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Bull's blood' beetroot. 'Slim Jim' eggplant. 'Turk's turban' pumpkin.
It's not a prerequisite for an heirloom vegetable to have a colourful name, but it does seem to go with the territory. For good reason, too: each heirloom vegie comes with a story.
Some cultivars are hundreds of years old, others have been passed down through multiple generations of the same family. Some are downright quirky.
Take the 'mortgage lifter' tomato, developed by a West Virginian mechanic known as Radiator Charlie in the 1940s.
Charlie crossed a couple of tomato varieties to produce a meaty specimen that was ideal for slicing and hamburgers.
It was a massive hit. People began purchasing Radiator Charlie's tomato seedlings for $1 per plant, and he used the proceeds to pay off his mortgage in just six years.
The charm of heirloom vegies is hard to resist, but another reason to give them a go is that they hold some significant environmental advantages over the commercial hybrid varieties:
- Heirlooms are 'open-pollinated'
Unlike hybrids, which are either sterile or don't produce the same quality of plant from their seed, heirloom vegies grow true to type, allowing gardeners to collect the seed each year and replant it.
The great thing about saving seed is that desirable traits have a chance to develop over time.
Disease resistance, low water use, and maximum flavour can be bred into a selected variety, which will gradually become highly adapted to a particular locality.
- Heirloom vegies are ideal for home gardeners
Unlike commercial varieties, which are highly dependent on artificial pesticides and fertilisers and have been bred to crop all at once, heirlooms produce naturally high yields staggered over a longer period.
- They taste a lot better than commercial hybrids
- It's surprisingly easy to grow heirlooms organically
- They're good for the environment
A "GIY" (Grow It Yourself) approach to vegies equals massive cuts in food miles, and reduces big agriculture's dependence on petroleum-based inputs.
- They preserve genetic diversity.
Without getting overly technical, genetic diversity gives a particular plant species the ability to adapt to changing environments, including new pests, diseases, and climatic conditions.
More than a million people died during the Irish Potato Famine in the 19th century after a fungal disease decimated the two remaining potato varieties being grown at the time. Fifty years earlier, more than a dozen varieties were grown, some of which would have resisted the disease.
Considering that up to 90 per cent of traditional cultivars have already disappeared, perhaps it's time to start nurturing 'nana technology'.
These localised strains are waterwise and eliminate the need for artificial pesticides and fertilisers.