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Heirloom Plants

Heirloom Plants book coverI just got a new book from Ball Publishing/Chicago Review Press that makes me so jealous of all you vegetable gardeners! Heirloom Plants: A Complete Compendium of Heritage Vegetables, Fruits, Herbs & Flowers is scheduled for release on April 1.

Authors Thomas Etty, who owns an heirloom seed company in the UK, and Lorraine Harrison, who got her Master’s degree in Garden History from University of London and writes extensively about gardens and botanical topics, have compiled a collection of more than 500 cultivars with a long history and panache of one sort or another.

And, actually, you don’t have to be a vegetable gardener to enjoy the book — there are “directories” for fruits, herbs and flowers, too —but the tomato descriptions alone will make you want to be! The Herb Directory lists more than fifty plants, many of them known at least since the time of Culpepper’s Complete Herbal (1653). Pignut, dyer’s greenweed, and mountain arnica join the more commonly known basil, parsley and lemon balm.

Heirloom Plants book insideEntries describe the plant, explain the uses, and offer the occasional cultivation tip. Feature boxes throughout highlight “Garden Ghosts,” or botanists and others, who were part of a plant’s history.  And “Lost, Rare, or Simply Forgotten” features endangered plants and the stories associated with them.

Heirloom plants are those that have been around for at least 50 years (some say 100), and are open-pollinated. Open-pollinated means the pollen is spread naturally from one plant to another by wind or by insects. The seeds from these plants, unlike those from hybridized and GMO varieties, are likely to produce plants like the parents.

Besides connecting us to the past and our gardening ancestors, growing these plants preserves biodiversity, which helps secure our food supply into the future. As much as 90% of old varieties have been lost already.

Heirlooms often have superior taste, fragrance, or even nutrition, than hybrids. And they have great names! Learn about Moon and Stars Watermelon, Wolf River Apple, Corncockle Flower, and Mortgage Lifter Tomato.

Appropriately in the style of an old seed catalog, the book is as fun to flip through randomly as it is to read cover to cover. There’s a helpful list of heirloom seed sellers is in the back, which includes many US companies; discovering your own favorite varieties would be just as much fun as tracking down the ones highlighted here.

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