Heirloom vegetables--those old, open-pollinated varieties that have stood the test of time--have become popular all over again, and for good reason. The best of them are among the finest vegetables ever known. They would be well worth growing for their mouth-watering flavors alone, but they also have other important qualities. Heirlooms are living artifacts. Popular in living history exhibits, these old-time varieties offer a glimpse of life in earlier times. Heirlooms are also a reservoir of genetic diversity. Traits encoded in their DNA may someday prove critical to feeding the world.
And there is more. Heirlooms invite passion. There is just something about all their wonderful shapes, sizes, colors, and flavors that sparks a sense of wonder. Take heirloom tomatoes, for example. They can be big, small, fluted, smooth, red, orange, pink, purple, yellow, green, white, striped, round, pear-shaped, determinate, indeterminate, potato-leaved, and more. They also vary in traits you can't see--taste, hardiness, adaptability, and the like. While tomatoes may be the most popular heirloom, many other vegetables are just as diverse. Peppers come in all kinds of colors, sizes, and shapes. So do corn, beans, kale, eggplant, squash, lettuce, potatoes, and nearly all the other crops.
Today, seed companies and seed savers offer literally hundreds of heirlooms. Some are standard varieties that have never been superseded. Others were popular once, but disappeared from the seed trade. Many of these would have been lost, but seed-saving gardeners kept them alive. Still other heirlooms never made the big-time. They were regional or family favorites, passed down by generation after generation of gardeners rather than sold by seed companies.
As interesting as heirloom vegetables are, they also raise many questions. Gardeners new to heirlooms may wonder which ones to grow or where they can find a certain variety. Researchers encounter problems documenting the history of these plants, since source material is often scarce or at least buried deep in the stacks of research libraries. The scientific side of these plants is no easier, covering, as it does, everything from inbred lines and F-1 hybrids to biodiversity and gene pool issues. The following pages will address these and other issues. In doing so, I hope they will help both beginning and experienced heirloom gardeners.