by Sarah Phillips, CEO and founder, Ugly Produce is Beautiful
An heirloom plant, heirloom variety, or heirloom vegetable, sometimes called a heritage plant, is an old cultivar (some say it has to at least 50 years old) that is "still maintained by gardeners and farmers particularly in isolated or ethnic communities". They may have been commonly grown during earlier periods in human history, but are not typically used in modern large-scale agriculture.
The reason is that heirloom varieties tend not to be used in large scale agriculture is that they are variable and unpredictable. Although most heirlooms have superior flavor because they are open-pollinated (meaning they rely on natural pollination from insects, birds, animals, or the wind), their shape, size, and color results, and yield are more variable within a species. Our food culture is built on beauty standards and sameness, rather than on taste and variability. Agribusiness relies upon predictable produce yield per acre, and produce that can be shipped long distances for greater sales (ie: heirloom tomatoes have thinner skins and bruise easily), tend not uniform in size or shape (less likely to fit neatly into pre made containers), or have a surprising variety of color (unexpected presentation for consumers). These factors make most heirloom varieties perfect for farmers' markets and local produce stands, but not perfect for sale in today's multi-chain multistate and international supermarkets and grocery stores.
When a produce comes from a plant that has been cultivated to have specific DNA for specific qualities - size, color, shape - it has to be replicated from new seeds purchased from a seed company every year or from new plants or clones. This starts to limit plant biodiversity and sets up scenarios for species endangerment. Read about Seedless Watermelon.
On the other hand, heirloom varieties continue over time when growers save the seeds of from their best plants to be replanted every year. With their unique shapes, sizes, and colors, heirloom plants often look different from the bulk of the perfect fruits and vegetables we are used to buying at the supermarkets and grocery stores. Besides, if you have ever tried a local heirloom tomato, no wonder they have become so popular - their flavor, not to mention colors and shapes - are superior and enliven any meal!
Try making our Heirloom Tomato Tart, Heirloom Tomato, Watermelon and Prosciutto Salad, Grilled Vegetable Flatbread and more on my website, www.CraftyBaking.com
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