Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The history of heirloom vegetables

Heirloom vegetables are the old varieties that have been passed down through generations.  Some vegetables have a history spanning thousands of years.  Heirloom vegetables are open pollinated, which means we can continue to save seeds and develop new species adapted to our individual climate.  Unlike the modern hybrid vegetables, that have been bred to comply with the requirements of an industrial agriculture system, heirloom vegetables are bred to taste good!  And best of all, they are open-source, not owned by anyone and can't be patented, we need to keep them alive to ensure food freedom for all.

eight acres: review of Heirloom Vegetables, by Simon Rickard

Penguin sent me Simon Rickad's latest book Heirloom Vegetables: A guide to their history and varieties to review (see detail here).  Simon write that the main purpose of the book is to tell the stories of heirloom vegetables family by family.  The book itself if a lovely hardcover, nearly 350 glossy pages, with plenty of photos.  I would never had expected that reading about vegetables could be so interesting!

I like to grow a few heirlooms myself, including tromboncinos, spaghetti squash, chokos and most vegetables in my garden self-seed.  I definitely see the value in maintaining and enhancing these older varieties by saving seeds.  I really didn't realise how old some of the vegetables really are, and it was amazing to learn that closely related vegetables originated in different parts of the world.

eight acres: review of Heirloom Vegetables, by Simon Rickard

Here's a list of some of the interesting facts I picked out from the book:
  1. Peas were originally grown to be dried and were eaten as a pea mush, fresh peas is a relatively recent innovation
  2. Before potatoes were brought to Europe from the Americas, turnips and parsnips were the staple root crops
  3. Carrots were originally purple and yellow before an orange variety was developed
  4. After peanut flowers are pollinated, the stem turns downward and burrows into the ground to grow into a peanut
  5. Bok choy, Chinese cabbage, swede and canola are closely related
  6. The oldest known vegetable is the gourd, at 10000 years old, and originally grown as a vessel rather than for eating
  7. Eggplants are originally from the India/Burma region and were white, hence the name
  8. Quinoa, beets and spinach are closely related
  9. Rhubarb was originally highly valued for the laxative properties of its root
  10. Warrigal greens are native to Australia and widely cultivated in Europe
  11. Lettuce, artichokes and thistles are closely related
  12. Garlic is over 6000 years old and is so altered by human cultivation it cannot breed in the wild
  13. Vegetables native to the Americas include beans, pumpkins, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, capsicum, yacon, Jerusalem artichoke and sweet potato, but not watermelon


  1. Some great facts there! I love the history of veg - did you know that dahlias were originally brought over to Europe as a food crop? I try to save seeds when and where I can and I'm steadily stopping buying all F1s as I can't save the seeds from them.

  2. very interesting, I should try and grow some myself. Are they easy to grow?

  3. That would make a great book for Christmas for a gardener. Thanks for the review.

  4. Wow I did not know how peanuts grow. Very cool. Next time my folks have them in the ground I might do some investigation. Sounds like a great read and I am about to try purple carrots for the first time.

  5. I am slowly getting into Heirloom veg, I signed up with a seed club and I get 4 packs of vegetable and herbs seeds every month, suppose to be what you can sow that month but as they come from the USA my seasons are a bit different, I want to learn how to collect my own seeds as well.
    I dont like the idea of GMO and find commercial grown vegetables and F1 hybrids very tastless.

  6. That is very interesting. i was researching the other day about the origins of the tomato as i was thinking about proper mulches for plants..anyway..this is very interesting. I would love to get my hands on a copy. i will add it to my long list.

  7. When my husband and I establish our vegie gardens at our new place I intend to grow mostly heirloom plants, and selectively save the seed so that the plants are, as you say “adapted to our individual climate.” I have, in recent years, read there are moves by governments in some countries toward regulating the growing and selling of home grown produce. I understand that New Zealand, and the United States at one stage were introducing bills that could impact on home grown produce that is grown for sale and possibly also, when produce is grown for bartering and sharing. This was a few years ago now and I don’t know if the bills were passed.

  8. I'll have to see about letting Santa know this is on my wish list.


Thanks, I appreciate all your comments, suggestions and questions, but I don't always get time to reply right away. If you need me to reply personally to a question, please leave your email address in the comment or in your profile, or email me directly on eight.acres.liz at

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