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Continued from <-More Heirlooms, Part 3

Lettuce

'Hanson'

'Hanson' was once the standard summer crisp-head variety for home or market. The Henry A. Dreer Co. of Philadelphia, PA introduced it circa 1874. In 1904, the USDA reported that it was one of the three most widely planted varieties in the US. Six years later, C. C. Morse & Co., a San Francisco seed company, heaped praise on it, describing it as "the very best house garden variety in existence, and much the finest of its class."

'Hanson' is a late variety, a reliable sure-header that produces very large heads that are light green. The USDA rated this lettuce "good," which was just shy of their top rating. They also noted that 'Hanson' was "very sweet and exceedingly crisp." It is widely adapted and takes heat.

Today, 'Hanson' is fading away. Fewer than ten seed companies still offer it, and it is becoming endangered.


'Tennis Ball'

Thomas Jefferson grew this variety at Monticello in 1809, and even then it was not new. Other gardeners had grown it before 1800, and for good reasons. A miniature butterhead type, it produces picture-perfect heads of sweet, buttery, soft leaves with excellent quality. Since the heads really are the size of a tennis ball, it is perfectly adapted to containers. Even as late as 1904, it was one of the most popular varieties on the East Coast.

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Limas

'Fordhook'

W. Atlee Burpee introduced this, the first bush lima, in 1907. It was immensely popular, so much so that Burpee limited his customers to just three seeds, priced at a princely 25 cents each, or so one story goes. 'Fordhook' limas remained popular for decades, but are now being replaced by "improved" varieties. Because of its historical significance, this old-timer deserves to remain in cultivation.

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Okra

'Cow Horn'

Nobody knows for sure just how old this okra is. Some claim it is the same as 'Giant' okra known since 1860. Others are more conservative, dating it from the 1930s or so. Either way, it is known for its particularly tasty pods with old-time flavor. The plants can grow seven feet tall, and they produce bumper crops of ten-inch pods that curve in different ways (think horns on Brahma bulls and Long-Horn cattle or antlers on Prong-horn antelope). Since commercial growers favor dwarf varieties, and consumers want small, straight pods, this variety is becoming increasingly rare. But what about taste?

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Parsnips

'The Student'

Probably the oldest parsnip in the seed trade, 'The Student' dates from about 1850. Professor James Buckman, a crop scientist at the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester, England, developed it, and named it in honor of the college's student body.

'The Student' produces smooth roots that are usually 15 to 20 inches long. Some grow even bigger, to three feet long and three inches thick at the shoulder. No matter how big they get, the flesh stays sweet, fine-textured, and particularly tasty. Today, this heirloom parsnip is disappearing from the seed trade.

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Peas

'American Wonder'

Introduced circa 1880, 'American Wonder' was one of the then-new wrinkled-seeded varieties that brought a new level of sweetness to garden peas. 'American Wonder' had two other important traits. First, it was super productive.

Seedsmen claimed the dwarf vines, which grew only 10 to 12 inches tall and did not need a trellis, set at least 12 pods per plant. One seedsman reported that some vines bore between 27 and 41 pods. Not only did it bear and bear, it was extra-early. Most seedsmen reported that it would produce peas in about 60 days, but one claimed he could get a crop in just 30 to 40 days. What everyone agreed on was that these peas were sweet and tasty.

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Peppers

'Bull Nose'

American garden writer Fearing Burr wrote about 'Bull Nose' peppers in 1863, but they weren't new even then. They originally came from India, and they have been in US gardens from 1759, or so experts claim. These sweet peppers measure about four inches long and ripen from green to red. They have several things going for them. They are early. They stand up to bad weather. And while the flesh is sweet, the ribs are a little pungent. A generation ago, 20 seed companies offered them. Since then, vendors have dwindled steadily. Now rare.

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Radish

'Scarlet Turnip White Tip'

Although radishes have been around since ancient times, they did not always look like they do today. At one time, the most common ones were long, like modern icicle types, or shaped like olives. Neither one of them was considered as choice as the turnip-shaped or round radishes, which were valued for their delicate flavor. This particular variety was introduced before 1859. It produces scarlet-red radishes that have a white tip. They are typically small (an inch or two in diameter), but can grow quite large with ideal growing conditions. The flesh is crisp, and holds its quality in the garden for a long time without getting hollow or pithy.

Like the other vegetables profiled here, this one is becoming increasingly rare. Today, fewer than a dozen seed companies offer it, a drop of almost half in a generation.

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Continue to More Heirlooms, Part 5 ->
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