Heirlooms, Historical Plants and Folklore
by Georgiana Marshen
Copyright August, 2000 by Georgiana Marshen
Heirloom plants are our windows to the past. Planting heirlooms gives us an opportunity to experience our history and continue the legacy.
An heirloom plant is defined as an open-pollinated cultivar that is over 50 years old. Open-pollinated simply means the plant will reproduce true-to-type. The new plant will look and grow exactly like its parent. Growing heirlooms offer many advantages for today's gardener. Varieties of yesteryear have stronger flavors, and come in many wonderful colors, shapes and sizes. The more common varieties such as Black-Seeded Simpson Lettuce and Calendula are easy to grow, however, there are a few varieties that need a more experienced gardener to achieve success. Some of the uncommon cultivars are susceptible to disease and pest problems. New resistant cultivars have been created, and may be the only types to grow, in order to assure success. Heirlooms can be finicky as well. They can take longer to germinate or germinate sporadically and can have growing traits unlike anything you have seen before.
With so many hybrids on the market today, which almost guarantees success in the garden, why grow heirlooms? Heirlooms give us a peek into life of earlier times. Holding a seed that contains all the genetic codes of the original plant, which could be over 100 years old, can bring wonder and excitement. It's likening to opening a tomb and holding an artifact from thousands of years ago. Heirlooms give us the chance to reconnect with history.
Thanks to the efforts of seed saver organizations, many varieties, some lost for generations, have been rediscovered, preserved and made available to gardeners and seed companies. Thomas Jefferson could be considered the greatest seed saver of all time. Jefferson's Garden Book, a detailed, documented log of everything he grew at his Monticello Estate, including 105 species of herbaceous flowers, gives us a wonderful look at the life and gardens of early Americans.
Many of the flowers and vegetables we grow today were grown during Jefferson's day. Sweet Pea, Poppy, Stock, Larkspur, Market More Cucumbers, Tom Thumb Lettuce and French Breakfast Radishes are varieties found in both Jefferson's garden then and our gardens now. The Thomas Jefferson Center for Historical Plants has many interesting heirloom seeds available; most are from Thomas Jefferson's gardens. The more common heirloom found in today's gardens, such as White Eggplant, Black-Seeded Simpson Lettuce and Scarlet Runner Bean, can be found at the Center. Available, too, is a large assortment of unusual heirlooms, such as, 'Tennis Ball Lettuce', which was a popular variety during the 18th century because it did not require much attention. Grow this as you would any Boston-type lettuce. 'Purple Calabash Tomato' is a ribbed tomato with flavor so concentrated that it tastes like sauce that has been slow simmered for hours. Purple Calabash, an indeterminate variety that is started indoors 6-8 weeks before the last frost, can also be found at the Center.
A variety of watermelon, 'Moon and Stars', grown in the 1920's was missing for almost a decade. It was rediscovered in 1981 and preserved. Moon and Stars stands out from all other watermelon because of its deep, dark green, speckled skin. The yellow speckles resemble stars and an occasional large patch is referred to as the moon. Sow seeds in fertile soil in hills or rows in late spring. Moon and Stars is a very vigorous vine that produces both large and small melons.
'Hyacinth Bean', a vine growing to twenty feet in length, produces purple-green leaves, rose-colored flowers and pods, and has unusual black and white seeds. You will find this growing on the kitchen arbor at the Monticello Estate.
Peeking into our past is one reason to grow heirlooms, but did you know that many heirlooms come with mysteries and legends associated with them? Some legends date back as far as Ancient Egypt and some as early as WWI. Here are a few of my favorites.
Lettuce was believed to be a powerful aphrodisiac. In England, lots of lettuce was planted to prevent conception. Women worried about their husbands being unfaithful used Caraway. Putting Caraway in the pockets of their husbands' pants would keep them from straying. Achilles supposedly used yarrow to heal the bloody wounds of his army. Yarrow was said to have mysterious healing powers. The "souls of the dead" were thought to be inside broad beans. Scattering broad bean seeds around the foundation of the house would protect you from these souls for 12 months.
The Inca, as a Sun God, worshiped sunflowers. An old superstition says planting sunflowers close to the house would ward off malaria. The early pioneers found many different uses for sunflowers. Seeds were made into oil and used for cooking. The seeds were also eaten as snacks and used in baking. Fibers found in the stem were used in clothing.
The Poppy comes with a few different beliefs. If you stare into the center of a poppy you will temporarily go blind. Bringing poppies into the house would cause illness. On Remembrance Day, wearing a poppy is a sign of respect for all those soldiers who died in war.
Basil, a symbol of love, has been grown for more than 2000 years. It is believed that a man who accepts Basil from a woman as a gift, will fall in love with that woman.
Giving flowers, as a symbol of good luck, dates back as far as Egyptian times. Another legend says taking out- of- season flowers into a house will bring bad luck. Finally, look to the night sky for the New Moon. Plant your flowers then, and you will have prosperity in all of your gardening experiences.
Growing heirlooms, saving the seed and passing them along to future generations, will give them the opportunity to glimpse into their past, and experience days gone by. Combine that with a few mysteries and legends and you have the makings for a very interesting heirloom garden.