Preserving heirloom plants provides superior tasting fruits and vegetables and more diverse flowers and trees, while allowing us to pass down decades-old family heritage
Fat Man, Lazy Wife, Bloody Butcher, Baby Face, Cherokee Purple, Arkansas Black, Greasy Grit, Tobacco Worm, Dragon’s Tongue, and Old Joe Clark.
Recognize any of them? They are all colorful names for heirloom vegetables.
You won’t find them in the supermarket produce section—not yet. But as public demand continues to grow for a greater diversity of vegetables and fruits with more distinctive flavor and are more ecologically sustainable, heirloom crop varieties are coming into the culinary and conservation mainstream. In addition to heirloom vegetables and fruits, there are also many heirloom flowers and plants.
What is an heirloom plant? According to Brook Elliott of the Appalachian Heirloom Seed Conservancy in Richmond, an heirloom is basically defined as an open-pollinated plant variety (one that has been naturally fertilized by wind, insects, birds, or mammals) that has been grown for at least 50 years. Heirloom plants often have a regional or family history as well.
Many seeds are saved from plants that have grown in a family’s garden for four generations and more.
Heirloom seed collecting and farming not only preserve a heritage, they also help maintain genetic biodiversity, which is fast disappearing from the prevalent form of industrialized, commercial monoculture farming.
Because commercial emphasis is on homogenized appearance, easy shipping, and shelf life, the numbers of produce varieties for market have been cut back and genetically modified for durability.
“There’s more and more toughness, less and less flavor,” remarks heirloom tomato and bean grower Bill Best of Berea.
The modern rise of heirlooms began, in good part, as a “rebellion against bad food,” according to Best. He started with some greasy bean varieties from his mother, with additions from neighbors and those he was given at speaking engagements and farmers’ markets. The turning point for Best came as the result of a 1988 article on his farm by Judy Sizemore in Rural Kentuckian magazine (the name prior to Kentucky Living). He received 86 letters from readers all over the country, as well as Kentucky, expressing interest in heirlooms. “I realized that there was a groundswell happening,” says Best.
He still gets letters regarding seed saving and swapping, primarily by his Web site, www.heirlooms.org, resulting in an informal network of fellow enthusiasts. Best now grows and collects more than 300 varieties of beans, mostly heirlooms, and 50 varieties of Appalachian heirloom tomatoes.
Beans are the most-often saved heirloom seeds, because of the ease of collecting them. Most heirloom beans are “family” varieties—raised in the isolation of an eastern Kentucky mountain hollow for generations, allowing particular desired mutations to flourish. They are often given to expert heirloom collectors, such as Bill Best, carefully stored in a medicine bottle or even mailed in a checkbook box, “a measure,” Best says, “of how valuable they were to their givers.”
Most of the beans have no name designation, other than a general type: greasy (smooth, slick-hulled), or goose or Turkey Craw (the progenitor bean found in the throat of a goose or turkey). Collectors often rename them for the giver’s family (Sam Baker, Mary Moore, Fred Boland’s Father’s); the region the bean is from (Barnes Mountain Cornfield, Jackson County Greasy, Clinton County Partridge); its appearance (Long Brown Speckled Greasy, Cut Short, Ram’s Horn); or even the container it came in (Pillbox). As a result, the same bean may have different names—and few have documentation earlier than the family’s third generation.
Clare Sipple of Winchester specializes in saving and growing heirloom flowers and trees as a hobby. “Who among us doesn’t have a favorite garden fragrance that takes us back to happier times?” she says. “I still send bouquets of Carlesi viburnums to my children via overnight mail because of their fondness for this spicy aroma, which represents springtime on our front porch.” She expresses a special affection for hollyhocks. “I remember our grandmother lovingly tending ones that had been planted by her mother.”
Over the years, Sipple has collected what she calls “an eclectic assortment” of both woody and herbaceous heirloom plants. One of her favorites is lunaria, or money plant. She was given a start of this biennial by a friend, whose grandmother had planted them decades ago. The plant can be easily transplanted in its first year, or the seeds from the pods can be planted. They also readily reseed themselves.
“One plant,” says Sipple, “has spread to become several dozen that encircle my back yard, and provide a wonderful display in early spring at precisely the same time that the redbuds are blooming.”
