For gardeners new to heirlooms, sorting out which ones to try can be a challenge. To help, a gallery of tried and true varieties is listed below. Of these, some are among the best of their kind ever known. Some are common varieties listed in nearly every seed catalog. Others are ones that need to be saved. The Hubbard squash, for example, is disappearing from catalogs, and is one of many varieties that may soon be lost. I've only featured varieties still in the seed trade, because those are the easiest to find. There are, of course, many, many other fine heirloom vegetables.
I have included a few sources for each variety for your convenience. In most cases, several other fine seed companies also offer these varieties. To track down other sources for particular varieties, consult the authorities listed on my page entitled Where can I find a particular plant? I have had good luck ordering seeds from most of the companies listed below, but I pass their names along without any guarantees.Here are the first varieties in the sampler:
Introduced by 1864, this bean was originally known by the name 'Old Homestead.' Thirteen years later, in 1877, seedsman James J. H. Gregory & Son renamed this bean, calling it the 'Kentucky Wonder.' By 1907, the USDA described it as the best known and most widely grown pole bean in America. Two years later, seedsman H. W. Buckbee summed up this variety's qualities in just three words "Has no equal". Other seed companies, such as D. M. Ferry & Co. in 1926 praised its "showy pods of most excellent quality" and recommended the Kentucky Wonder as the best green pole beans for snaps.
What made the 'Kentucky Wonder' a wonder was, in part, its size. The beans were extraordinarily long. Even specimens up to nine inches long were still tender, brittle, and free from fiber, three qualities of first-rate green beans. What also made this bean a wonder was its distinctive (and delicious) flavor. As good as they were, the 'Kentucky Wonder' had some faults. They looked rumpled (rather than smooth) and had some strings. Even with these flaws, the 'Kentucky Wonder' was so good it survived for more than 100 years.
Today, about 75 North American seed companies offer the 'Kentucky Wonder,' making it one of the most common pole beans. The vines, which are rust resistant, run five to seven feet tall. They produce beans in clusters over an extended season. 'Kentucky Wonder' beans mature in 58-72 days.
Developed from an old variety called the 'Early Wakefield' which was introduced from England to Jersey City, New Jersey in 1840, the 'Early Jersey Wakefield' has appeared in American seed catalogs since 1872 and perhaps earlier. It soon became immensely popular. In 1888, Burpee reported that it was more common than any other early cabbage. In 1895, competitor Peter Henderson called it the "best early cabbage in cultivation". In 1901, more seed companies (166) carried this variety than any other. Even a half-century later, it was so popular that the USDA listed it among the principal varieties of American cabbage.
Today, 'Early Jersey Wakefield' is known for the solid, conical heads it produces on compact plants. The heads, which average two to four pounds, are tender and crisp. The USDA rated their flavor fair to good when grown under favorable conditions. In hot weather, their flavor turns unpleasantly strong. To prevent this, 'Early Jersey Wakefield' is typically grown for an early crop. In suitable climates, it can also be overwintered. 'Early Jersey Wakefield' takes 60-65 days to get ripe.
Developed by Dutch plantsmen and introduced in about 1620, 'Early Scarlet Horn' carrots are one of the oldest vegetable varieties still in cultivation. Early on, seedsmen carried them to England, where they appeared on some of the first seed lists ever published in that country. Later, they crossed the Atlantic. Experts think they were one of the first two carrots grown in the U.S. Although the name of this carrot seems to suggest that it looks like a cow horn, the name actually has a different derivation. It shows that these carrots were originally from Hoorn, a town in Holland.
In 1889, Philadelphia seedsman I. V. Faust described the 'Early Scarlet Horn' carrot as "One of the best for table use and one of the most popular varieties grown for an early crop." Five years later, in 1894, J. A. Everitt's catalog called it the "best for planting out of doors." Like his colleagues, seedsman Wm. Henry Maule praised these carrots. In 1899, he named it "the best early table variety."
Just as they have been for centuries, 'Early Scarlet Horn' carrots are valued today for their fine-grained flesh and delicate flavor. At maturity, they measure about three to four inches long, and one and three-quarters inches in diameter. They are usually picked at a smaller size, as a baby vegetable. As its name indicates, the 'Early Scarlet Horn' matures rapidly. They are ready to harvest in just 60 days or so. At one time, there were three distinct strains of 'Early Horn' carrots. Of these, both the strain with cylindrical roots used for forcing and the strain with pointed roots have disappeared. Only the standard half-long strain with a blunt tip seems to have survived.
'Early Scarlet Horn' carrots are adapted to shallow soils, where the long varieties invariably fail. While these carrots were first-rate, they were traditionally only valuable as a home garden variety. They were simply too small to be popular in markets.
