Jere Gettle was 8 years old when he noticed the selection in his favorite seed catalogs starting to wane in the late '80s. He’d been gardening since he was about 3 (there are pictures to prove it), and he didn’t want to imagine a world without lemon cucumbers or white tomatoes.
“That’s when people started thinking about heirlooms,” says Gettle, who went on to found the Missouri-based Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, which produces a 350-page catalog of hard-to-find seeds each year and runs RareSeeds.com.
Heirlooms—a category that includes plant seeds passed from one generation to the next for special traits or animals bred to retain their genetic distinctions—have grown in popularity over the past few decades as advocates have worked to save many from disappearing. Some heirlooms are the fruit of grandmothers gleaning seeds from the juiciest tomatoes each year while others are products of good gardening luck. Heirloom animals are created much the same way: either through human intervention (breeding the animals with the desired traits) or natural selection.
Keeping them around for future generations is just one reason people keep selling, sowing and breeding heirlooms. Individual gardeners might prize one plant variety over what they can find in the store for its unique color, flavor or nutritional properties. And some livestock farmers seek out heritage cattle that are more accustomed to grazing on grass. They might prefer heritage hogs for their hardiness in cold weather and the marbled meat that comes with a chubbier pig.
Molly M. Peterson, farmer and photographer at Heritage Hollow Farm in Sperryville, Virginia, raises heritage breeds with her husband Mike as much for their personalities and photo-worthiness as their more flavorful meat.
“I’ve never met a nicer breed of pigs across the board than the Mangalitsa,” she says of the heritage pig known for its curly locks.
On the produce side, while varieties like the Cherokee purple are popular for their distinctive hues and old-time flavors, others have earned the adoration of gardeners simply because they look so weird. Bringing in from the garden the aptly named “red warty thing” squash can be quite the party trick, and what might look misshapen to one person is a thing of beauty to another.
In the second half of the last century, grocery chains began looking for a different set of properties: uniform tomatoes that could withstand travel and broad-breasted chickens for cutlets. Hybrid plant breeding and genetic engineering could produce in plants the properties that traditional breeding—picking seeds from the cream of a crop for reproducing—would take years to yield.
But, even if the fruit of their garden labors would be less predictable, heirloom advocates have shown themselves determined to keep the oddest of varieties in play. And some heirlooms have been saved from oblivion simply because they come with a good story.
“To be able to grow something that Thomas Jefferson or that your ancestors in Germany grew 5,000 years ago, that’s what makes [heirlooms] special is all the different stories you get from people,” says Gettle.
For historians, the appeal of heirlooms is in preserving those stories as much as the varieties themselves. Joseph Brunetti is a horticulturalist at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, where heirlooms fill several beds in an expansive World War II-era Victory garden.
“One of the most joyous moments for me is when I have someone from another country come and see a plant they recognize from their home country,” Brunetti says. “Plants can have so much meaning to them, especially heirlooms.”
One of those sentimental stories came from a colleague at the museum who asked Brunetti if he’d ever grown a “gagootza” squash like her Italian grandfather. Brunetti looked it up to find the proper name for the sword-like green squash—cucuzza—and began growing it in the garden. There, the slender gourd has garnered more stories from Italian Americans as it hangs from an overhead trellis.
Produce As Weapons
Technically, this long green Cucuzza squash is a gourd, but don’t tell the men from the Italian Gardeners’ Association, also known as the Cucuzza Squash Drill Team, who wield them like swords in a Christmas parade outside San Jose, California.
The squash is still popular in Italian cuisine, where it sometimes goes by “gagootza” or “googootz” and stars in a musical number by Italian singer Louis Prima.
The vegetable can be sliced and cooked like zucchini or summer squash if harvested before the rind hardens. Typically grown from a trellis system that allows the squash to grow straight with the help of gravity, the cucuzza can measure up to three feet long.