Heirloom Seeds and Plants

By Staff
article image

Heirloom vegetables, fruits, flowers and herbs are varieties that have remained popular with home gardeners because they grow well and taste great. Loosely defined as plant varieties that have been grown for at least three generations (and sometimes for three or more centuries!), heirloom food plants are varieties that have been selected for their flavor, resistance to pests and diseases, and other traits important to home gardeners. Unlike modern hybrids, heirloom seeds are open-pollinated, which means they will breed true and can be saved by the gardener from year to year — an important consideration for food security and self-sufficiency. Also, heirloom seeds are never genetically engineered.

Mother Earth News Contributing Editor WILLIAM WOYS WEAVER is an expert on how to grow and cook with heirloom varieties. In the following articles from our Amazin’ Archive, he explains the history of outstanding heirlooms, along with growing advice and recipes. You’ll also enjoy the lovely photographs that garden photographer ROB CARDILLO shot in Weaver’s own garden and kitchen. To learn more about Weaver, check out his firsthand report, Harvesting Our Heirloom History.

Burr Gherkins


Burr gherkins are a fun and interesting garden addition for those who love pickles or wish to add interest to soups and stir fries. They can also be eaten raw like cucumbers. Read about how easy they are to grow and harvest, and try out this recipe for a hot and spicy Brazillian stir-fry, called “maxixada.”

Gourdseed Corn


Today’s bland hybrid corns are a casualty of the industry’s focus on mass production and multi-purpose. Why not grow your own corn, one rich with history and flavor? Gourdseed corn is delicious eaten fresh or grilled, and ideal for dumplings, puddings, flat breads and even pound cake. Don’t skip this recipe for Skillet Corn Bread!

Meet the Martynia


They’re sometimes referred to as “unicorn plant” and often as “devil’s claw,” but their real name is martynia, and they’re a multipurpose heirloom garden addition that will attract lots of attention to your garden. Martynias have the flavor of okra, only intensified, and sometimes with an undertone of morel mushrooms. Also, the interesting hooked shape of the baby pods lends them to all kinds of culinary applications, from stir-fries to pickled. Read about how to grow martynias, how to cook them, and why they’re called “devil’s claw.” Includes a recipe for Spicy Pickled Martynia Pods.

Abraham Lincoln Tomatoes



There are a lot of exceptional heirloom tomatoes out there, but ‘Abraham Lincoln’ consistently produces huge crops of extra large, meaty fruit, and resists foliage diseases, making it ideal for organic growers. It has a wonderful summery tomato flavor, and it produces heavily right up to the first killing frost. You’ll have pre-ripened green tomatoes for jams and chutneys all the way through December, and on a sultry August day, there is nothing like a chilled glass of white wine and a light bruschetta made with fresh ‘Abraham Lincoln’ tomatoes. ‘Abraham Lincoln’ was introduced in 1923, and over the years it has proved itself to be one of the great tomato classics that happily survived the big shift to hybrids during the 1940s. Includes a recipe for Honestly Easy Tomato Bruschetta.

Snack Wisely: Discover Cherokee Popcorn



‘Cherokee Long Ear’ corn, with its vivid combination of colors, is more than an attractive home decoration. This heirloom variety produces delicious popcorn that makes the industrial kernels we’re used to eating from the microwave and in movie theaters taste like Styrofoam. Popcorn is one of the original types of corn grown in the Americas, and ‘Cherokee Long Ear’ popcorn tops the heirloom list because it can be incorporated into a wide range of culinary uses: It can be ground into cornmeal, eaten like sweet corn, or popped and used in soups. We’ve even included a recipe for Popcorn Pie!

Three Phunky Pumpkins



There are lots of wonderful heirloom pumpkins that are superior in flavor and appearance to the same old orange globes found everywhere in the fall: It’s a shame we don’t see more of them. Here are a few varieties for gardeners with enough room for long, trailing vines. One is French, one is Italian and one is Iranian. All three will forever change your perception of pumpkins. Includes recipes for Empanadas Dulces de Calabasa (Empanadas with Sweet Pumpkin Filling) and grilled pumpkin with rosemary and olive oil.

You Can Grow Oca



Oca is a highly productive perennial plant with waxy, brightly colored tubers that are perfect as a season-extending crop.?It is an excellent source of carbohydrates, phosphorus and iron, as well as essential amino acids that promote the health and proper function of muscles, organs, nails, hair, skin and more. Includes a recipe for Oca con Salsa Picante.

Introducing the Hunan Winged Bean



The winged bean is one of the newest Asian vegetables coming to market these days, and its appearance is long overdue. This attractive climbing perennial is more or less your total meal: all parts of the plant are edible?–?the pods, the beans inside, the shoots, the flowers and even the tuber. But it’s the pods we generally see in Asian markets these days: long, flat and covered with frilly “wings” along four edges. Includes a recipe for Grilled Winged Beans with Miso Dipping Sauce.

Buckshorn Plantain



The old-time salad green, buckshorn plantain, is making a comeback. Learn how to grow and prepare it. Inclues a recipe for Old-fashioned Buckshorn Plantain Jelly.