While the 'Brandywine' is the superstar of heirloom tomatoes, there is no similar standout among the old corns. Partly, that's due to changing tastes. The new varieties, especially the Sugary Enhanced varieties, seem to satisfy those that want their sweet corn really sweet. And then there's the fact that many of the 19th century corns were field corns, used for corn meal or livestock fodder. Since most of us don't grind our own corn or feed cows, these varieties have less appeal. Still, there are some heirloom varieties that are historically interesting and that taste good.
Among the most famous of them is 'Golden Bantam.' W. Atlee Burpee introduced it in 1902. The seed was developed by a Greenfield, Massachusetts gardener, whose name has been lost. This gardener took an interest in developing what has been called "choice early corn." When he had a variety to his liking, he began passing out ears to friends and neighbors. One of these neighbors served this unusual corn to his cousin, E. L. Coy, a seedsman who was visiting from Washington County, New York. Coy immediately recognized just how good this new corn was. He sent some seed to Burpee, who grew it in trials. Two years later, he offered it in his catalog. The rest, as they say, is history.
When Burpee introduced 'Golden Bantam,' he was swimming against the tide of public opinion. Dwarf corn, which had been known since about 1858, had never been popular. What's worse, yellow-colored corn had acquired a rather unfortunate reputation as horse corn. Nearly all gardeners preferred white-kernel corn, which they thought was sweeter. 'Golden Bantam' changed their minds, and remained remarkably popular for many years. In 1926, nearly a quarter century after it was introduced, Burpee pictured 'Golden Bantam' on the cover of its Golden Anniversary seed catalog. They declared it "America's Favorite Sweet Corn," a claim other garden writers continued to support for decades. Over the years, 'Golden Bantam' gave rise to several strains, including some selected for earliness and others developed to meet the needs of certain geographic areas.
Today, 'Golden Bantam' is known for its flavorful ears, and its ability to tolerate poor growing conditions. The plants, as its name indicates, are short. They grow only about five feet tall. They produce two small, eight-row ears that measure about six inches long. They are known for their robust, sweet (but not cloyingly sweet) flavor. 'Golden Bantam' is a mid-season corn. Catalogs list the days to maturity at about 80.
The 'Improved Long Green' Cucumber has been known for more than 125 years. It was introduced by the D. M. Ferry & Co. seed company in 1872, most likely as 'Ferry's Improved Long Green.' Before that, there was an entirely different (and much older) cucumber known as the 'Improved Long Green.' However confusing it was to growers, seedsmen at the time commonly gave new varieties names nearly identical to other varieties in the trade. Within a few years, 'Ferry's Improved Long Green' eclipsed its rival, and became the standard, known today as simply 'Improved Long Green.'
The 'Improved Long Green' was an exceptional cucumber, at least according to seed catalog writers. Wm. Henry Maule's 1890 catalog, for example, said of this variety, "no words of praise can be too strong for its merits. They are always of superior quality, firm and crisp, growing 12 to 20 inches long. Vines are strong growers, and fruit is always produced in great abundance, making it one of the most productive varieties." Five years later, the seed catalog of E. Annabil & Co. of McPherson, Kansas called the 'Improved Long Green' "The most popular variety in cultivation."
Today, this variety is still recommended for home gardeners. It is easy to grow and bears an abundance of 10-12 inch cucumbers. Gathered young, they are good picklers. Left a little longer, they develop into classic slicing cucumbers up to one foot long. They are medium green, with black spines and just a few warts.
The classic romaine lettuce, 'Paris White Cos' has been grown in Europe since 1835 and may actually be even older than that. In the United States, garden writer Thomas Fessenden mentions "White Cos" lettuce in 1834, and he may well have been referring to this variety. In 1864, American seedsmen listed 'Paris White Cos'. In 1889, the Parker & Wood catalog called it "one of the finest for summer use". In 1901, the E. J. Bowen Seed Annual reported that it was "generally considered the best" of the romaines.
'Paris White Cos' grows into a large to very large upright cylinder of thick, crisp leaves with stalky midribs. The outer leaves fold over the inner ones, producing a self-blanching heart. It is a late-season variety, known for its excellent quality. In 1904, for example, the USDA called it the best romaine for either home or market use and praised its crisp, sweet leaves. Grown on rich soil with ample water, it can produce a head that weighs about two pounds. Under ideal conditions, heads are even bigger, reportedly weighing as much as six and a half pounds.
'Paris White Cos' is a different lettuce than 'Parris Island Cos,' which was named for Parris Island, South Carolina and introduced in 1952.
Before 1840, gardeners could choose among several musk melons, including one from Armenia called the 'Center.' Within a half-dozen years, it had given rise to the melon which came to be known as the 'Jenny Lind.' Named for the Swedish opera singer, this melon was once one of the leading early green-fleshed varieties for home and market. It was, however, too delicate to ship, and so did not prove popular among commercial growers. In time, the 'Jenny Lind' served another important role, serving as the parent of a number of other popular varieties.
