Heirloom Vegetables Combine Nutrition, Flavor, History and Culture
By Loren Freed
April 27, 2021
If you have an heirloom that’s been passed down in your family — jewelry, furniture, a piece of art — you know the appeal of things that are comfortable, familiar and reliable but at the same time beautiful and rich with history.
This is part of the allure of heirloom vegetables.
From tender Green Arrow peas to deep red Brandywine tomatoes, from the fiery hot Jamaican yellow pepper to the delicate citrusy sweetness of a Lemon cucumber, heirlooms have been enjoying a renaissance in the last few decades. Until the 1980s, the most common way to encounter one was to have seeds passed down in your family, or given to you by a sugar-pumpkin- or pole-bean-growing neighbor.
Now, however, you’re likely to find heirlooms at farmer’s markets, on the menus of farm-to-table restaurants, and dotting the pages of seed catalogs dedicated to preserving antique varieties, in all their rainbow glory.
What Are Heirlooms?
Heirlooms are not a specific species. Rather, they are plants that have not been improved through hybridization, but have the same characteristics year after year, each time they are cultivated. Any plant that carries the same genetics as its forebears is an heirloom, and is said to grow “true to seed.”
There is debate on what constitutes an heirloom. The most commonly accepted definition, though, requires that a plant has been open pollinated, or naturally pollinated by wind, animals, birds, insects or humans. However, even though all heirlooms are open-pollinated, not all open-pollinated varieties are heirlooms.
Some seed companies identify heirloom varieties by date, any that are 50 years or older. Others, however, such as Seed Savers Exchange and Secret Seed Cartel, carefully document the history of the seeds in their collection so they can confidently identify which are heirlooms.
Many of the heirloom varieties we are familiar with today have been identified through family collections, where they have been saved and grown for generations.
How are heirlooms different from conventional seeds/plants?
Most conventional fruit and vegetable varieties sold today are hybrids. Large scale commercial hybridizing began in the 1930s during the Great Depression, as a means to help farmers maximize their corn crops. Today, thousands of new hybrid varieties are introduced each year.
Creating a hybrid involves crossing two or more varieties to bring out certain traits such as color, size, shape, flavor, productivity and disease resistance. Hybridizing has nearly eliminated some common plant diseases and susceptibility to insect damage, so there is a lot to like about hybrids. But at the other extreme are the familiar Florida-grown grocery store hybrid tomatoes that are bred to travel well. Picked when green then gas-ripened, they have about as much taste as the boxes they were packed in.
5 Reasons to Choose Heirlooms
There are multiple reasons for the popularity of heirlooms.
Taste tops the list, and rightly so. Over years of hybridizing, taste has been bred out of many fruit and vegetable varieties in favor of thick skins and square shapes that make them easy to stack.
Before the era of commercial agriculture, produce never traveled farther than a few miles from farmer to consumer. Modern produce, however, logs an average 1500 miles to get to a grocery store, and taste has suffered in the process.
Heirlooms, on the other hand, are famous for their rich and complex flavors. There is no mistaking a homegrown or small farm grown Cherokee Purple, Paul Robeson, Russian Queen or Arkansas Traveler for a grocery store tomato.
Those same store-bought tomatoes, it turns out, fall short on nutrients when compared to older heirloom varieties. Nutrition has been one of the casualties of the process of selection and hybridization for commercial production over the last 120 years.
Donald R. Davis, a chemist at the University of Texas, analyzed several studies that compared nutritional content between common vegetable, fruit and grain varieties developed in the mid-20th century to their unimproved heirloom counterparts. His findings revealed the following:
A study of 56 historical and 7 modern wheat cultivars found that vitamin and mineral concentrations were significantly reduced in the modern hybridized varieties.
A comparison of 43 common crops grown in 1950 to the same or equivalent varieties produced in 1999 revealed a decline in nutrient content. The study revealed what Dr. Davis termed the “dilution effect,” where higher yield was correlated with lower vitamin, mineral and amino acid content.
A study performed on 45 varieties of corn found that protein, oil and amino acid content declined significantly between 1920 and 2001.
A separate study of mineral content in broccoli hybrids compared with historical varieties developed prior to 1950 showed a steep decline in calcium content in the commercial hybrids.
