July 2009 Issue

Heirlooms — Unique Varieties Preserve History, Support Biodiversity
By Lindsey Getz
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 11 No. 7 P. 16

To those who believe a tomato is always round and red, heirloom fruits and vegetables may come as a surprise. The round, red tomatoes sold in the grocery store are just one popular variety, but in fact, tomatoes can sport many looks. Heirloom tomatoes can be orange, yellow, striped, purple, pear shaped, or round, among many other possible characteristics. And they don’t necessarily have a taste you’d expect.

Heirloom fruits and vegetables are essentially cultivated plants that were grown in earlier periods of human history but are not used in modern-day, large-scale agriculture. Those who have collected seeds or even kept particular plants within their family have helped keep heirloom varieties alive. To be considered an heirloom, a plant must be “open pollinated,” which means it will grow “true to type,” producing plants like the parents from seed. Genetically modified and hybrid plant varieties are not open pollinated. In fact, seeds from genetically modified plants are often sterile, and seeds from hybrids will not grow an identical plant.

While some gardeners and various groups have focused on raising heirlooms for years, the varieties have recently gained larger scale interest as more people learn about gardening. “There’s definitely been a large movement toward growing your own food,” says Jeanne Peters, RD, nutrition director of the Nourishing Wellness Medical Center in Torrance, Calif. “And the Obamas planting a vegetable garden at the White House has done a lot to foster even more interest.”

Why Grow Heirlooms?
There are many reasons why gardeners would want to consider growing heirlooms at home. One reason is simply that they can be fun to grow. With heirlooms, you never really know what to expect, and you can end up with unique fruits and vegetables in varying sizes, shapes, and styles—and with very unique tastes.

Don Rosenberg, owner of Instant Organic Garden, a company that installs organic vegetable gardens in backyards, and author of No Green Thumb Required! Organic Family Gardening Made Easy, says that growing heirlooms is one of the best ways to interest kids in vegetables. “Vegetables from heirloom seeds are going to taste better and be more unusual, and that’s something that gets people excited about gardening—kids in particular,” he says. “One example of an heirloom vegetable that kids might be interested in are purple potted beans, which turn green as they’re being cooked.”

Rosenberg adds that kids will not only want to help grow them but will also want to eat what they’ve helped produce. “I’ve found that when kids are invested in helping grow the vegetables, they will be more willing to try tasting them. Suddenly, you’ve won the battle, and your kids are eating vegetables,” he says.

With heirlooms, there are many interesting fruit and vegetable choices that won’t look or taste like anything you’ve tried before. Mayo Underwood, founder of Underwood Gardens, an organic gardening company, says she has grown some incredibly unique heirlooms over the years. “One of my favorites is something called a ground cherry [also known as a strawberry husk tomato], which grows inside of a husk,” she says. “I think it tastes like a cross between a pineapple and a strawberry.” Underwood also enjoys growing pretzel beans, which are exactly what they sound like—beans that grow in the shape of a pretzel. She says they are quite tasty.

Heirloom seeds were selected to be saved and passed down for so many years for a reason—sometimes it’s their uniqueness, but it’s often that they are a flavorful variety.

Another reason that gardeners enjoy maintaining heirlooms is the historical factor. After all, heirlooms are living artifacts. It’s not only educationally beneficial but also fascinating to grow vegetables that have existed for ages. “It’s like growing a part of history,” says Underwood. “It’s the chance to grow something that those before us have also grown—maybe a historical figure, like a past president.” And for those who have kept seeds within their family for years, it’s a piece of family history, too.

But what some consider to be the most important reason for growing heirlooms is to promote biodiversity. These people grow heirlooms to increase the available gene pool for a particular plant. In other words, by maintaining heirlooms, you allow the variety to live on rather than being limited to only those vegetables that commercial agriculture has deemed worthy. Many believe this purpose for heirlooms is of incredible importance for future generations, as the overspecialization of crops leaves them more vulnerable to problems. Diseases and pests are more likely to affect hybrid plants that haven’t been allowed to adapt.

“Keeping heirloom foods around allows us to have a very diverse food supply, without the possibility that all of one crop could be wiped out due to pests or other disasters,” says Jill Nussinow, MS, RD, also known as The Veggie Queen. “Think of the potato famine!”

