Heirlooms!

Tomorrow I’m hitting up the Heirloom Expo in Santa Rosa, California. This is it’s second year but last year I was on vacation in Ohio so I missed it. I’m so excited to be attending this fantastic event. Tuesday is going to have so many amazing speakers I might not even get a chance to see the actual expo, but I’ll try to do both as much as possible. There are some overlapping classes that I want to see so I’m going to have to make some tough decisions. Right now my top workshops include:

  • “Heirloom Cider and Eating Apples”
  • Video Presentation from Dr. Vandana Shiva
  • “Joys and Headaches of Growing Four Hundred Varieties of Cucurbits”
  • “Gardening with and for Chickens”
  • “Growing Great Garlic, Perennial Onions, Shallots, and Herbs – Plain and Fancy”
  • “The Renaissance of Heirloom Gardening”
  • “Heirloom Chicken Breeds and Their History”

One question a lot of people ask is “why are heirlooms important?” This is a big question with a big answer. The most common answer is that growing heirlooms helps maintain genetic diversity. Every variety is a treasure trove of genetic information that we don’t fully understand. Maintaining a large genetic pool allows plants to adapt more readily and it also helps keep them from completely succumbing to a disease outbreak or pest infestation. Some plants will always survive if there is enough adaptability. The chart to the left shows that we’ve lost an incredible amount of that genetic diversity by industrializing our food system. Hybrids, which have become the most common varieties, are created to produce the highest yields, the most uniform plants that ship easily and the best disease resistance (while still dumping loads pesticides on them). Flavor, nutrition and resilience (not to be confused with disease resistance because eventually diseases will evolve) are forgotten about.

There may very well be a connection between flavor and nutrition but it is purely anecdotal. There is, however, evidence that the very things hybrids are bred for decrease the nutritional value of the food that we eat. The tomato is a good example. The smaller plant takes in less nutrients and then with the higher yield those nutrients become more diluted in the fruit. You would have to eat more tomatoes to get the same nutrition as an older, non-hybrid (heirloom) tomato. But of course the newer tomato also has a lot less flavor making you less inclined to eat it.

That tomato does have a genetic tie between flavor and appearance though. Many heirlooms experience what is called “green shoulders.” The top of the fruit is the last part to turn from green to whatever color the rest of the fruit is. Consumers don’t like to see this because, while the fruit is still ripe and at its peak, they feel that it’s not ripe so they don’t buy it. So researchers found a way to remove the green shoulders. Except by doing that they also removed the flavor. The green shoulders are created by chlorophyll, which turns sunlight into sugars thus making the fruit sweeter and tastier. Removing the green shoulders removed the flavor.

It’s also important to note that all of those F1 hybrid plants available at nurseries weren’t created with home gardeners in mind. We are not the moneymakers for seed companies. F1 hybrids are created for where the big money is – industrial farming – which has little interest in flavor or nutrition.

Flavor, nutrition, and biodiversity. If you are putting in the time and energy to grow your own, grow the varieties that count.

Print Friendly