Speckled Cranberry, Little Blond Girl and Black Sea Man.
Jimmy Nardello, Rosa Bianca and Bull Nose Bell.
No, this isn't the answer to the question: “What bands are playing free concerts in Western New York this summer?”
They are among the names of heirloom vegetables that have set back the clock in the world of nutrition.
Heirlooms have grown in popularity across the country during the last decade, so surely in a region like Buffalo Niagara, ripe in ethnic diversity, it was only a matter of time before they caught on here. Heirlooms have established roots in a growing number of local greenhouses and backyards, and Memorial Day weekend is the perfect time for more gardeners to jump on the bandwagon.
“Heirlooms are older, traditional plants that have not been cross-bred, hybridized, so you're getting a pure-strain plant that has been a proven producer for 100 to 150-plus years,” says Patti Jablonski-Dopkin, general manager of Urban Roots, on Rhode Island Street.
Many conventional vegetables have been bred during the last generation to make the fruit look beautiful or uniform in size, to produce higher yields or ripen as they are shipped vast distances. “At times you lose favorable characteristics – like taste,” Jablonski-Dopkin said.
The heirloom craze is akin to the more established appreciation for really good wine, or literature.
“You could tell a lot about someone from what's on their bookshelf. I think you could tell a lot about someone from what's in their garden,” says Adrianna Zullich, a sales clerk at Urban Roots (urbanroots.org).
Heirloom growers – and buyers – are learning that old-school vegetables tend to taste better, can be just as easy to grow, and may be healthier than the new-kid-on-the-block fare that has cornered the market. The variety can be as vast as the cultures that circle the globe:
• The Mayflower bean is believed to have arrived from Europe with the Mayflower in 1620.
• The Blondkopfchen – aka Little Blond Girl – is a popular tomato that hails from Germany.
• Thomas Jefferson planted the first Bull Nose Bell pepper in 1774, two years before he wrote the Declaration of Independence.
If you're thinking about starting a garden this weekend, or curious about buying some heirloom veggies from a store in the months ahead, here are what some local old-school experts advise:
1. Know your taste buds: Tomatoes tend to be the most popular heirloom vegetable and can vary in sweetness, acidity and savoriness. Mike Weber's Greenhouse, on Old French Road in West Seneca, sells about 10 plant varieties. “They range from red tomatoes to white tomatoes to striped tomatoes,” said Pam Weber, a family member who helps operate the greenhouse. Heirloom beans, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, squash and melons also are available in some garden centers and stores, and also can vary.
2. Think healthy: When buying plants, look for a strong, firm, dark green stem, Weber says. Pull the plant out of its container and make sure the root system looks healthy and white.
3. Find help: Talk with the garden center staff, most of whom probably have planted heirlooms in their home gardens and can answer questions about plant tending, yield and how the fruits of your labor will look and taste. Also look for “tell tags” on or near plants.
When buying produce, talk with store workers or, better yet, directly at your local farmers' market with farmers who grew the heirlooms you're buying.
4. Forget mass production: The tastiest heirloom veggies tend to be softer and less uniform than grocery store produce, says Joe Foegen, a merchandising supervisor at the Lexington Co-operative Market on Elmwood Avenue. Try to buy heirlooms and other fresh produce at peak harvest time, Foegen advises, and try a wide variety. If you really like something, buy more and freeze or can it for a wintertime treat.
5. Save the seeds: Plant them indoors in late winter and transfer the seedlings outside next Memorial Day weekend.
Give a taste to something old
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