Well, DTE is going to have to wait it out a few extra weeks this month for their payment this month, thanks to a friend’s heirloom tomato catalogue. I ordered $80 worth of plants. (Check out the link above–Uhlianuk’s Heirloom Tomato Farm in North Branch, MI). That’s 14 fabulously weird, delicious tasting varieties of tomato–some of them very rare , even endangered. At the bottom of this post there is a list of the varieties I am getting Monday.
What is an heirloom tomato? An heirloom tomato is an open-pollinated (pollinated by natural mechanisms such as birds, bees, wind, etc) non-hybrid cultivar (a cultivated variety). Some people consider the cut off year for ‘new’ heirloom varieties to be 1951 (the year hybrids came into wide spread use).
In a strict sense, heirloom vegetable varieties are passed down within individual families, communities or tribal groups for generations. Since they are ‘breed true’, they will be the same (or nearly so), year after year, from seed. For example, “Deppe’s Pink Firefly”, an iridescent pink tomato passed down through the Deppe family in Glasgow, Kentucky. Or “Missouri Pink Love Apple”, grown since the civil War by the Barnes family .
Why do heirloom varieties matter?
This question is part a much larger question: Why is biodiversity important? Biodiversity is the variety of life forms (and their gene pools) within a given ecosystem. When there is genetic variety among one species of plant, say–garden tomatoes–and the tomatoes share space with other species (beans, potatoes, corn and squash), they will be healthier. Varieties can cross breed and make new, stronger plants. If a drought occurs and there is a drought-resistant variety of tomato, more will survive. If one tomato is resistant to tomato mosaic virus, it will survive a blight, and support the small ecosystem in which it is a part. This is called polyculture.
Monoculture is the opposite. Commercial farming the world over uses monoculture methods–thousands of acres can have only one variety of one specie of plant! Until recently (the 1950’s), over 2,000 varieties of corn were grown in Mexico–some of them prehistoric! When monoculture hybrids were introduced, many of the cultivars died out forever. Now there are three or four varieties of corn grown in most of Mexico.
Monoculture farming is extremely dangerous–for the ecosystem, and in the short term for our food supply. It takes up space where hundreds or thousands of small farm, heirloom varieties may have grow, and they disappear. Entire crops can be wiped out globally from one plant disease, starving millions of people and causing mass migrations. Two examples come to mind:
184o’s: Two potato blights travel by trade to Ireland, where, because of fuedal conditions and British colonialism, only two varieties of potato are the staple crop for millions of farmers and laborers. The blight kills over one million in famine and drives one million more to emigrate to the U.S.
1950’s: The Gros Michel banana is declared no longer fit for farming because of the global spread of “Panama Disease”. Bananas are grown on vast monoculture plantations (run by American and European corporations) in Central and South America, South Asia and Africa. If you were living in the US in the late 1920’s, you would notice the small, dark banana with a hard fibrous peel disappearing from the shelves. A larger, bright yellow banana with blander flavor would begin to appear. They are the Cavendish banana. They are more expensive for a few years–their soft peels make for costly shipping. But, not to worry, the labor of impoverished peasants in South America and global market forces will drive the cost down.
2008: Panama disease is back! It is spreading globally, and soon we may not see big, bright yellow fruits that we think of when we think ‘banana’. The Cavendish is still grown on massive monoculture plantations, still worked by peasants for American companies. In parts of Africa, over 40% of a family’s daily calories may come bananas–monoculture farming endangers the lives of all these people.
So, biodiversity, the preservation of heirlooms and good farming practices are neccessary to sustainability on a fundamental level. Hopefully this summer, we will come to apreciate weird, lumpy varieties of several kinds of vegetables.
Here are the varieties I got (a few of them are not strictly heirloom). Click to see a picture! :
Ananas Noire (Black Pineapple) These Belgian tomatoes are yellow, green and purple.
Aunt Ruby’s German Green Green beefsteak with sweet flavor. Neon green and pink meat. Yellow blush when ripe. Indeterminate.
Black Krim Reddish brown with green shoulders, this Ukranian variety has greenish flesh. Matures super early. Indeterminate.
Box Car Willie Reddish orange, old fashioned flavor. Great for canning, freezing and cooking. Crack free, disease resistant. Indeterminate.
Cherokee Purple Big, dusky purple fruit with pink interiors. Pre-1890 Tennesee heirloom. Drought tolerant, crack resistant. Indeterminate.
Green Sausage Sausage shaped, neon green and yellow fruits. Sweet paste tomato. Short bushy plants. Determinate.
Japanese Black Trifele Black and maroon pear shaped tomato. Resistant to cracking. A non-heirloom variety from the Soviet Union. Great for canning. Indeterminate.
Lillian’s Yellow Heirloom Creamy yellow beefsteaks. Originally from Manchester, TN. Heavy yields. Indeterminate.
Marvel Striped Origins in the Zapotec people of mexico. Large pleated fruits with orange, red and yellow stripes. Indeterminate.
Orange Fleshed Purple Smudge Tangerine orange with true purple shoulders.Produces more purple as the season lengthens. Indeterminate.
Red Star Cherry tomato–ruffled with six deep pleats. When you slice it it looks like a star! Thin skinned, long keeper–good dried. Indeterminate.
Red Zebra Fire engine red with gold stripes. 3″ fruits. Indeterminate.
Snowberry Super sweet cherry tomato. Creamy yellow. Indeterminate.
Tonadose des Conores Endangered French heirloom cherry tomato. Bright red with orange flesh. High yields of tiny fruits. Indeterminate.