The next time you start to pick up one of those perfectly round, red tomatoes at your local supermarket, stop and remember what Michelle Obama did one spring, when she wanted to serve fresh green salads and healthful, delicious sauces and soups to her family.
Instead of purchasing grocery store fruits and veggies that had been picked before they were fully ripe, and then refrigerated and boxed in cardboard cartons to ship across the country, America’s First Lady moved into the White House and dug up a patch of the South Lawn—to plant her own tomatoes.
But these weren’t just any tomatoes. These were heirlooms, varieties that our grandparents might have grown in their gardens, like ‘Brandywine,’ ‘Cherokee Purple,’ or ‘Mortgage Lifter.’
While heirloom plants are not new—they are simply open-pollinated varieties of common garden plants that have been around for 50 years or more—they’ve become fashionable, trendy, and wildly popular again.
That’s because chefs and everyday cooks can’t find the rich, deep flavors they’re seeking in today’s hybridized garden produce. To fill the void, we’re growing heirloom gardens, or buying from heirloom growers, to ensure we have delicious, nutritious meals to serve at the table.
Not sure growing or shopping for heirlooms fruits and vegetables is worth the effort? You can test the difference between the so-called antique varieties, and modern varieties, for yourself.
First, snack on a beautiful but bland supermarket tomato. Then savor a tomato that’s been fresh-picked from a garden, still warm from the summer sun, dripping with seeds and juice. Even if your homegrown tomato isn’t pretty—lumps and bumps and warty skins are characteristic of old-timey tomatoes—you’ll still bite into a fruit that’s bursting with goodness.
That kind of flavor is seldom found in modern varieties, whether we’re talking about eggplants, squash, pie pumpkins, beans, greens, or cantaloupes.
Even in the flower world, much has been lost as hybrids edged out heirlooms. Flowers like tea roses and petunias have been developed by years of breeding to give us bright colors, enormous blossoms, and strong stems, but they’ve lost their fragrance in the same way that vegetables and fruits have lost their flavors. Genetic tinkering comes with a price.
It’s enough to make you wonder why so many heirloom flowers, fruits and vegetables ever sent missing in the first place, but they nearly vanished when families stopped farming, and refrigerated trucks started carrying produce into the mass marketplace.
Consumers inadvertently did their part to chase heirlooms out the garden, too. As shoppers, we became more sophisticated, reluctant to buy fruits and veggies with odd shapes or spotted skins, mistakenly thinking that produce that looked better would taste better, too.
The end result: seed companies, nurseries, and garden centers stopped selling heirloom varieties. We wound up planting—and then buying—new varieties, because those were the only ones available.
Things started turning around in the 70s, with a revival of interest in eating fresh, organic foods. Today, we’re growing more heirlooms than ever because we also want to save our genetic heritage, and to keep a link to the ancestors who once grew these plants.
Admittedly, a few heirlooms may not grow as well as modern varieties. Heirloom tomatoes tend to grow taller and lankier than their modern counterparts, for example, and yield less. But most heirlooms are easy to grow, because they’ve survived for generations without much human intervention. They’ve adapted to become naturally resistant to many diseases, pests, and extremes of temperature and rainfall.
If you’re ready to give heirlooms a try, look for starter plants like ‘Brandywine’ tomatoes at your local garden center, nursery, or home and garden store.
While you won’t find a wide selection of heirloom starter plants, you can find almost anything you want to grow by shopping for seeds instead. Garden centers often carry specialized racks of heirloom seeds, and there are many mail order seed companies that will have what you’re looking for.
Once you’ve tried heirlooms, do your friends and neighbors a favor, and pass them along. Share the seeds, and help keep our rich genetic heritage for the next generation.
Where to buy heirloom seeds:
• Seed Savers Exchange, a non-profit, member-supported organization: www.sse.org
• Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Specializes in varieties recommended for the Mid-Atlantic region: www.southernexposure.com
• D. Landreth Seed Company: www.landrethseeds.com
• W.Atlee Burpee & Company: www.burpee.com
• Johnny’s Selected Seeds: www.johnnyseeds.com
• Renee’s Garden: www.reneesgarden.com
• Select Seeds (heirloom flowers only): www.selectseeds.com
Lynn Coulter is the author of Gardening with Heirloom Seeds: Tried-and-True Flowers, Fruits, & Vegetables for a New Generation (UNC Press), available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or wherever books are sold. For more information, please visit www.LynnCoulter.com.