One thing is certain: if you find that perfect variety of heirloom tomato or cucumber or onion, the one that makes you think of summers and sandwiches on Grandma’s porch a long time ago, it’s almost impossible to let it go.
“The thing I love about the heirloom tomatoes is they have a better taste. The flavor of Brandywine is to die for. It’s the best of the 10 varieties I grow every year,” says Carol Martin, a gardener at the Green Thumb Nursery in Spokane Valley. Martin and her boss, Nancy Nishimura, grow and sell about 30 different varieties of tomatoes at Nishimura’s nursery in Spokane Valley. Several of them are heirlooms.
“Growing heirloom vegetables is like growing a little piece of the world in your garden,” says Rose Marie Nichols-Magee, president of Nichols Garden Nursery in Albany, Ore. Nichols-Magee specializes in heirloom and open-pollinated vegetables and herbs, through a catalog and retail nursery ( www.nicholsgardennursery.com) started by her father more than 50 years ago.
“Heirlooms developed out of the regional cuisine and what people liked,” says Nichols-Magee. They are little bits of garden history that have been passed from one generation of gardeners to the next sometimes for hundreds of years. “This is the mystique of the heirloom and what gets people fired up and interested in (growing them).”
For Spokane gardener Mary Lee Gaston, this tradition has a familiar ring. Her Italian father saved seed from the family garden that grew in the shadow of Mount St. Michael’s Scholasticate in Hillyard.
“My dad used to save all these seeds and have them in little burlap bags he hung from the attic rafters. Every spring he would replant them,” she says. Gaston has continued that tradition today saying she is just “seed crazy”.
“When we are talking about heirlooms, we are talking about those varieties that produce well, that it is easy to collect the seed from, that have a flavor and an overall quality that appeals to the gardener, and to the consumer,” says Nichols-Magee. These varieties were grown for their flavor, their long keeping or storage qualities, or for special tolerance to growing and weather conditions in the area where they originated generations ago.
Nichols-Magee says that different regions all over the world each had their favorites among the local mainstay vegetables and herbs. In central Europe, for instance, that meant that there were several varieties of celeriac and parsley root which are key ingredients of soups, a regional dietary mainstay. To keep these varieties going from year to year, the gardener would save some of the seed from the best plants. These seeds were replanted in the spring and the soup always tasted the same.
And some of these seeds traveled with immigrants to other continents like the United States.
Flowers and bees
An heirloom’s flowers are naturally pollinated in the garden by means of wind or insects. This is called open-pollination because there is no effort to control the process. The seed that results from this pollination is saved and replanted the next spring. Each planting will reliably produce exactly the same kind of vegetable, fruit or flower that its parents did, seed generation after seed generation.
Some experts and dedicated fans of heirlooms say that an heirloom variety must be at least 50, or even 100 years old, to qualify as such. In some cases that’s easy, as some varieties have a history that dates back several hundred years.
If heirlooms are defined as being from a particular region, then what are some of the Northwest’s own heirlooms? Nichols-Magee says that defining our heirlooms is difficult because this region has a short history when compared to other regions in the eastern U.S. and other parts of the world. There hasn’t been a lot of time for them to develop.
“We have the Walla Walla Sweets (onion) and that is most assuredly a Northwest heirloom variety,” says Nichols-Magee. “It was brought here from Italy, nevertheless, it is established here. It has been selected from many, many seed generations and it does beautifully.”
Nichols-Magee is not sure what our tomato heirlooms are.
“I plan to go up to the library at Oregon State University which has a collection of old catalogs and see what varieties appeared year after year and what claims they made for them in catalogs that go back 100 years,” she says.
Know your heirlooms
Growing heirlooms that come from far away regions here in the Northwest can be a challenge for the very same reasons these heirlooms do well in their home region. Each heirloom evolved in its own habitat and adapted to the weather patterns, soils, temperatures and likes of the gardener. While the likes of the gardener can be moved from place to place, weather, soil and climate factors can’t.
Take Carol Martin’s favorite Brandywine tomato. It was developed in the Brandywine Valley of Pennsylvania by an Amish farmer around 1885. It grew beautifully there developing into a luscious rich mainstay of local gardens. However, it takes the plant about 90 days to produce ripe fruit.
This is fine in Pennsylvania but not in the very short growing season of our Inland Northwest where 60-70 days is our limit.
As a result, even though Martin loves her Brandywine, she gets a good crop only when we have an exceptionally long, warm summer. Because it does not produce fruit and seeds reliably here, it can’t be considered as an heirloom to the Northwest.
Interest in heirlooms is growing for another more global reason: they represent and continue to add biodiversity. Biodiversity and heirloom food crops have been disappearing rapidly from modern agriculture since the introduction of hybrid varieties of crops in the first half of the 20th century. Where thousands of varieties supplied our food needs before the introduction of hybrids, a few hundred now provide the bulk of global staple crops like corn, grain and most vegetables.
Hybrids plants were developed by the controlled pollination of selected plants to enhance desirable traits like rapid growth or disease resistance. Unlike heirlooms, if the second generation of hybrid seeds is planted, the traits they were selected for will not carry through. As a result, the gardener or farmer cannot save the seed from year to year and must buy new seed every year.
Hybrids became very popular because they took a lot of the uncertainty out of farming. At the end of World War II, this was important as the population and the demand for food grew. Farmers could reliably produce crops with higher yields, increased disease and pest resistance and better adaptability to climate challenges. Heirloom or open-pollinated crops could not compete reliably and began disappearing from catalogs and fields. For many people, the ability to raise more food reliably on the same amount of land was a godsend.
With a limited number of crops carrying the bulk of the world’s food supply, there is concern that disease or bugs could attack one of these hybridized staple crops and substantially reduce yields in a wide region if not globally.
It’s happened before. The Irish potato famine of the late 1840s was caused by a blight that attacked the primary variety of potato planted by the Irish. This disaster eventually killed as many as a million people. Had they planted a number of different varieties, the impact of the famine would probably have been reduced and that is exactly why biodiversity is so important. Just like in dog breeding, the larger the gene pool the better.
Serious disease attacks have happened in more recent history.
Nichols-Magee says Stewart’s wilt attacked the commercial corn industry about 20 years ago.
“Most commercial corn varieties had a very narrow range of genes and were very susceptible to it. (Scientists) had to go back to the wild strains and bring in disease resistant material,” says Nichols-Magee. “They did it pretty fast but only because these wild and semi-wild strains had been saved and were still there in university seed banks.”