The diversity of of heirloom vegetables would astound you. We've gotten used to seeing minimal types of each kind of produce, and often don't realize that a whole world of options exist. In general, an heirloom vegetable has been around for at least 50 years (but usually much longer). Some varieties that are still being grown have been around for hundreds of years!
The seed from an heirloom vegetable will produce a plant and fruit like the parent plant, which is how these varieties are passed down through generations.
At Bee Loved Gardens, we have chosen to grow many varieties of heirloom vegetables. There are many modern hybrids available, but heirloom crops have some appealing features. Here are a few:
1. Flavour. It all comes back to flavour. Ultimately, seeds from these varieties were kept because they tasted amazing. If we based all our eating choices on flavour, then factors like size, shipping ability and uniformity would be a lot less important.
Taking tomatoes as an example, here are a few ways that some types of heirlooms are described: smoky, fruity, zesty, sweet, pineapple-y, rich, tangy, robust, phenomenal, incredible, ouststanding... This is why I have a hard time growing less than 2 dozen types of tomatoes!
2. Variety. There are thousands of types of potatoes in the world (anywhere from 4000 to 8000, depending on the source of information). Most people have only heard of a couple dozen types at best. There are thousands of types of tomatoes; hundreds of types of apples; the list could go on.
Having multiple varieties of vegetables (and fruits) makes eating so much more interesting! A person could get tired of eating potatoes if they had the same kind all the time. When there were multiple types to enjoy, prepared in different ways, there is unlimited potential!
3. Interesting Colours and Shapes. Did you know that heirloom carrots come in a whole array of colours? Different shades of purple, red, white, yellow... and some orange. Tomatoes and potatoes come in almost every colour (as well as sizes and shapes). For example, some varieties of tomatoes are hollow, which are perfect for stuffing and baking.
Fresh beans can be green, yellow, red, purple, or streaked with various colours. Dried beans come in hundreds of colours and beautiful patterns. These heirloom vegetables look stunning on your plate - far from boring!
4. More Nutrients. The thing about these varying colours is that they usually mean the foods contain more nutrients. In the newly-released book "Eating on the Wild Side", Jo Robinson does a great job at explaining how heirloom / coloured vegetables contain more nutrients. For example, dark purple vegetables contain nutrients like anthocyanins, which are abundant in dark grapes and wines.
The picture of cauliflower above shows two types of heirloom cauliflower: orange and purple. Yes, they really are that orange and purple! Beautiful! All cauliflowers used to be either green, orange and purple. Someone figured out how to blanch the heads to get white cauliflower (and developed seed for heads that could easily be blanched), and it has become the most popular. All cauliflower is nutritious, but the purple, green and orange varieties are nutritional powerhouses compared to the white kind.
In comparison to most modern hybrids, most heirloom vegetables are also able to take up more nutrients from the soil and air - another factor that leads to greater flavour.
5. Texture. This becomes important when you're cooking something like potatoes. Do you want potatoes to boil, bake, or mash? Or, do you want to make potato salad, latkes or fries? Each variety of potato will give different results, either making a recipe give amazing results or cause the recipe to totally flop. Potatoes can be classified as dry, moist, mealy, waxy, starchy... so it pays to know which type would work well in different recipes. This is true for other produce too - different types for different uses.
6. Unique Adaptations. Each variety of vegetable has different strengths... grows well in early spring / the heat of summer / late fall, stores well, over-winters in the garden, tolerates wet soil / dry soil / cool soil / warm soil, does well in short day-lengths / long day-lengths, resistant to certain diseases / pests, etc.
These may seem like considerations that would only matter to farmers and gardeners - but the reality is that these factors directly impact eaters too!
7. Preserve Diversity. The seeds from heirloom vegetables can be saved from year to year (in comparison, the offspring from seeds of hybrids will not be same as the parent plants; you don't know what you'll get). This helps to preserve some of the unique characteristics and flavours that are not found in modern hybrids. Using heirloom seeds helps to retain some of our heritage of a rich diversity in food crops.
Look for many heirlooms in your weekly vegetable boxes! I hope you will enjoy their outstanding flavours!
Leave a comment to tell what kinds of heirloom vegetables you've eaten (or want to try).