Sipple also enjoys heirloom daffodils in her garden, which evoke childhood memories of spring walks with her mother in southern Clark County, looking for wildflowers and signs of old, vanished home sites. Some of the heirloom plant signs of those lost dwellings are periwinkle, yucca, daffodils, forsythia, lilacs, quince, privet, daylilies, and iris.
From old homes in Winchester that have been demolished, Sipple rescues heirloom plants “that remind me of the architectural heritage of our community.” Pink Naked Lady lilies are among those she has saved from the bulldozer and shared with friends.
Some heirloom enthusiasts see themselves not only as collectors and preservationists, but also as public educators. Brook Elliott began the Appalachian Heirloom Seed Conservancy three years ago after getting involved with heirlooms as a historical re-enactor and food historian who wanted to grow an authentic 18th-century garden. The AHSC is a nonprofit network of heirloom food plant enthusiasts with members in 12 states. It provides a means to exchange information, share seeds, establish a seed bank of Appala-chian heirloom crops, record documented and anecdotal history of varieties, and educate its members and the general public about heirlooms, crop diversity, and sustainable agriculture.
“Don’t think of seed-saving organizations as catalogs or suppliers,” says Elliott. “They’re meant to be devoted to preservation.” As its name indicates, the group is primarily concerned with the preservation of heirlooms of the southern Appalachian states: Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. Missouri is also covered, because of the historic migration of seeds from Kentucky and Tennessee into that region.
Clark County Public Library director Julie Maruskin has the entire Kentucky public library system at her disposal to spread her love and knowledge of heirloom growing and seed saving—through her traveling workshops, she does just that.
“This is one of the crown jewels of our programs,” says Maruskin. Now going into its sixth year, her program is drawing an exponentially increasing number of attendees: in 2005, 20 classes in 11 counties drew 573 aspiring heirloom gardeners of all ages. Topics have included seed-starting, heirloom flowers with Clare Sipple, heirloom beans with Bill Best, growing gourds with Cecil R. Ison, and gardening with the moon, taught by her husband, John Maruskin.
Maruskin, like other growers, got into heirloom gardening because of her dissatisfaction with industrial produce. “I’d rather eat tomatoes that taste like tomatoes,” she says. “If I wanted tomatoes like the ones I remembered, I realized I’d have to grow them myself.”
She and her husband grow 30 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, including Appalachian varieties such as Quail Egg Red, Yellow Bell, and Depp’s Pink Firefly, tomatillos, eggplant, and peppers, which produce many of the 350 varieties of seeds she uses and distributes in her classes.
Thanks to a Library Services and Technology Act grant from the state through the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives, Maruskin will be expanding the program in libraries in 25 Kentucky counties this year. Her three-hour workshops will cover seed-starting, the history of tomatoes, growth patterns, and how to grow an organic heirloom garden with next to no equipment and “recycled, cheap, and free” materials.
“We’re trying to be a link with agricultural resources and the community,” says Maruskin. She stresses to her library classes the importance of preserving old varieties of plants that might otherwise be lost.
Where can the neophyte gardener find heirloom seeds? The easiest is through family, friends, and neighbors. According to Elliott, they’re also “fairly readily available” through commercial seed houses, with about 24 seed houses specializing in heirloom seeds, Seed Savers Exchange being the best-known. Clare Sipple has obtained seeds at the gift shops of some of the historical garden sites that she enjoys visiting.
Many expert collectors seek them out directly from particular families or regions. “In eastern Kentucky,” says Julie Maruskin, “people put bags in my hands.”
Elliott advises those who want to grow heirlooms to first find their favorites at local farmers’ markets, where many heirloom farmers sell their crops. Be prepared for surprises and outright “weirdness” in terms of flavors and appearances, for few heirloom vegetables and fruits have the “standard” appearance of supermarket varieties.
Heirloom tomatoes, for example, are not uniformly round or red; colors range from white to pink, yellow, orange, vermillion, firehouse red, burgundy, purple, and black, with striped variations of these. With flavor, says Elliott, “Don’t go by appearances.” The Cherokee Purple, a lumpen, downright ugly tomato, has a full, delightful taste that has made it an heirloom favorite.
