Going green: what are heirloom veggies?
Hybrid versus heirloom seeds
Since the advent of centralised farming and supermarkets most of the fruit and vegetables we see on the shelves are grown from hybrid seeds. Hybrids are not bad for you and there’s nothing wrong with them aside from their non-naturalness (they are selectively hybridised to maximise qualities like disease resistance, uniformity).
Hybrid seeds make farming easier on many levels but sadly, it means that of the thousands of varieties of most fruits and vegetables out there – we see and experience just one or two. And in the long term, for the sake of ease and the bottom line biodiversity is gradually lost.
Years ago, vegetables came in all shapes, colours, and sizes. Many more people grew their own food and seeds were passed from friend to friend. Many of the vegetables we now associate with a particular colour were multi- and even vari-coloured. Take carrots for example. As young kids, we learn that carrots are orange: of varying thickness and sweetness perhaps but fundamentally orange.
Learning from the bounty of the past
History reveals that carrots were originally either purple or white, with some yellow thrown in. They were slightly bitter, less juicy, and seen as a medicinal root, rather than a culinary one. The orange colour we know today were as a result of mutant carrots that the Dutch took a fancy to and selectively grew until the sweet, juicy, orange carrot we know today is more or less the only carrot we know of.
If you think tomato, is red and yellow all you see? Think again. Last week we met Matt who grows Brandywine, Black Russian, and Gardener’s Delight and you might be surprised to learn that that there are hundreds of varieties of tomatoes, both hybrid and heirloom. Black, purple, green, white, yellow, golden, red, pink, pear-shaped, chilli-shaped, bulbous, round, tiny, huge – they come in almost all colours, shapes and sizes. And yet, all we see on the shelves are cherry tomatoes and salad tomatoes. And that’s not to mention the fantastic existence of magical things like orange and purple cauliflower, spiky green Romanesco broccoli, purple beans and potatoes…
Ought we to bother fighting for the variety, you ask? Apart from the intrinsic sadness of species being forever lost, there are health benefits to consider. You have probably been taught that a colourful plate is a good one, but did you know that every colour of veg represents a different type of vitamin or mineral?
- Orange carrots contain beta-carotene which is converted by the body into vitamin A, which is great for night vision.
- Purple carrots on the other hand, are full of anthocynins, which are essentially the same antioxidants that blueberries are full of.
- Vari-coloured carrot salads, full of many kinds of goodness.
- White tomatoes contain anthoxanthins, which contain allacins which help the body fight cholesterol.
Imagine the possibilities. Next time you visit a farmers market, look around at the variety and instead of choosing your old favourites strike out and try something new. New colours, shapes, sizes and flavours might be just what your family needs. And if you’re looking for a more permanent source of heirloom or organic vegetables, try a veggie box, like those ordered at The Ethical Co-op, Ganics, Harvest of Hope, among others.
That’s the fuss about heirloom veggies. Let us know what you think, what’s the strangest veggie you’re come across?