Scientists can’t seem to resist the urge to build a better tomato. British researchers have been studying genetically modified purple tomatoes containing anthocyanin; a pigment that provides high antioxidant capacity. Cancer-prone mice who’ve eaten GM purple tomatoes have had their lifespan extended from an average of 21 to 48 days. The GM tomatoes are also said to be slower to ripen, meaning they could have a longer shelf life while still tasting good.
But do we need tomatoes to do all that?
Heirloom or heritage vegetables and fruits are varieties that may have once been widely grown but — due to their being too fragile to ship or not having “desirable” shapes or hues — are not cultivated in modern large-scale farming. Heirloom plants have been propagated through pollination rather than via grafts and cuttings, sometimes for hundreds and thousands of years, and the seeds passed down by families and among communities.
These are ten heirloom fruits and vegetables to seek out or, if you garden, to consider growing yourself.
1. Potato Onions
Photo via Chiot’s Run/Flickr
Commonly grown in the U.S. up till the start of the 20th century, a description of the potato onion from the 1885 “Henry W. Wood’s Descriptive Fall Catalog” says it is “early, very productive mild flavor, and the most profitable variety grown for market.” In the 1980s, the potato onion was only being grown by a “few isolated gardeners here and possibly in Europe.” Then photographer Kenneth Klotz discovered potato onions in country stores and started Kalmia Farm in Charlottesville, Virginia, for small-scale production of its bulbs.
2. Golden Ball and Chantenay Carrots
Photo via brotherlywalks/Flickr
The color orange and a long, skinny shape have become synonymous with carrots. But these vegetables (which are believed to have originated in Afghanistan) can be white, yellow and violet; the orange ones evolved in the 1600s in the Netherlands. The Golden Ball carrot can be round as radishes while the Chantenay carrot has a bright scarlet hue.
3. Lemon Cucumber
Photo via Chris Freeland/Flickr
Round, crisp and not bitter — and yellow – the lemon cucumber is a practically modern conception of cucumbers. Like the long green ones, lemon cucumbers are crisp and cooling to the taste, perfect in your summer salad.
4. Inchelium Garlic
Photo via Gary Walton/Flickr
Inchelium garlic was discovered on the Colville Native American reservation in Washington state; its bulbs can grow to about three inches across. With a flavor described as “robust and rich with a pinch of heat,” it has won first place in a number of garlic-tasting contests.
5. Red Craigs Royal Potato and All-Blue Potato
Photo via Rebsie Fairholm/Flickr
Native to the U.K., Red Craigs Royal potatos are white inside with red skins streaked with yellow, indeed making them “a good choice for the show bench.” If you’d like to add some more color to your potato salad, there’s also the All-Blue Potato, said to be “the most direct descendant” of the potatoes that first grew 10,000 years ago in the Peruvian Andes.
Photo via Jaspanelle Jovian/Flickr
6. Victoria Rhubarb
Photo via Magda Wojtyra/Flickr
Victoria rhubarb, said to have “established the gold standard by which to judge good rhubarb,” has both red and green stalks. It has a sweet taste like that of apples and gooseberries, with a twist of lemon or grapefruit (depending on your soil), that makes it great for desserts. It originates from the U.K. and dates back to around 1837.
7. Aunt Ruby’s German Green Tomato
Photo via WhiteHarvest/Flickr
Heirloom tomatoes lack a genetic mutation that gives the hothouse varieties we’ve become so accustomed to their characteristic red color. Aunt Ruby’s German Green tomato is indeed green with a bit of yellow striping; one tomato can weigh a pound or more. Not surprisingly, this tomato is said to provide a “deep flavor explosion.”
8. Royal Blenheim Apricot
Photo via Scott Oldon/Flickr
Once upon a time, Royal Blenheim apricots grew in the Santa Clara (now “Silicon”) Valley. They have a rich, orange flesh and a tart flavor combined with a high sugar content. But as they are fragile and can’t be transported far, Royal Blenheims are not widely planted, with growers choosing (to our misfortune!) hardier varieties.
9. Tigger Melon
Photo via Dale Calder/Flickr
The Armenian Tigger melon weighs up to about a pound and is yellow with red zigzagging stripes. They have fragrant white flesh that is reminiscent of a cantaloupe and certainly adds some gorgeous summer color to any kitchen table.
10. Arkansas Black Apple
Photo via Shawn Connelly/Flickr
Ripening to a purplish black, this apple originated in the 1870s in, yes, Arkansas. Its flesh is ivory and, as one satisfied apple eater puts it, is a “mild combination of vanilla, smoke and cherries” that approaches the taste of a Jolly Rancher candy — I think I’ll stick to the apple and the other fruits and vegetables detailed here!
Top photo via brotherlywalks/Flickr