For the tomato lover, the produce aisle during summer months is as tempting as the window of a jewelry store. Rows of rainbow-hued globes of all shapes and sizes sparkle and wink from wooden crates. Shades of red, orange, yellow and brown. Tiger-striped green and ghostly white. Large, lumpy and bumpy. Diminutive ones the size of the tip of a finger. An endless variety of mismatched tomatoes, fresh off the vine from nearby farms, tempting the knowing connoisseur with the enviable title of heirloom.
The word heirloom has been tossed around farmer’s markets and food magazines for years, often without much regard given to the actual meaning of the term. It seemed a stylish food spread simply wasn’t complete without an heirloom tomato. With the rise in interest in urban homesteading and the Grow Your Own movement putting modern consumers in charge of their food’s origin, the idea of growing heirlooms now goes beyond culinary trend – it’s about protecting biodiversity in the food supply and preserving our agricultural heritage.
By definition, an heirloom crop is one that has been passed down through generations. Years ago, families were seed savers and chose to grow the crops they had always grown, the ones that suited their climate, stood the test of time and took pride of place in cherished family recipes. Ask anyone with a green thumb and romantic inclination which heirloom they are most passionate about – amongst all the Kentucky Wonders and Black Beauties of the world – and people inevitably go misty-eyed the most over their favorite heirloom tomato.
The mutations and nuances of texture and taste appear endless, the names dream-like: Brandywine, Principe Borghese and Cherokee Purple. The whimsically named Zapotec Pleated, a pink variety said to resemble a girl’s twirling dress. The voluptuous shapes and brash colors of these fruits appear like characters from a Picasso painting, with each edible gem seemingly endowed by nature with a particular destiny: Amish Paste for sauces, Chianti Rose for cool weather, San Marzano for just about everything from canning to eating barefoot in the garden.
From a more scientific perspective, heirloom crops are open pollinated varieties that existed before mass hybridization became commonplace, before commercial farming started breeding crops to resist certain diseases and to last longer on the shelves and in the backs of long-traveling trucks. The result however is that many of our oldest native crops, ones that had adapted over time to thrive in specific regions, making up the fabric of local agriculture – have been lost. Now, as more home growers and small farmers look to simpler, organic growing techniques, the idea of seed saving and seeking out heirloom crops is returning to the fore.
Growing heirlooms means preserving a variety of a crop that for years has grown successfully in one’s local area, naturally adapting over time to the weather and pests of the region, surviving the elements without the need for chemical fertilizers. It also preserves the tastes and characteristics that might otherwise have been bred out commercially – those unusual colors and textures, once considered imperfections, now cherished for the regional personality and history it embodies.
Growing these crops also means protecting biodiversity. When these heirloom varieties are lost, we narrow our pool of crop species, thus opening our society to risk when large scale commercial crops are hit by disease, weather or pests. The more varieties we maintain in our food supply, the less disastrous crop failures will be.
Thus friends, families and neighbors are once again making a move to become more self-sufficient as food consumers and choosing to take up the old time tradition of swapping seeds at markets, exchanges or simply over the backyard fence. The result – that kaleidoscope of fruits and vegetables, with quaint names and unique characteristics – links us to the past and our pioneering ancestors who introduced Old World crops to these lands. New enthusiasts who have missed out on the chance to grow their own pieces of agricultural history this year can do some enviable homework this summer and sample the heirloom varieties available in their local areas, in anticipation of next year’s garden plan.