Posts tagged ‘heirloom seeds’

Blue potatoes and candy cane beets: The odyssey of an heirloom

Last weekend I made a big pot of Borscht, as I do at least once every year. I use the recipe from the original Moosewood cookbook, and it’s pretty much my favorite soup ever. They should call it “Root Veggie (plus Cabbage) Delight.”

Blue potatoes and candy cane beets

But my love of Borscht is not why I’m writing this post. This post came to fruition because I used a few new ingredients in the Borscht this year. Nothing wild and crazy, just blue potatoes and candy cane beets. That’s right. BLUE potatoes and CANDY CANE beets. I promise you, I am not making these up.

You see, in our current agricultural system we grow very few of the crops once available and cultivated by humans around the planet. I recently finished reading an article in the July 2011 issue of National Geographic called “Food Ark,” which discussed a number of issues around seed varieties which have been lost and many which have been saved through the hard work of concerned individuals across the globe. Even still, the number of beets varieties commercially available has gone from 288 to 17 in the last one hundred years. Lettuce has gone from 497 varieties to just three dozen in the same period of time. And the case of dwindling options goes on – this chart gives a stark visual of the seed situation.

Many of these types of crops, as well as livestock, which are not seen in large scale farming, are referred to as “heirlooms.” Most were developed by local communities to suit the growing conditions of the area, and were subsequently saved by generation after generation. Because these seeds belong to families and communities, they are hard to patent, thus a very important aspect of heirlooms. Food sovereignty. Most of the world’s seeds are “owned” by a select few companies – something I personally think should be illegal – and these heirloom varieties are an important part of maintaining all people’s right to food.

Some people will try to tell you that heirlooms are “genetically inferior” and “only alive for nostalgia’s sake,” but it simply isn’t true. Sure, not all heirlooms can be grown everywhere, to a certain extent that defeats part of the purpose of heirlooms, but many of them have traits (pest and disease resistance, as well as drought or flood tolerance) which make them much stronger in certain regions than the commercial, monocrop varieties most of us buy at the grocery store. In addition, the taste of many heirlooms is absolutely superb. Heirlooms generally don’t do well over long distance travel, there has been no reason to breed that trait into them, as there has been with most large-scale varieties. But many commercial varieties have gained “shipability” and shelf life at the cost of flavor, something that those of us who appreciate good tasting food, in addition to high quality food, appreciate.

This summer, I was involved with three gardens. Our staff garden at work, the community garden at Cottageville Park and a shared garden with a friend, each of which contained several heirlooms. We tried the Cylindra Beet and Envy Soya Beans (edamame) from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. A friend donated squash, okra and lettuce varieties from Seed Savers Exchange. The plethora of tomato seedlings we planted in the three gardens this year were almost all heirlooms; some of my favorites have names like Stump of the World, Pruden’s Purple, Orange Strawberry, Black Cherry, KBX and Paul Robeson (many of which came from my friend at Norsejenta’s Seedlings). Our peppers came in a fantastic array of shapes, sizes and colors; highlights include Bulgarian Carrot and Cayenne, both scorchingly hot, and Lipstick and Gypsy, two sweet treats I’ll be repeating in the future.

All in all, I think this was one of the most diverse and colorful gardens I’ve ever been proud to grow. There are many options for buying both seeds and seedlings. So next spring, as you begin to plan your garden, consider heirlooms, you may just find your new favorites.

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September 26, 2011 at 11:56 pm 3 comments


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