November 13, 2019

Long Live the Long-lived Heirlooms

Rattlesnake pole beans

Janine Pineo Photo | Rattlesnake pole beans

• By Janine Pineo •

If you believe the seed catalogs, everything old is new again.

So let’s consider the old and ponder the new and improved — then remember to include the tried and true.

Trumpeting the revival of heirloom seeds is the Burpee Heirlooms catalog, complete with illustrations from the company’s archives. Burpee’s requirements for heirlooms are specific: Plants from 1947 and before qualify.

What I noticed most was how many of the seeds in this specialty catalog are offered in many other seed catalogs, sometimes without the heirloom tag to identify their age, such as Henderson’s Bush Lima (1885), which I planted last year just because it was a bush lima bean. Or Fordhook Giant swiss chard (1924) or Straight Eight cucumber (1938) or French Breakfast radish (c. 1880s) or Bloomsdale Long Standing spinach (c. 1900). All of these graced my garden last summer with delicious results.

Few surprises were to be found in the flower section, but the one big exception made me think I was born about a hundred years too late. According to the catalog, the sweet pea was a “full-blown rage,” and at the turn of the century, Burpee was selling more than 100 varieties.

Fortunately, Burpee Heirlooms has four single varieties and two mixes for sale, including Captain of the Blues (1893) and Eckford’s Finest Mix (late 1800s). It’s a good start for the next century.

For all those gardeners who just can’t start a plant in a peat pot (I raised my hand, too), there is a neat offer of eight six-packs of heirloom varieties that Burpee will start just for you. Needless to say, I bit and plan to grow Rosa Bianca eggplant, Chinese Giant pepper, Mortgage Lifter tomato and Ipswich Pinks dianthus.

The old and the new are touted in catalogs from two Maine seed sources, Pinetree Garden Seeds and Johnny’s Selected Seeds. Johnny’s has more than 100 new herbs, flowers and vegetable varieties. Pinetree’s expanded catalog has new sections on peonies and flowers for naturalizing.

In Pinetree’s vegetable bin is a colorful assortment for 1997. One curiosity is Rattlesnake pole bean, a green-podded variety streaked with purple. Giant Red celery with its burgundy stalks will be a bright addition to any salad, especially if it includes Vulcan loose-leaf lettuce, a Japanese variety with 14-inch leaves that start out green at the base and change to a mottled purplish red. For a bright green, try Simpson Elite loose-leaf lettuce, a frillier relative (well, it is from California) of the heirloom Black Seeded Simpson (1875).

A different vegetable to consider this year is kohlrabi. I tried it last year with some success. Of course, anything that grew during last year’s monsoonlike summer was a success.

Kohlrabi is often compared to turnip with its bulbous shape, although this plant grows above the ground. I grew Early White Vienna and plan to try Pinetree’s purple variety, Kolibri.

Johnny’s, too, has some mouth-watering new vegetables. For pumpkins, check out the “new” Long Island Cheese, an heirloom from New York considered one of the best pie squash. Jarrahdale, a squash originally from Australia, is a ghostly marvel with its gray, deeply ribbed fruits.

I also like the looks of Hector spinach, a variety that received acclaim during 1996 tests. The large leaves are said to be tender and mild. I can only hope that it truly is slow to bolt.

If you like zucchini but don’t like the heavy yield, then the Italian variety Costata Romanesco may be for you. This distinctively ribbed zucchini from Johnny’s yields about half that of other varieties and is called the best tasting.

For the flower garden from Pinetree, I’m planting Pied Piper Red cosmos, the first of the seashell cosmos to be offered in a single color, this one a deep red.

Malope Trifida is an exotic and elegant annual mallow that gave great results last year. Once the August sun shone, this plant branched and blossomed well, its five-petaled flowers opening to reveal a green “star” at the base of each blossom.

Vesuvius nasturtiums sound like an eruption of color: Apricot flowers rise above dark-green foliage edged with red.

From Johnny’s, I am delighted to see a new variety of mignonette, White Mignonette. This new flower reaches 2 to 3 feet in height, nearly double that of the older variety, which I fell in love with last year. Mignonette is the most deliciously fragrant flower I’ve ever smelled (including, forgive me, the sweet pea) with a fruity raspberry scent that is intoxicating. Its form, however, is rather weedy, although the White Mignonette looks more commanding than its smaller relative.

Another new flower, Sanvitalia or creeping zinnia, holds promise. The blossoms of this trailing variety resemble miniature sunflowers — less than an inch wide — and are heat- and drought-tolerant.

If you just must have the newest and best of all offerings every year, try what almost every catalog is hawking: Cajun Delight okra, the 1997 All-America Winner.

Okra is best known as part of the South’s cuisine, but the plant will grow up North. Cajun Delight, in fact, is being called the best for Northern gardens. Last year, I tried the Clemson variety, which did OK despite the lack of heat necessary for the best crop. The fruit didn’t mature well, but the plant was loaded with flowers, gorgeous cream blooms that unrolled to show off their burgundy centers.

Okra is the best of both worlds: It’s an elegant ornamental and, if all goes well, a prolific vegetable.

Stack up the catalogs and start reading. Happy days are almost here again.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in February 1997.

2013 update: It should come as no surprise that many of these heirlooms are now standard in my garden. How could they not be when they have withstood the test of time?

Some of the plants mentioned may no longer be offered by the company mentioned in the article above, but search the internet and you likely will find a source for it.