The 'Jenny Lind' is a smallish melon that averaged about a pound and a half, give or take a few ounces each way. Rather than being rounded like most melons, it was shaped like a slightly flattened globe. It had moderately prominent ribs, sparse netting, and a more or less prominent "button" on the blossom end. While it is not the best-tasting melon of all time (Hedrick rated it only "moderately fair to moderately good"), the Jenny Lind has sweet, green flesh that is soft and juicy. The vines have some disease resistance, and are prolific. 'Jenny Lind' ripens in 70-85 days.
Introduced before 1885, this variety was a favorite among French market gardeners, who considered it both attractive and tasty. American seed catalogs offered it in the late 1800s. For example, I. V. Faust's 1889 catalog said of it, "Its beautiful color makes it one of the most attractive for table use, while its superior quality recommends it to all. It is of quick growth, medium size, color red, tipped with white, olive shape, crisp and tender." Ten years later, Child's 1899 catalog called the 'French Breakfast' "A grand little table sort" and reported that it had "delicately flavored flesh, free from coarseness or any biting quality."
Today, the 'French Breakfast' is still considered a first-rate radish. It is oblong (rather than round) and measures about two inches long. It is scarlet with a white tip, and has crisp white flesh. Like many other radishes, 'French Breakfasts' grow quickly. They are ready to eat in just 20 or 30 days.
Once the standard against which all other hard-shelled squash were judged, the 'Hubbard' was carried to New England by a sea captain whose name has been lost. He apparently got the seed in the West Indies or South America, and brought the seed north by 1798. One or two gardeners at Marblehead, Massachusetts grew it, saving the seeds from year to year. Sometime around 1842, Mrs. Elizabeth Hubbard noticed just how good this squash was. She brought the squash to the attention of one of her neighbors in Marblehead, seedsman James J. H. Gregory. He recognized that this squash had remarkable properties. He named it after Mrs. Hubbard, and began to sell seeds.
The 'Hubbard' went on to win acclaim. It was (and still is) just like a 1909 seed catalog described it: "fine grained, very dry, sweet and rich flavored, esteemed by many to be as good baked as a sweet potato." Highly regarded as a vegetable, it was ranked second only to apples for use in "pumpkin" pies.
By 1860, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society presented a special award to Gregory for introducing the 'Hubbard.' Later, Gregory introduced the 'Blue Hubbard,' known for its blue-gray rind and creamy yellow flesh. Other plant breeders developed the 'Warted Hubbard,' which was introduced in 1894. It had a thick rind and kept in storage even better than the standard 'Hubbard.' Like many other winter squash, 'Hubbards' develop big, sprawling vines. The fruit, which take 100-120 days to ripen, typically weigh at least 10 pounds and often considerably more. Today, the 'Hubbard' is becoming increasingly rare. Home gardeners often prefer squash that are earlier and smaller, and seed companies are dropping the bigger varieties of squash. Such consumer trends do not take away from the quality of the 'Hubbard,' which remains a classic among squash.
All the experts agree that the 'Brandywine' Tomato has been around for more than 100 years. But exactly where it came from has yet to be resolved. Currently, there are three theories. The one heard most often is that the 'Brandywine' is an old Amish introduction. A second theory is that Johnson & Stokes, a Philadelphia seed company, introduced this tomato in about 1889. While it is entirely possible that they were the first to sell it, this theory seems to beg a rather obvious question--Where did Johnson & Stokes get it? Did they develop it themselves or did they get it from the Amish? The third theory about where the 'Brandywine' comes from says Burpee introduced it in 1886. At the time, they called it 'Turner's Hybrid.' Three years later, Johnson & Stokes listed the same tomato, but gave it a better name, 'Brandywine'. Such goings-on were certainly not unusual at the time. Seedsmen named and renamed plants pretty much at will. Period seed catalogs do list a 'Turner's Hybrid,' and it looks and sounds much like the 'Brandywine.' Whether or not they were one and the same is still uncertain.
No matter where it came from, the 'Brandywine' is a potato-leaved tomato that produced generous crops of big, two-fisted tomatoes with memorable flavor. Catalogs described the fruit variously as "deep brilliant red." (Faust's, Philadelphia, PA, 1889), "purplish red," (Annabil & Co., McPherson, Kansas, 1895), and "bright red," (Johnson & Stokes 1904). The truth is, it's mighty hard to describe what color these tomatoes really are. Perhaps the best that can be done is to say that they are a shade or two off clear red on the purple side.
Like many old-time tomatoes, 'Brandywines'' are rambunctious growers with some shortcomings. The fruit are likely to be ribbed rather than smooth, and some of them may crack. Most growers consider these problems trifling, since a well-grown 'Brandywine,' one picked fresh at the peak of ripeness, tastes so good that it may well set the standard for what a tomato should taste like. A mid-season variety, 'Brandywines' mature in 80-100 days.
Today, several seedsmen list the original 'Brandywine.' Some also offer the 'Yellow Brandywine,' a sport of the original. Despite its name, the 'Yellow Brandywine' has orange skin. There is also a 'Red Brandywine,' but how closely related it is to the original is in question.