The dilution effect hypothesized by Dr. Davis is thought to be responsible for the decline in nutrient content when high-yielding crops become more common. In short, in emphasizing yield, nutrition is sacrificed. These studies parallel the development of modern hybrid crops and the phasing out of heirlooms in the commercial sphere. Those older varieties were among those we would consider heirlooms.
3. Historical connections
The history of heirloom plants is an essential part of human history. Often, learning about these older varieties reveals stories that have been all but lost over time.
The Fish pepper is one such example. Gaudily colored and ranging from mild to hot on the heat scale depending on when it is picked, the Fish made its way to the United States from the Carribbean in the 19th century, most likely in the possession of slaves. It flourished in the gardens of Black Americans around Baltimore and Pennsylvania until the early 20th century, and was a prized ingredient in seafood restaurants.
The Fish all but disappeared in the rise of urbanization, but was reintroduced by Horace Pippin, a black folk painter who traded some seeds to H. Ralph Weaver, a beekeeper, in exchange for some bees that he planned to use as an arthritis remedy. The seeds stayed in Weaver’s family until his grandson gave them to Seed Savers, and they have seen a rise in popularity ever since.
There are many such stories in the heirloom annals. Lisa Epp Lopez, a gardener in Santa Fe, New Mexico, grows heirloom chile peppers that were cultivated by the Pueblo tribes who lived on that land for thousands of years. “When I plant heirlooms, I’m planting history,” she says. Growing those crops fosters a sense of connection to the people who lived there before her, as well as their descendants who still live in the region.
4. Cultural identity
Cultural identity is embedded with traditional foodways of ethnic groups all over the world. Melvin Leroy Arthur, a member of the Northern Arapaho tribe, describes growing up on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming where the ability for tribe members to feed themselves was directly related to their access to traditional foods, especially in their own home gardens. Tribal members were motivated to return to these gardening traditions after seeing family members — especially children — diagnosed with diabetes. Once home gardens regained favor, improved health outcomes have been the result across the community.
Seed sovereignty is another aspect of cultural connection to food. In the Black American experience, slave gardens were essential not only to the survival of black families but also as part of their resistance to cultural genocide. The importance of land for food production was emphasized by Black leaders such as Fannie Lou Hamer (and her Freedom Farm), Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Their work on behalf of food justice helped contribute to the rise of the heirloom seed movement.
5. Food security
Heirlooms are open-pollinated, which means that home gardeners can save their own seeds with confidence that they will have the same characteristics as the parent plants. Planting seeds from hybrids isn’t viable in most cases, as the seeds will either be sterile or will produce a rogue plant with undesirable characteristics.
Savings seeds from heirloom vegetables protects the ability of small farmers and home gardeners to grow crops without having to resort to purchasing seeds. It also protects the food supply.
In a time when agricultural conglomerates routinely place seed patents on their products that legally prevent farmers from harvesting and replanting seeds, heirloom seed saving is a bulwark against the twin catastrophes of famine and economic collapse. Struggles between farmers and large corporations around seed rights have been playing out on the world stage for years, with devastating consequences for small growers.
Participating in the heirloom movement by saving seeds or supporting small farmers is a way to stave off these consequences while contributing to sustainable food systems. And gardeners have ample opportunities to do just that by saving their own seeds or by purchasing from some of the many small seed companies that have sprouted over the last few decades, bringing rich history, cultural heritage and culinary delights from the world to our tables.
Heirloom vegetables cross the generations to bring a wealth of flavor, color, nutrition and story from the past. They offer culinary variety and health benefits while keeping history alive and highlighting the contributions of growers from a host of ethnic traditions, both in the past and in the present.
Heirlooms inspire human connection as well. Enthusiastic communities of gardeners swap growing tips, cooking ideas and form enduring friendships. One such example is Tomatoville, an online community where Terri Prunet, co-owner of Secret Seed Cartel, met her husband, and where a passionate cadre of heirloom adherents gathers. “I like to say that a tomato changed my life,” she says.
Providing a sense of continuity and connection in a fragmented world, heirlooms help us discover our roots in more ways than one. The time has never been better to explore this rich diversity.
Loren Freed is a freelance health and wellness writer. She’s a New York native who now makes her home in Tennessee where the gardening season is nice and long. Loren describes herself as someone who salivates over seed catalogs the way normal people obsess over coffee.