Open Spaces

Old Fashioned Seeds

Heirloom gardens capture natural history and more

By April Anderson


Making a family recipe with the same species of fruits and vegetables used by our ancestors provides a magical portal in time to a rich tapestry of flavors, textures, and colors foreign to most palates today. Heirloom plant cultivation preserves food as well as vital cultural resources, connecting us with the past, while giving us tools for the future.

Rooted in history

Illinois gardener John Swenson started reading about “old-fashioned seeds” in 1975, a decade after he moved into a house built in 1870. Swenson became interested in garlic and onions because he liked to cook with them. He grew his garden plants with seeds that were not hybridized, so he could collect the vegetable seeds. The weekend gardener took a course in plant taxonomy at Chicago Botanic Garden and eventually joined Chicago’s Wild
Onion Chapter of The Herb Society of America.

Curious about the species of wild onion for which Chicago had been named, Swenson spent seven years researching 17th century manuscripts of French Jesuit missionaries and dictionaries written in Algonquin. French
explorers called the herb found in maple-basswood forests “ail sauvage”
(native garlic) while Algonquin residents used “chicagoua” as a metaphor to describe the herb’s skunk-like smell in the woods along the Chicago River. Swenson concluded that Chicago was named for wild leeks (Allium tricoccum) and shared his findings in the Illinois Historic Journal (Winter 1991).

Swenson’s fascination with heirlooms has grown to include tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. “Once you have an heirloom plant, you’ll have it forever,” says Swenson. “People have been growing tomatoes for thousands of years,” he adds. “The one that we grow today is one of 17 species of tomatoes native to the jungles and woods of South America. We’re at the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow of 12,000 years of farmers growing plants.”

In 1990, Swenson began to raise “Antique Roman” tomatoes using seeds from a historic Huguenot settlement in New Paltz, New York. Five years later, he had a new heirloom emerge—a red tomato with golden stripes that he eventually named “Speckled Roman.” Having previously grown a tomato called “Banana Legs,” he wondered if the “Antique Roman” had simply hybridized, so he saved the seeds and planted them the following year. The distinctive “Speckled Roman” was now a variety he could share with the world from his backyard.

Disappearing plant diversity

Of the countless plant species in the world, the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership estimates that 60,000 to 100,000 plant species today are threatened with extinction. Seed Saver’s Exchange, Chicago Botanic Garden, and Garfield Farm are just a few organizations that work to educate and inspire more people to embrace lesser-known species.

Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) is an Iowa-based nonprofit organization dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds. SSE was founded 40 years ago by Diane Ott Whealy and Kent Whealy with the seeds from two garden plants that Diane’s grandfather gave them. The member-supported organization has distributed millions of heirloom and open-pollinated seeds used by everyone from home gardeners and small farmers to occasional large seed companies.

At their 890-acre Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa, seeds brought to North America by members' ancestors who emigrated from countries in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia are grown, saved, and shared. “We’re interested in preserving those pieces of American history,” says SSE’s seed manager, Tom Wahlberg. He explains how each garden is carefully separated, and in some cases, hand-pollinated to prevent cross-pollination.

Inspired by the work of SSE, Garfield Farm Museum began to host Heirloom Garden Shows to offer glimpses of colors, tastes, and smells not available in the mass market. Since 1989, growers from Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan have come together at the historic farm in La Fox, Ill., to sell produce and answer questions about heirloom gardening while displaying living remnants of history.

Celebrating with heirlooms

Of the 50,000 annuals planted at Chicago Botanic Garden (CBG) each year, many are heirlooms. “It’s a way of preserving our cultural history,” says Lisa Hilgenberg, horticulturist for the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden. Hilgenberg was inspired to layout this year’s garden to mimic the style of Monticello in observance of Chicago Horticultural Society’s 125th Anniversary.

Using a seed catalog from the Rare Book Collection of the Lenhardt Library at CBG, Hilgenberg found an heirloom squash and cucumber with Chicago connections dating back to 1894. It was at this time Budlong Gardens introduced a classic teardrop-shaped hubbard squash with high-quality orange flesh called “Chicago-warted winter squash”. Another find was that Vaughan Seed House marketed easy-to-grow seeds from Rockford’s JC Snow Farm that provided dainty, but copious “Snow’s pickling cucumbers” for Chicago Pickling.

Planning Regenstein’s Fruit & Vegetable Garden a year in advance, Hilgenberg speaks endearingly about the “Waspinicon peach” (a fuzzy, round, apricot-colored tomato named after a river in Northeastern Iowa); “Ailsa Craig” (large onions named after a small island off the coast of Scotland); “bull-nose” (bull-nose-shaped peppers grown by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello); “Empress of India” (Victorian nastursium flowers and leaves with a peppery taste); and “Marshall’s strawberries” (award-winning ever-bearing strawberries dating back to the 1890s).

“Connoisseurs classify heirlooms as 50 years old or more,” says Hilgenberg. However, she emphasizes the importance of open-pollination. “Open-pollinated plants reliably reproduce the same plants as the parent. Hybrids don’t. Unless we preserve these plants, they’re going to disappear.”

Plant breeders need heirlooms and open-pollinated plants to produce insect, disease, and drought tolerant hybrids. According to Seed Savers Exchange, “Each variety is genetically distinct, having evolved within its own ecological niche over thousands of years.” As the name indicates, open-pollinated plants are pollinated by wind or insect rather than human intervention.

Incorporated into existing gardens or patio pots, hearty heirloom vegetables can provide unique colors (such as dark blue Columbian “Indigo Rose” tomatoes), flavors (like “Black Krim” tomatoes), and conversation starters (like buckshot-sized “Currant” tomatoes). Gardening with heirlooms—in a pot or garden—connects us to a heritage of biodiversity, while providing building blocks for the future.

Save Seeds from Your Garden

  1. Cut open the healthiest looking “fruit” on the vine (this does not apply to root or leaf vegetables which produce dry seeds).
  2. Squeeze the seeds into a kitchen strainer.
  3. Rinse with cold water to remove gel or fiber.
  4. Place seeds on a paper towel (labeled with the name of theseeds) to dry.
  5. Pour dry seeds into an envelope (labeled with the name of the seeds and date harvested).

To learn more, visit these events:

  • August 22-23; 11 a.m.-4 p.m.—Heirloom Tomato Weekend, Chicago Botanic Garden
  • August 26; 11 a.m.-4 p.m.—23th Annual Heirloom Garden Show, Garfield Farm Museum

Grow heirlooms on your deck or in your yard. Here are some tips:

  1. Choose the right variety. “Adapted to local soils, heirlooms can be as productive as hybrids,” says Hilgenberg. “It’s important to choose ‘long day’ varieties, acclimated to our longer summer days.”
  2. Know your intended use. While a “Beefsteak” tomato is great for slicing to eat on sandwiches, it’s too juicy to make tomato paste. Indeterminate plants provide fruit every week until frost, while
    determinate plants mature about the same time, making them more practical for commercial farming and canning.
  3. Add heirlooms to an existing bed or pot. Self-pollinating plants like tomatoes typically don’t cross-pollinate. Bi-annual beets and carrots do not produce seed until the second year.
  4. Consider beans. “Beans are primarily self-pollinating, so you don’t have to worry about isolation,” says SSE’s Walberg. “You can plant them directly in the ground and there are lots of varieties.”
  5. Don’t be a perfectionist. “Heirlooms are more colorful and flavorful, but their beauty is less uniform,” says Hilgenberg.

April Anderson is a freelance naturalist and writer who can be reached at: