21 November 2011

Creating New Heirlooms (Plus: Exciting news!)

Recently, I was telling a friend about my deep and abiding love for Russian tomatoes. I've grown several, and they have a distinctively rich flavor, often a beautiful dark color, and are well adapted for the cool, short summers of Michigan. 'Black Krim' is my favorite of the ones I've tried (though I think it is technically Ukrainian), and whenever I see the words like “heirloom from Russia” in a catalog, I pretty much know I'm going to like it.

That conversation got me thinking. I love Russian (and Ukrainian) tomatoes, but of course tomatoes don't really come from Europe at all. Tomatoes are native to South America, and, like a host of other delicious things (beans, squash, peppers, potatoes, eggplant, corn...) only made it to European gardens and tables after Columbus opened the new world to European explorers. Tomatoes, when they were first arrived in the old world, were a mix of varieties adapted to grow in warm South and Central American climates and selected for use in local food traditions and culture. Once they arrived in Europe, however, local gardeners took them on and made them their own. By saving seeds from varieties that performed well in their local climates and local cuisines, Italians created heat-loving, red, often green-shouldered varieties with a bright, clean taste, while Russians (and their neighbors) perfected cool tolerant, dark fleshed “black” tomatoes with a rich, smokey flavor.
Italian food. Plants from around the world.
As Europeans immigrated to the United States, they brought with them the varieties of tomatoes (and other plants) they grew up with in their home communities, and here they have continued to evolve. Just as Russian and Italian cultures and climate created distinctive tomato types, the melting pot of America brought a whole range of European heirlooms together to create distinctly new varieties, like the famous and wildly popular Brandywine tomatoes which came into being in gardens in Ohio and Tennessee.

It isn't surprising to me that the Brandywines, and other homegrown heirlooms like the Mortgage Lifter varieties, are so popular here in the US. After all, they were created here, the product of our culture, just as different European and Asian cultures have created their own specific takes on tomatoes that reflect their different values, cooking styles, and ways of life. Heirloom varieties are more than simply a crop, they are the result of a long, dynamic partnership between plants and people that has been going on since agriculture began. Weedy grasses give up life in the wild to become wheat and corn, one little plant scientists know as Brassica oleraceae morphed into myriad forms gardeners call broccoli, cabbage, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower, and of course, tomatoes sailed around the world to form a perfect partnership with Italian pasta.
Corn, before it teamed up with humans
Unfortunately, many gardeners today have given up their part in this ancient collaboration, ceding their role in the on-going evolution of the plants in their gardens to corporate breeders. Corporation, as they tend to do, have set out to replacing the endlessly diverse, personal forms of heirloom varieties created by and for a local community with new varieties which are efficient, uniform, and score well with focus groups.

This story has been told many times, and many gardeners have turned to growing historic heirloom varieties in response. But that is only half the solution. We've worked hard to preserve what previous generations have created. Now it is time to bring back the very art of that creation itself.
Pollinating tomatoes
Some gardeners are beginning to do this. Heirloom tomatoes came into being when their were fewer people in the world and have huge, sprawling vines that don't fit well in today's small yards or patios. A few years ago, a some gardeners were looking for delicious, beautiful varieties for their small gardens, and decided to do something about it. They got on-line and created the Dwarf Tomato Project, working as a community to breed a new generation of delicious heirloom-style tomatoes for small spaces. I love that, and I want it to spread. It is time we took back our plants, started making varieties for us, created by our friends, in our community, adapted to our local climate, soil, and tastes. It is time we started creating new heirlooms.

Which brings me to the big news of today's post. The working title of my upcoming book for Timber Press is Creating New Heirlooms, and it is going be all about the concepts I just outlined in this post. I'm super excited about it, and hope you are too!


Carol Michel said...

I'm looking forward to reading your book when it comes out.

Liz said...

That's awesome!

Helen said...

Cool, Joseph! How exciting.

Jim/ArtofGardening said...

Where do I pre-order?

Cindy, MCOK said...

Joseph, I'm so delighted for you! I look forward to being one of your readers!

allanbecker-gardenguru said...

1] Exited about the book? Yes!
2] Hope one day you will address the issue that some garden writers have raised about heirloom plants not being as disease or climate resistant as newer varieties.

Joseph said...

Thanks everyone!

I totally agree with your second point. Disease resistance is one of the areas that commercial breeding excels compared to amateur work. I think both types of breeding have a place, and compliment each other very well. I'll have lots to say on the subject in the book.

Bridget Lamp said...

I'd like to know what varieties are your favorites. Congratulations on the book. I look forward to reading it!