Zesty Sorrel



Sorrel is the garden green with zing! Learn how to grow and cook five different varieties of this deliciously tangy plant: lemon-flavored, large-leafed common sorrel; low-growing, mild, green-grape-flavored French sorrel; salad-perfect, dark red-veined Blood sorrel; mildly sour and succulent Indian sorrel; and the spinachlike hardy perennial known as patience dock. Includes a recipe for Vegetarian Sorrel Soup.

Saturn Peaches



Old-time Chinese orchardists treated peaches with such reverence that they could be planted only within the royal precincts of the emperor. Their peaches were classified in one of two ways: golden (yellow flesh) or silver (white flesh). To the tribe of rare silver peaches belongs the mouthwatering peento (originally pan tao), the intensely flavored and odd-shaped peach we now know in the United States as the ‘Saturn’ peach. (Most U.S. peaches are yellow-fleshed varieties.) Includes a recipe for Chinese Peach Soup.

Yummy Yacon



Easy to grow and store, high-yielding, supernutritious and crunchy like an apple, yacon (pronounced ya-kon) is one of the many “new” vegetables coming to us from South America. In reality, this fruitlike vegetable has been cultivated throughout the Andes for more than a millennium. South Americans eat it as a fruit; they also use the huge leaves to wrap foods during cooking, in the same way cabbage leaves are used in Germany, grape leaves in the Mideast and banana leaves in the tropics. Includes a recipe for Salpicón (South American Fruit Salad).

Three Rare Beans



Gardeners have many delicious bean choices these days, but three heirloom varieties in particular deserve a spot in gardens and kitchens everywhere: the buttery-tasting ‘Beurre de Rocquencourt’ yellow wax bean; the tiny green ‘Comtesse de Chambord’ rice bean; and the curly, nutty-flavored pretzel bean. Plant these exceptional beans now to add color and zip to midsummer meals. Includes a recipe for Rare Beans Salad.

Aji Límo



This fruity Peruvian pepper is the spicy salsa secret of the Andes. One of the most flavorful of the Andean peppers, its distinctive citrus flavor and the bright yellow color of the ripe pods immediately bring to mind the crisp aromas of lemons and limes. A strong hint of citron (the less acidic cousin of lemons and limes) counterbalances the intense spiciness for which this pepper is well-known. The heat, fruitiness and floral quality contribute to the complexity of flavors achieved when the pepper is used in salsas. Includes a recipe for Salsa de Aji Límo.

Cornelian Cherries



Cornelian cherries, sometimes simply called cornels, have had a loyal culinary following since ancient times based on the luxuriously floral sweetness of the syrups, puddings, drinks and confections that are made from it. Modern varieties allow cooks to bring bigger, even more flavorful cornelian cherries into the kitchen. Includes a recipe for Cornelian Cherry Preserve.

Garlic Scapes



If you grow your own garlic or have a good farmers market, then you can enjoy a new kind of vegetable — garlic scapes. The scapes are the flower stems that garlic plants produce before the bulbs mature. When harvested while they are young and tender, the scapes are delicious. Enjoy the distinctive flavor of these delicious flower stems. Includes a recipe for Sautéed Garlic Scapes.

Golden Corn Salad



Corn salads — also known as mâches — are are actually leafy salad greens that are very cold hardy and grow best during the fall and winter. Two features of golden corn salad elevate it above the common mâche salad greens now sold in many supermarkets: its intensely nutty flavor and its ornamental possibilities for edible landscaping. Includes a recipe for Golden Corn Salad with Vinaigrette Dressing.

Mouse Melons



Kissin’ cousins to cucumbers, Mexican mouse melons pack a flavorful wallop despite their Lilliputian size. Their unique flavor, with hints of cucumber and green fava bean, their pest-free and rampant habit of growth, not to mention their huge productivity, all conspire to recommend this unusual vine to home gardeners looking for something new to add to their menus. Includes a recipe for Mouse Melon Salad.

Snake Gourds



Striped, speckled and looking very much like dangling green serpents, snake gourds taste surprisingly like cucumbers, and there are many excellent ways to prepare them: in flavorful chutneys, as zesty pickles and in a host of other Asian dishes. Let this showy, exotic vegetable take center stage in your garden and your kitchen. Includes a recipe for Snake Gourd Curry.

Yokohama Squash



Enjoy the buttery-rich flavor and floral fragrance of this rare heirloom variety. Includes a recipe for Steamed Squash Dumplings in Duck Stock.

Food historian and Mother Earth News Contributing Editor William Woys Weaver is an author of several cooking and gardening books, including 100 Vegetables and Where They Came From. The Mother Earth News editors also recommend Heirloom Vegetable Gardening: A Master Gardener’s Guide to Planting, Seed Saving and Cultural History by William Woys Weaver. If you want to explore the fabulous flavors, fascinating history and amazing diversity of vegetables, this is the book to start with. Weaver profiles 280 heirloom varieties, with authoritative growing advice and incredible recipes. First published in 1997, Heirloom Vegetable Gardening has since been out of print, with used copies selling online for as much as $300.