You wouldn't have known it to peer outside, where a malicious arctic wind was throwing snow devils at the house and the thermometer had to look up to see zero, but the first sign of spring appeared last week. Granted it appeared in the mailbox, but this time of year, we'll take what we can get. And what we got was the season's first seed catalog, a dreamlike tableau of edible visions drenched in sun and promises, and bearing messengers of hope with mysterious names like Royal Purple Pod Pole Beans and Golden Sunday Tomatoes.
If you've never heard of these vegetables before, you're in good company. These and several thousand other food crops are secrets called heirloom vegetables, varieties that most kitchens haven't seen for decades or even centuries.
As mass-produced hybrid and genetically-modified seeds and plants slowly replaced diversity in American greenhouses in the 20th century, heirloom vegetables faded away. Those that survived did so only because generations of growers carefully saved their seeds each fall and faithfully planted them anew each year. In some instances, a single family's dedication to a variety their long-ago ancestors grew was all that stood between that species and extinction.
Though these intrepid gardeners didn't know it, they were saving more than seeds -- they were saving food itself because heirloom produce has all kinds of things that modern fruits and vegetables don't. Inside their genetic codes lie extra nutrition and more intense flavors, not to mention marvelous colors and textures and shapes often so extraordinary you can't believe they're the food they claim to be.
Hybrid and genetically-modified plants, the kind of vegetables that most grow today, have bred many of these characteristics away. They've traded taste for a shorter growing season. Or nutrition for pest resistance. Or color for size. And the seeds they produce won't grow into the same plant or won't grow period, which means we have to buy new seeds or plants each year.
What gets lost is more than a better supper and a self-sustaining food supply. Together, the rare traits heirloom fruits and veggies possess form a priceless gene bank from which we can make vital withdrawals when disease or worse strike today's mass-produced crops. When heirloom foods disappear, they take this heritage with them into oblivion.
Lately, however, heirloom seeds have begun to make the long trip from perilous obscurity to something more hopeful, and that's a very good thing because they're healthier to grow on all kinds of levels. When we plant them in our gardens, we're preserving Earth's biodiversity with our own hands. And we're feeding our families better, too. Believe me when I say you've never tasted a tomato until you've sunk your teeth into a Brandywine. One bite and you'll never call Early Girls "tomatoes" again.
Growing heirlooms may take a little extra effort, but it's so much more than worth it. Your garden and your family will spend summers suspended in a state of gastronomic wonder, and I guarantee you'll never look back at the pale imitation hybrids you used to grow.
Plant what they've got growing this spring and feast on a harvest that was almost lost forever.