Air Date: Week of September 19, 1997
Steve Curwood met with Living On Earth gardening expert Michael Weishan at Michael's garden to discuss the importance and the joys of growing old time varieties of today's vegetables.
CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
I'm talking to you now from the garden of Michael Weishan. He's Living on Earth's gardening expert, as well as the editor of Traditional Gardening. And right now he's trying to convince me that this bumpy red blob in front of me is a tomato. Michael, come on. (Laughs)
WEISHAN: I know, it doesn't look much like a tomato. But it's a Brandywine tomato, which is an old Amish variety, and it's probably some of the best eating you've ever had in terms of tomatoes.
CURWOOD: So this is what people mean by an heirloom plant.
WEISHAN: This is. Generally, when we talk about heirloom plants, we are talking about vegetables, although it could be flowers and trees as well. But generally vegetables that are more than 50 years old and that have some sort of history or story behind them.
CURWOOD: Aside from the history, why would you want to grow an heirloom plant? I mean, this thing looks terrible.
WEISHAN: Well, the taste is absolutely spectacular. The reason this is not in your stores is not for its appearance. It's for the fact -- see, feel how soft it is? It's actually, it's very soft and very easily bruised, unlike most modern tomatoes.
WEISHAN: It's loaded with sugar and juices, and if you would try to ship it, it would fall apart. Now, they don't all look like this. If we just move over here, for instance, here's the yellow variety. And that looks more like (expels breath as he reaches over and picks it) a standard tomato does. Fairly large, round. This is probably a 2-pound fruit,
CURWOOD: Yeah, this is like a small pumpkin. (Laughs)
WEISHAN: Yeah, it does actually look like a small pumpkin.
CURWOOD: Ooh, even though it's yellow it feels very soft and ripe, like you can eat it now.
WEISHAN: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, absolutely.
CURWOOD: And this grove, really, almost of tomato plants, these are all heirloom plants?
WEISHAN: Well, yes, actually. There's a large number of these Brandywine tomatoes, which happen to be my particular favorite. We have an Italian heirloom called Costa Luco Genovese, which is a wonderful paste tomato. We have a wonderful cherry tomato called Chadwick's Cherry, which is absolutely one of the best eating cherry tomatoes I've ever tasted.
CURWOOD: Where are they? I want to try one right now.
WEISHAN: Yeah, they're way down there at the end here.
(Footfalls on gravel)
WEISHAN: Here's the cherry stand way down here at the end. After wading through the veritable tomato jungle.
CURWOOD: I have to confess I have a weakness for good cherry tomatoes.
WEISHAN: Try one of those.
CURWOOD: Oh! Wow! It's really sweet, but not in a cloying kind of way. It just boom, explodes in your mouth.
WEISHAN: It's not just tomatoes, either, of course.
CURWOOD: Uh huh. What other varieties do you have?
WEISHAN: Well, we have all sorts of things. Most of these varieties are actually heirlooms, and as we meander through the garden we can take a look at some of them.
(Footfalls on gravel)
WEISHAN: This one here that did not get well-irrigated, so is not growing too terrifically well, is one of my favorites, called Lazy Wife, from 1810. It's a snap bean that you don't have to pull the string on. You know how, when you snap beans, you have to pull that little string?
WEISHAN: Well, this one, the string is fairly edible so you can just snap the beans without pulling it. So it's called Lazy Wife. Next to it is another variety called Vermont Cranberry, which actually has a sort of a white bean. It's a drying bean. It has a beautiful speckling, cranberry speckling to it, which is another terrific store. That was almost lost to modern cultivation except for one man somewhere in Vermont had actually saved some of these beans, and now you can find them in gardens all over the country. They're a terrific bean for soups and stews.
CURWOOD: How well is this biodiversity being preserved, these old heirloom varieties?
WEISHAN: Recently, much more so than in the past. It was only through the efforts of literally a few individuals in this country and in other countries around the world that a lot of these varieties were preserved. And oftentimes they were preserved in the strangest of ways. Things were found growing in old cemeteries, for instances, in the case of roses. Or so and so in Iowa had saved some of her grandmother's tomato seeds. That's how those Brandywine seeds were saved. These seed saver banks have been established in many countries to preserve a lot of these heirloom varieties, principally because it is extremely important to capture this genetic material and preserve it. I mean, the eating benefits are sort of a sideline. For instance, in the 1970s the United States corn crop was threatened with a blight that destroyed about 15% of all the corn in this country. And what had happened was that the modern hybrids had been bred to be non-resistant, to be susceptible to a particular type of virus which the old varieties just brushed off. And they had to actually go back and use some of these heirloom varieties of corn and re-breed the modern hybrids to be resistant to this problem. This happens a lot in plant breeding, that they'll reach back into the past to take some characteristic that's been lost. Fragrance in roses, for instance, has been something that has been lost and now is being re-bred back into roses.
CURWOOD: Where can I get these seeds?
WEISHAN: You can get these seeds in a large number of places. There are many organizations, like Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa, that sell seeds for many of these heirloom varieties. And now many of the modern catalogues are doing so as well: Burpees and Johnny's Selected Seeds in Maine and quite a number. Heirloom gardening has become quite the rage these days.
CURWOOD: Well, Michael, thanks for letting us stop by today. And get a bit of lunch, huh?
WEISHAN: My pleasure, Steve.
CURWOOD: When he's not chatting with us in his garden, Michael Weishan is editor in chief of Traditional Gardening. And Michael will be happy to answer any questions you might have for him about heirloom plants. You can reach him via the Living on Earth web site. Go to www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. And click on the picture of the watering can.
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