Get Growing
While anyone can learn to grow heirlooms—it isn’t all that different from growing common varieties—new gardeners may find growing them to be a little tricky at first. “You just have to make sure you get the right plant for your area or else it can be really frustrating,” says Nussinow. “Just make sure the person you get your heirloom plant or seeds from knows what type of climate you live in. As a personal example, I once tried growing a Russian cucumber, which turned out to be the worst-producing cucumber I had. It was likely related to the climate I’m situated in. It was probably just a little too cool for this cucumber to thrive.”

Of all of the heirloom vegetables, tomatoes tend to be the most well known and are probably most frequently grown, but there are many other choices. Peters says she grows a variety of candy-striped beets that came from Italy in the late 1800s. “It grows really well,” she says. “I live in southern California, right along the coast, so I’m able to grow things that can handle cooler weather with occasional periods of heat. As a result, I’ve found that Mediterranean vegetables tend to work really well.”

And as more people express interest in gardening, it’s become easier to obtain heirloom seeds and plants. “Because there’s been a tremendous amount of interest in gardening, many more varieties of seeds are being made available,” says Rosenberg. “You can now get seed collections that have heirloom varieties at a place like Wal-Mart or The Home Depot. You just need to know to look for them. They’re going to be more expensive, but it’s worth it. You’re adding excitement and flavor to your garden.”

Seed companies such as Burpee carry heirloom varieties, often referred to as “commercial heirlooms.” These seeds were kept by a family over many years before being picked up and produced by a commercial seed company.

It used to be that a dietitian’s job centered around helping clients know what to eat. And while that’s obviously still a major part of the role, today’s dietitians are finding they also need to educate their clients about how food is grown. “Because the big factory farms are not repleting the soil, our vegetables are losing nutrition content,” says Peters. “Vegetables are only as healthy as the soil they’re grown in. That’s why this movement toward growing one’s own food is so huge. And as a dietitian, I feel it’s now part of my job to help teach my clients about growing food.”

There are many ways that you can help your clients learn more about growing food. Peters hosts cooking classes in which her clients use plants taken from the garden, and she shows them how to cook with fresh ingredients. She even teaches them about composting. “I’ve been a dietitian since 1979, and in those 30 years, the nutritional value of our plants has really decreased,” she says. “Today, it takes around 10 servings of vegetables to have the nutritional value of one serving back in the day. So we can no longer rely on the supermarket for our nutrition. That’s why I help my clients to realize that growing their own food allows them to really watch what they’re putting into their body.”

If you have clients asking about growing their own food or expressing interest in heirlooms, there are many places to turn for more information if you’re not an experienced gardener. The Seed Savers Exchange, for instance, is a nonprofit organization that saves and shares heirloom seeds. To date, exchange members have distributed an estimated 1 million samples of rare garden seeds since the organization was founded 35 years ago. For more information about the exchange, visit www.seedsavers.org. There are also plenty of books on the subject, as well as many seed companies specializing in heirlooms that can help get you or your clients started with growing a little taste of history.


— Lindsey Getz is a freelance writer based in Royersford, Pa.


The Delicious Tomato
If you’re looking for information and recipes on heirloom tomatoes, a new book by grower Amy Goldman may be the perfect addition to your library. The Heirloom Tomato: From Garden to Table features 250 photos of some of Goldman’s most interesting tomatoes, along with fascinating facts and more than 50 recipes. Here’s one to try.

Heirloom Tomato Chips

Yields 1 lb

1 cup virgin olive oil
2 T finely minced garlic
3 lbs assorted heirloom tomatoes, sliced 1⁄4-inch thick
2 T salt
Fresh ground pepper
1⁄4 cup finely chopped thyme

1. In a sauté pan, warm the olive oil over medium/low heat until it begins to ripple slightly at the bottom of the pan, no higher than 140˚F. Add the garlic and remove from the heat. Infuse the olive oil for 2 hours. Strain out the garlic and reserve the oil.

2. Preheat the oven to 250˚F.

3. Line two rimmed baking sheets with Silpat mats.

4. Brush the sliced tomatoes with the garlic olive oil. Season with salt, pepper, and thyme. Place in the pan in a single layer. Bake for 1 hour, then lower the temperature to 200˚F. Continue baking for 3 to 5 hours (or longer, depending on moisture content of tomatoes) until chips are dehydrated and crisp. If not eaten immediately, chips should be stored in an airtight container.

— Used with permission from The Heirloom Tomato: From Garden to Table