Paging through the heirloom vegetable catalogues, you might be surprised at the variety of vegetables that were available before hybrids became the vegetable gardener’s choice. I was certainly surprised to find that my “new” Purple Dragon carrot, with the bright orange interior and red/purple skins, and similar purples were available to the farmers of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran for thousands of years.
It wasn’t until the 1600’s that the orange carrot became the carrot of choice for the dinner table in Europe. The original carrots that were brought to Europe in the 14th century were purple, white and yellow. The Dutch bred the first carrot containing the pigment carotene, which is responsible for the orange color of the carrot. It quickly caught on in Europe.
Carrots are available from seed catalogues in almost all of the original colors, including white, which dates from the Middle Ages. Lunar White is a prolific producer with a bland flavor. The purple carrot that I grew last year had a sweet spicy flavor.
There were many other vegetables available to our ancestors that are relatively rare today or when the do pop up are considered new exotics. Tragopogon porrifolius is Salsify or Oyster Plant. The variety Mammoth Sandwich Island, the one most commonly found today, dates back to the 1800’s . While generally used in soups and stews, when creamed it makes an excellent vegetable resembling in taste its namesake the oyster.
Cour di Bue is an oxheart type cabbage that has an interesting shape, coming to a point rather than assuming the usual round cabbage contour. It has a 150 year history and originated in Europe. It s a fairly early cabbage of excellent quality. The seed is becoming more difficult to find but is still available.
Cow peas (Vigna unguiculata) are legumes more common in the south than is our latitude. They are adapted to dry soil and warmer climates. The pretzel bean however
cowpea that is an Amish/Mennonite heirloom. It twits into a shape that resembles a green pretzel. It can be eaten if picked young but is generally grown just for fun. The vines reach 4-6 feet and prefer dry poor soil.
Another Vigna unguiculata is the yard long or asparagus bean, subspecies sesquipedalis. I’m sure many of you have grown the green version of this old Chinese heirloom bean but there is also a red version known as the “red noodle bean”. A near relative of the cowpea this is a quick growing (60 days) vigorous vine. At the height of production everyday picking may be necessary.
The red noodle bean is best picked while very young. It is stringless and is better stir fried than boiled. They are said to keep their color when cooked, unusual for a bean if true.
We associate large tomatoes with the hybrids but they are also available in the heirlooms. Allegedly from seeds saved by a 90 year old man named “Mong”, the Mong tomato produces fruit that weighs 2-3 pounds. The tomatoes have small seed cavities and a non-acidic, sweet flavor. The vines are indeterminate and produce fruit in 90 days.
Miner’s lettuce or Claytonia perfoliata is an early spring vegetable that no one grows. Few people have probably even heard of it. If Claytonia sounds familiar it is because it is the genus of one of our earliest spring wildflowers, Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica).
The name miner’s lettuce comes from its use as a source of vitamin C during the California Gold Rush. It is very high in this vitamin and is self sowing. It is also a very interesting plant with succulent, funnel shaped leaves.
Our final heirloom vegetable, strawberry spinach, is at least 400 years old and was rediscovered in old monastery gardens in Europe were it had managed to survive because it reseeds readily. One of the names for it Blitum can be traced back to ancient Greece.
Strawberry spinach (Chenopodium capitatum) is foot and a half tall with triangular leaves. It can be used either cooked or raw in salads. It is very high in vitamin content, especially vitamin C. This curious little plant flowers in the summer and produces edible red berries. While they resemble small strawberries or raspberries, the fruits are said to be sweet but rather bland.
Our tastes have become rather regulated over the centuries despite what we probably think. We eat our Big Boy tomatoes, our white potatoes and red radishes. Yes, it is wonderful that they are fresh from our gardens and not shipped across the country but think how much more interesting those vegetable could be. Pick up an heirloom catalogue and find yourself something old and different.