We love heirloom seeds for many reasons. They're praised for their purity, their consistency, their strength, and their quality, to name just a few. But it's their historical heritage we treasure the most. By growing an heirloom vegetable, in some way, we feel connected to those who've come before us and grown these same vegetables. For their goal was to provide for their family and ours is as well. What better foundation could we ask for our gardens than one based on the history of the food we eat?
The lineage of peas, for example, spins a fascinating tale. They're believed to have originated in either Egypt or China, having been unearthed in ancient tombs. Historians and Archaeologists have found many dated pictures and writings discussing the virtues of this vegetable.
Nomadic tribes traveled into the countries of the Mediterranean carrying the crop. The Greeks and the Romans cultivated this legume about 500 to 400 BC. During that time, street vendors in Athens sold hot pea soup. In the Middle Ages, it was dried and saved in case of a famine. Up to the time the American colonists set sail, dried peas were considered the norm. They were what we would call “field peas” today, usually being dried for later use in stews and soups. In this form, they contained longevity, remained nutritious, and required little storage space. This cool-season vegetable was one of the first crops planted in the new soil. Fresh peas finally became a fashionable delicacy for the Europeans around the late 17th Century. President Thomas Jefferson loved gardening and particularly peas so much that he had 30 varieties of them planted in one plot. In 1870, the Campbell Soup Company first began canning peas. Slowly, but surely, the pea has finally earned its respectful place as a garden staple.
Another vegetable – the radish – was domesticated in Europe in pre-Roman times. The Greek name of the genus Raphanus means “quickly appearing.” We all know about that wonderful trait. The common name “radish” comes from the Latin word Radix, which means root.
Squash, in other English-speaking countries besides the United States, is generally called “vegetable marrows.” 17th Century Europeans considered them another kind of gourd, due to its resemblance to Old World gourds. Squash only grew in popularity through the generations. And today, both European and American gardeners grow substantially the same squash strains as those grown by early native Americans.
The Connecticut Field Pumpkin traces its roots back to the early Iroquois settlements. Another beautiful squash, likened to Cinderella's pumpkin, is the Rouge Vif D'Etampes. In France, its name means “vivid red.” The White Bush Scallop is one of the oldest cultivated, with records dating to the 1500s. Northern Indians called them “Squantersquash,” from which comes the name “squash.”
The wild carrot is native to Europe and southwestern Asia. Early on, this biennial was grown for its aromatic leaves and seeds, instead of its root. Relatives of the carrot, including parsley, fennel, dill and cumin are still grown for those original reasons today. One thing's for certain – people love their carrots!
Tomatoes originated in the Americas amidst the Spanish colonization and from there was carried to the Caribbean, the Philippines, and throughout the rest of the world. Wild species grew in parts of the Andes Mountains, Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Many historians believe the Spanish explorer Cortes may have transferred the small yellow tomato to Europe after having captured the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan in 1521. Others say Christopher Columbus was the first European to take back the tomato in 1493. Its worth was recognized from the beginning. The Pueblo people, for one, believed any who witnessed the ingestion of tomato seeds were blessed with divine powers.
An Italian physician and botanist named Peitro Andrea Mattioli wrote in an herbal in 1544, calling it the “golden apple.” In British North America during the mid-18th century, some thought tomatoes to be poisonous and grew them mostly as ornamental plants. The strong, unpleasant smell of its leaves and stems further contributed to this mistaken idea. However, as the cultures continued to blend together due to immigration, new light revealed the tomato's true value. The earliest cookbook discovered with tomatoes as one of the ingredients was published in 1692 in Naples, but we know the Spaniards consumed this crop far earlier. In 1876, when Henry J. Heinz bottled the first tomato catsup, tomatoes widely increased in popularity.
As for particular favorites, have any of you ever grown Hale's Best Jumbo Melon? Did you now this old classic cantaloupe dates back to the 1920s? It was discovered in a California market in 1923 by I.D.Hale.
The Serrano pepper hails from the mountains of northern Puebia and Hidalgo in Mexico. For this reason does it derive its appropriate name Serrano, which interpreted means “from the mountains.”
One of our favorites, the Old German Tomato, claims a Mennonite heritage, originating in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia.
Every gardener should know what depths of history they are sowing in their soil. Before you plant your favorite veggies, learn more about their individual stories. Doing this will truly make your plants come to life.