“Great flavor” is the first thing that people new to heirlooms will experience, according to Elliott: “vegetables that taste like vegetables.”
New growers will discover additional advantages to heirlooms in their garden patches or fields. Most heirloom plants “come true from seed,” that is, they produce seeds that produce plants like themselves; no additional purchases of seed are necessary, and the seeds maintain their genetic trueness, except for accidental cross-pollination or mutations.
Julie Maruskin dispels several myths about the relative characteristics of commercial hybrids and heirlooms. Heirlooms can be just as productive as hybrids when selected for that trait. Many heirloom tomatoes ship as well as their industrial counterparts, although, because heirlooms are generally not specifically bred for that trait, some do not. Heirlooms can generally withstand as much disease and insect damage as do hybrids, if selected for it. There are flavor winners and losers in both types. That’s where personal taste comes in.
The seeds of heirloom plants hold more than just genetic components for various species. They are regional and family histories in one’s hand, to be cherished and preserved. Ultimately, they may also be key to the future diversity of our regional and planetary food supplies.
KENTUCKY NATIVE PLANT SOCIETY
The Kentucky Native Plant Society, founded by Dr. Ron Jones in 1986, seeks to promote public awareness and conservation of Kentucky’s indigenous plants and their natural environments.
One of its major concerns is that of problematic invasive species, such as bush honeysuckle. “We’ve seen what’s happened when people bring in non-native plants for erosion control and other well-meaning purposes,” says Landon McKinney, the current president of the Kentucky Native Plant Society.
Invasives usurp habitat from native plant species, disrupting entire ecosystems. Our native flora, maintains McKinney, are not “weeds.” Some of them might be considered out of place in the suburban garden, but they are not invasive.
“Years ago, people who had an interest in our native wildflowers probably did not think of them in terms of gardening and landscaping,” says McKinney. “It’s like a light bulb going off in one’s head, one day it just hits us,
‘Oh, why don’t I plant some of those pretty wildflowers instead of those store-bought marigolds I always buy.’
“The word’s getting out,” McKinney notes, as horticultural varieties of native species are being furthered by foresters and arborists, and sold at nurseries and garden shows in increasing numbers.
McKinney recommends a variety of native plants to provide nearly year-round color to the home garden: black-eyed Susan, purple coneflower, columbine, bee balm (wild gergamot), oswego tea, cardinal flower, great blue lobelia, and aster.
A certification program in native plant studies is being offered to the public by the Kentucky Native Plant Society. The courses are strictly community education, without college credit, and people can take any or all courses of interest without being obligated to certify.
Two courses per semester are taught, and they do not have to be taken in any particular order. The basic core courses (12 hours each) are: Basic Botany, Basic Plant Ecology, Plant Taxonomy, Plant Communities of Kentucky, Kentucky Wildflowers (Fall or Spring), and Kentucky Trees and Shrubs. Electives (six hours each) include classes on Field Methods for Native Plant Research, Aquatic Plants of Kentucky, Gardening with Native Plants, and Rare Plant Conservation, among others. Certification requirements are six core and six elective courses. These courses are open to anyone and are currently being taught through the Community Connections program at Northern Kentucky University.
For more information on the Kentucky Native Plant Society, contact Landon McKinney by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, (859) 746-1967, or Ronald Jones by e-mail at email@example.com, or go to the Kentucky Native Plant Society Web site at www.knps.org/.
Ferry-Morse Seed Company
Fulton, KY 42041 • (800) 283-3400
Ferry-Morse, the oldest active seed company in North America, established in 1856, and based in Fulton, offers 90 different heirloom seeds, in addition to their hundreds of other varieties. There is no catalog available, but you can view their products on their Web site. Click at the top on Brand/ Varietal Listing, then on Ferry-Morse, and below on the link “Ferry-Morse Heirloom Seed Products.” Ferry-Morse seeds are sold in stores throughout the country. The Web site’s online Store Locator can help you find the store nearest you. Ferry-Morse seeds are carried nationwide in Lowe’s and Tractor Supply Company stores, as well as many hometown grocery and farm supply stores.
Seed Savers Exchange
3094 North Winn Road
Decorah, IA 52101 • (563) 382-5990
For information on Julie Maruskin’s Heirloom Gardening Program, contact your local public library.