Heirloom Vegetable Seeds

Heirloom Vegetable Seeds

Part of Ep. 206 Gifts from the Garden

Join Tom Woods of Old World Wisconsin as he explains the benefits and challenges of growing heirloom vegetables.

Premiere date: Nov 30, 1994

TRANSCRIPT+
Wisc Gardener Transcript: 

Shelley:
Here is a gift any gardener would appreciate. Vegetable seeds. But these are special. These are heirloom or old-fashioned varieties. We are at the General Store at Old World Wisconsin, one of Wisconsin's historic sites. And I am with the director, Tom Woods. Tom is also a member of the Board of Directors of Seed Savers Exchange. Tom, you grow a lot of these heirloom varieties here at Old World Wisconsin. First, can you define what is an heirloom vegetable.

Tom:
Sure, Shelley, I think most people understand what heirlooms are when you talk about family quilts or family pieces of jewelry.

Shelley:
Oh, sure.

Tom:
But simply something that a family has figured out is very important to them and they want to make sure that their children enjoy that too. And seeds or plants are similar to that, in that they are something that the family believes is important for their children to have in the future. And so they take care of them and pass them on generation after generation.

Shelley:
What is important about heirloom varieties? Why should we grow them today?

Tom:
Well there is lots of things that are important about them and lots of reasons to grow them. Taste is one. Texture is another. Color. Nutritional value Lots of reasons like that. To give you an example of nutritional value for growing heirlooms. This is an heirloom variety of corn. And heirloom varieties of corn sometimes have 70 percent more protein than modern varieties of corn.

Shelley:
Really?

Tom:
Yeah. This is an especially interesting variety of corn too. It is called King Philip which was grown by the Wampanoag Indians in New England in the 1600s and it is named after their chief, King Philip.

Shelley:
It is really pretty too. What's that on top of it? It doesn't look like a seed tassel.

Tom:
No, it looks a little unusual for a corn tassel. The tassel is where the male flower is usually on most normal corn plants. In this particular instance, what has happened is that you have the male flower where the tassel is supposed to be but you also have the female flower or the ear. Usually that is supposed to be down in the middle of the plant.

Shelley:
Right.

Tom:
But it gives you an example of what happens with some heirloom plants. They're a little bit unstable and there is lots of diversity on them.

Shelley:
Which can be a real value too.

Tom:
That's right.

Shelley:
Well, you mentioned taste and that is one of the reasons that I grow this brandywine. This is an Amish tomato from 1885. It is not the prettiest looking tomato but I think the taste is the best of any.

Tom:
Well, that is the thing about heirlooms. They often taste so much better than modern tomatoes. But, you see this cracking on this tomato. And that is common with a lot of older varieties, because the skin is a lot thinner on the old ones and the modern tomatoes have been bred particularly to ship them long distances so they have to have a hard skin.

Shelley:
And stay red longer in the supermarket.

Tom:
Right.

Shelley:
So, home gardeners have a really unique opportunity to grow something that has to be eaten very promptly and very tasty.

Tom:
Right.

Shelley:
All right. What about the potatoes?

Tom:
Well, this just gives you a small indication of the kind of diversity that is available in potatoes, especially the heirloom varieties. These are two varieties. This is Early Ohio and this an Early Rose. And they are both descended from a variety named Garnet Chili. Garnet Chili was introduced in the 1850s and was the parent of 230 different potato varieties.

Shelley:
Oh wow.

Tom:
These are two varieties that indicate the diversity of ethnic preference in food. This is a yellow thin and this a German Fingerling potato.

Shelley:
So, if we are interested in tracing our ancestry this would be a good way. We could actually grow varieties that our ancestors grew.

Tom:
That's right.

Shelley:
That's kind of a neat idea. What about the beans? They gorgeous.

Tom:
Beans are so diverse. There are so many different varieties available and this gives you, again, just an indication, a small indication of the diversity. There is a fellow in Maine who collected 1000-- over 1000 varieties of beans.

Shelley:
Incredible.

Tom:
If you can imagine 1000 varieties spread out here and there is a fellow in Wisconsin that has over 700 varieties. Here we have just six. This is a marrow fat, white marrow fat bean, this is a Swedish brown bean, this is a scarlet runner bean.

Shelley:
Now, I grow these for the ornamental vines more than anything. The red and white flowers are just beautiful or pink and white.

Tom:
The flowers are beautiful and the beans are gorgeous too.

Shelley:
They are pretty.

Tom:
This is a black turtle soup bean, this is a yellow-eyed bean, very popular in the nineteenth century and this bean, which looks like a penguin, is named penguin bean.

Shelley:
Now those are really beautiful. Now you know one of the reasons I got into some of these were the wonderful stories that go with them. The penguin bean, though, is a good example of a true heirloom. There is not much known about it, so it probably was passed down within one family from generation to generation.

Tom:
Sure. That's the thing about heirloom crops. We don't know a lot about some of them and that's because partly, because people wanted them to be that way. The immigrants, several immigrants would bring the seeds from the heirlooms with them across the Atlantic sewn in the garments that they were wearing.

Shelley:
Oh, so they were very precious, then.

Tom:
That's right.

Shelley:
All right. Thanks, Tom. If you would like to try growing heirloom varieties, many seed companies are offering more. Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa is also a good source.

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