09/15/2014 03:34 EDT | Updated 11/15/2014 05:59 EST

Hundreds of varieties of heirloom vegetables, herbs being offered to consumers

LONDON, Ont. - It's obviously incorrect to say heirloom vegetables are "new" to Canadian kitchens. But it's fair to say the interest in them "has increased very dramatically over the last decade," says a spokesman for the Organic Council of Ontario.

More and more heirloom foods are being grown by home gardeners and small-scale farmers, says Jacob Pries, operations and outreach manager for the Caledon-based council, and being offered to consumers.

"I think you'll find the range of what is available, particularly in farmers markets, is much bigger than it was 10 or 15 years ago because there's more demand," says Mark MacDonald, head of communications for West Coast Seeds in Ladner, B.C., south of Vancouver.

"Heirloom" is a designation generally given to seeds whose lineage can be traced back more than 60 years, to before the Second World War, although some proponents suggest it should be 100 years.

The re-emergence of many varieties unfamiliar to modern consumers is the result of efforts by seed companies, seed libraries and seed exchanges to gather and verify the genealogy of these products and then to make them available in today's marketplace.

Many have been traced back to the specific family who brought them to North America and many heirloom seeds have been passed down through generations. Thus they are sometimes called "heritage" seeds.

A decade ago, heirloom tomatoes had the highest profile in the genre. Today hundreds of varieties of heirloom vegetables, herbs and even flowers are available.

There are round French zucchinis, black Spanish radishes, small round lemon-coloured cucumbers and others that look like Granny Smith apples, large blue Australian squashes and yellow pear-shaped tomatoes. There are heirloom peas, carrots, potatoes, onions, peppers, all kinds of beans and much more.

Brandywine tomatoes, one of the original beefsteak tomatoes, are more flat than round, heavily ridged at the stem end and can grow up to 18 centimetres (seven inches) across.

Italian chioggia or candy-striped beets, are red or bright pink on the outside but, when cut crosswise, show off spectacular alternating red (or pink) and white stripes.

"More and more people are realizing the breadth of what's out there," MacDonald says, adding that just 10 years ago, "radicchio and even arugula were seen as unusual." Now consumers are getting used to things like kohlrabi, an octopus-looking, traditional northern European vegetable that, raw, tastes like a mild radish, or cooked, like mild cabbage.

Many of these foods fell out of widespread favour when mechanized and industrial farming revolutionized North American agriculture after the Second World War. That's also when hybrid seed, chemical fertilizers and DDT use became commonplace, MacDonald says, and why most people agree "heirloom" foods must be traceable to before the war, although some go back much further.

Appearance and taste play a big role in the growing popularity of heirloom cultivars. Modern hybrid tomatoes produced for the mass market, for example, may be bred for short maturation times, uniformity of size and colour, freedom from blemishes and ease of transport but not necessarily for taste.

"In theory, if I grow the same heirloom tomato my great-grandmother grew, I'm going to be eating more or less the same fruit, tasting the same sweetness, the same qualities that they chose to grow back in her day."

Some claims have been made for superior nutritional benefits of heirloom products, but MacDonald warns against over-generalizing. "There are some hybrid seeds with a more modern type of breeding which produce a very nutritious vegetable."

But there are other important reasons to support heirloom products.

"Heirloom varieties give us diversity in our environment," Pries says. "The more different kinds of tomato crops we have, for example, the more resilient we are." He points to the mid-1800s Irish potato famine, when the only two varieties of potatoes cultivated both got diseased and a million people starved to death. "So if we get blight on our tomatoes, we need to have some varieties that are resistant to that and also attract different pollinators. A healthy ecosystem is based on diversity."

But many heirloom varieties do not lend themselves to mass production. Some have a longer and more unpredictable growth patterns than modern vegetables and "they don't travel well," Pries says. Consequently, you more often find them seasonally at farmers markets than in large quantity at supermarkets.

He says many heirloom varieties "have increased resistance to diseases or drought because they were grown 200 years ago when we didn't have chemical fertilizers or pesticides so the plants developed those traits themselves. Small-scale farmers are realizing heirlooms are actually easier to grow and more resilient and therefore less of a risk."

Heirloom varieties also provide an answer to modern concerns about genetically engineered crops since they are not genetically modified, MacDonald says.

Neither MacDonald nor Pries anticipate any waning in the interest in heirloom foods.

Whether you grow them yourself or buy them, "It improves the conversation," MacDonald says. "There's a bit of pride, there's bit of history, there's a sense that you're carrying the torch."


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