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.
It's Not A Tomato
What, at first blush, looks like a tomato or persimmon is in fact a cousin of the purple eggplant we associate with any number of international cuisines. Brunetti believes this Turkish Orange Eggplant hails from Turkey, as the name indicates, though some pin its origins to Africa.
Cutting the orange skin open reveals a spongy flesh and seed patterns signature of any eggplant. Also known as the “bitter tomato,” this strikingly colorful variety is best eaten before it gets so bright to avoid the flavor that earned it the nickname.
Miss Piggy With A Haircut
These curly-haired Mangalitsa pigs, also known as woolly pigs or Mangalica, can have blonde, brown or red hair—and plenty of personality. That’s one of the reasons Peterson, the Virginia farmer, started raising the Hungarian breed after working with a more common heritage breed, the Tamworth.
“We wanted to bring Mangalitsa into the mix due to their uniqueness and temperaments,” she says of the pigs known for being nice to their keepers (if they don’t get too close to their babies).
The breed is fascinating to look at, with a coiled layer of hair that frames the face (and almost makes them look like Miss Piggy with a shorter wig). Farmers looking to process animals for the market typically choose the Mangalitsa for its flavorful, marbled meat. As an added bonus, they come with a built-in sweater for the winter.
Moove Over, Angus
In the cows-with-bangs category, nothing quite beats the Scottish Highland. The breed is the product of harsh weather conditions in the Scottish Highlands that created adaptable animals, according to the American Highland Cattle Association.
Today, the Highlands that are spreading across more parts of the United States come with their signature horns and an unusual double coat of hair in several shades, including black, yellow and a signature reddish hue. These cattle have more fat, which helps them endure harsh winters. That also means their milk and meat have more fat (and flavor).
For Peterson, the cattle are hardy and a throwback to her Scottish heritage.
Slimy, Yet Satisfying
The Jelly Melon looks a bit like a cucumber crossed with a blowfish—and tastes as off-putting as that might sound. Also known as the “horn melon,” the fruit’s flesh features mostly seeds surrounded by the gel “that people usually scrape out of a cucumber,” Brunetti, who wouldn’t choose this variety for taste, says.
“It’s funky,” he says, and a great option “if you don't want your dog to eat all of your cucumbers.”
But Brunetti may be missing out. This cucumber relative is a traditional food in parts of southern Africa, where it's eaten raw, baked whole, or pickled. Other fans claim the jelly melon is "the best thing to happen to a salad."
Nothing says novelty like a snackable tomato that can be eaten one cluster at a time and last for days, even if it looks a bit like, shall we say, a mass of tumors. The “funky looking” fruit, the Reisetomate (pronounced rye-ZAY-toe-MAH-tay) is nicknamed the "travelers tomato" because its cherry tomato-like bulbs can be plucked off one at a time much like a grape cluster for snacking on the go. (“Reise” is German for traveler.)
Perhaps for that reason, the tomato tends to ripen in different stages and is a good source of vitamin C. On flavor, the tomato comes across as strongly acidic. As the RareSeeds.com listing puts it, “The perfect tomato for those who love raw lemons. But who cares? They are still far-out and groovy.”
That's A Long Bean
Also known as long beans or asparagus beans, and available in green, red and purple, the Chinese Noodle Bean variety can grow up to a yard in length and is typically grown on a trellis system.
“You can’t think of them like the beans in your mother’s casserole,” says Baker Creek's Gettle, who adds that these beans are just as flavorful as the Kentucky Wonder bean we’re all used to, but more fun.
The main incentive for a cook is that the long strands of beans are string-less and can be diced for a stir-fry by feeding one long bean under the knife.
Not to mention, “it’s a real show-stopper” in the garden, says the Smithsonian's Brunetti. He gets especially good reactions from children who think the mature pods look like “witch fingers.”
It's Easy Being Green
The thought of green tortillas, cornbread or tamales is what makes Oaxacan green corn exciting to gardeners and a growing number of chefs.
The Zapotec Indians of southern Mexico grew the variety for centuries to make green tamales, according to Seed Savers. And with stalks that measure up to seven feet, this variety could be the centerpiece of a “Three Sisters” planting of corn, beans and squash.
The green corn works best for drying and grinding into flour that can then be used in dishes like polenta — green polenta, that is.
The Okinawa purple sweet potato, also common to Hawaii, makes the orange variety look like a health food imitator by comparison. For starters, the Okinawan traditional diet—which included a lot of these potatoes—is thought to contribute to the Okinawan people's extraordinary longevity.
The arresting, almost tie-dyed hue of its flesh indicates a high presence of anthocyanins, which help protect against a variety of human diseases, and is a better source of antioxidants than blueberries.
Today, the purple variety is becoming popular among Paleo dieters looking for a little more color and willing to overlook a less sweet flavor.
While it might be lore that Queen Anne carried this fragrant melon in a pocket of her dress to cover up body odor, historic seed catalogs indicate that Victorian-era women did.
A letter from 1859 refers to the Queen Anne's Pocket Melon as “smell lemon” and noted their potpourri-like use in homes and that children were fond of tossing them like balls.
Also known as the “Plum Granny,” the diminutive melon is known more for its scent than its flavor, which is not as sweet as other varieties. A 1950s source recommends slicing and preserving them in molasses or feeding them to the hogs.