Bred for taste, heirlooms are a riot of colours, shapes and sizes. Hundreds of years of cultivation gave rise to thousands of delicious and distinct varieties selected, grown and conserved by our ancestors. These vegetables are luscious in both taste and appearance, and stand in sharp contrast to the hard flesh of a variety bred for uniformity and long-distance shipping.
Heirlooms are living historical documents with their own stories, genealogy and geographic provenance. Varieties such as the Cherokee “trail of tears” bean memorialize the forced relocation of the Cherokee Indians in the mid-nineteenth century. They carried this bean throughout this infamous walk, which became the death march for thousands of Cherokees; hence the name. It is important to conserve these histories as agricultural, personal and political documents.
It is the genetic diversity of heirlooms that matters most to our agricultural future, as this resource is quietly disappearing from our supermarkets and our home gardens. For the past 100 years, fascination with “modern” varieties has resulted in the extinction of countless heirloom vegetables. The disappearance of this specialized genetic stock means that we will lose the ability to breed disease and pest-resistant hybrids from heirloom varieties, and therefore we may potentially lose the ability to feed ourselves.