stripes, and tomatoes in a rainbow of shades, though you’d never know it from most places we shop.
Until recently, my only introduction to heirlooms were those fat, pumpkin-like tomatoes that taste like distilled sunshine. Their juices, which look as if they’re about to burst through the mottled orange skins, are the essence of summer. You get nostalgic for August just looking at them.
Then I spotted a curiously dark pea in Cheryl and Dennis Kamera’s Whidbey Island garden. Think how easy a pea like that — its dusky pods standing out clearly from the surrounding leaves and tendrils — is to pluck from the vine. Now, this was a vegetable that was as much a look-able as an edible, with fragrant pink and burgundy flowers as well as the purple pod.
Because heirloom vegetables are defined by their stories, I checked in with Cheryl to learn where she’d happened on such an unusual pea. “My grandmother brought the seed from Holland when she came over to the ‘new country’ 80 years ago,” said Cheryl. “She kept the seed going from year to year, as did my parents, and as do I.” Her family calls it simply the brown pea, but the Dutch called it ‘Capucijner blauwschokkers’ after the European Capuchin monks who developed the purple pea in the 1500s. Now it grows halfway around the world on a Whidbey Island hilltop.
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Where to get the goods
• Abundant Life Seed Foundation is coming back from a devastating fire in 2003, and is again offering organic heirloom vegetable, flower and herb seed. It was founded in Port Townsend, but after the fire has relocated to London, Ore., and is now a sister company to Territorial Seed. See www.abundantlifeseeds.com.
• Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds offers not only 1,000 kinds of vegetable, herb and flower seed but also The Heirloom Gardener ($10 per year), a quarterly magazine covering ethnic varieties for gardeners, seed-savers, cooks and history buffs. To order a catalog see www.rareseeds.com; to subscribe, www.theheirloomgardener.com.
• Nichols Garden Nursery, 1190 Old Salem Road N.E., Albany, OR 97321, 800-422-3985; www.nicholsgardennursery.com.
• Cooks Garden, P.O. Box C5030, Warminster, PA 18974; 800-457-9703; www.cooksgarden.com.
• Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 55 Benton Ave., Winslow, ME 04901; 877-564-6697; www.johnnyseeds.com.
What does heirloom really mean when it comes to vegetables? Heirlooms are not hybrids, which are deliberate, man-made cross-fertilizations of two different varieties. Hybrids contain the characteristics of both parents. So when you plant the seed of a hybrid, you can’t be sure what you’ll end up getting. For a visual take on the randomness of hybrid offspring, think about an unplanned litter of puppies in all their various colors and sizes and formations.
Heirloom varieties are open-pollinated by bees or wind. This means their seed will reproduce accurately and faithfully for as long as people care to save and plant it. Cheryl’s brown pea is so vital it germinates even when the seed is a decade old.
Inspired by Cheryl’s story, I’ve planted heirloom tomatoes in purple, yellow, red and stripes. Some of the varieties I’m trying out are ‘Flame Orange,’ ‘Green Zebra’ and ‘Black Prince’ — how to resist those names? I figure if we’re lucky enough to have some warm weather this summer, they shouldn’t be any trickier than the modern varieties to ripen, and the results should be tastier and certainly showier.
If the Kamera family has produced its pea for 80 years, I should be able to ripen some ‘Tigerella’ tomatoes this season, shouldn’t I?
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “A Pattern Garden.” Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Jacqueline Koch is a writer and photographer living in Seattle.