By Shannon McCabe, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
Photographs courtesy of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds/RareSeeds.com
The next time that you pull a vibrantly colored carrot out of the soil, or sink your teeth into a delicious and colorful heirloom tomato, please don't forget to thank your ancestors! It was their diligent and loving selection of traits over centuries that crafted the incredible diversity that we enjoy today.
As home gardeners and market farmers we can appreciate the patient and thoughtful practice of selective breeding by gardeners who, like us, were interested in the most delicious varieties to cook with, the most stunning varieties to entice and dazzle customers, or the most rugged varieties that will thrive in adverse conditions. The seed savers of yesteryear have bequeathed these incredible heirlooms to the next generation of farmers; and with a renewed love of local foods and home gardening, the gift of heirlooms that represent their hard work and love will not be lost on us.
It is not clear whether our ancestors understood the correlation between nutrient density and plant pigments; perhaps those ancient seed savers simply appreciated the eye appeal. However, knowingly or unknowingly, these highly nutritious and colorful veggies have been passed down for us to enjoy. Let's celebrate the gift of gorgeous heirlooms by growing a rainbow of nutrition!
Purple sweet potatoes are a fantastic antioxidant-rich root crop; you can store tubers in the root cellar to ensure a healthy and colorful staple for the cold winter months. The Molokai purple sweet potato is a local Hawaiian variety that is as tasty as it is nutritionally beneficial. The deep purple skin and flesh is super high in anthocyanins. Purple sweet potatoes are a fantastic food for people with diabetes: the carbohydrates in sweet potatoes break down more slowly than white potatoes, releasing glucose gradually into the bloodstream. Anthocyanin has also been shown to aid in the prevention of diabetes. The flesh is super sweet and creamy, perfect as is when baked or roasted, needing no further adornment.
The orangeglo watermelon has won the hearts of the entire Baker Creek staff, according to this group of self-proclaimed watermelon connoisseurs, the complex, sweet, citrusy-flavored orangeglo is a unanimous favorite. This orange-fleshed variety was developed in the early 1960s by Wilhite Seeds, a small family owned company famous for watermelons. Flesh is a radiant orange color; this pigment is an indicator of high vitamin C content as well as beta-carotene, a well-known antioxidant also found in orange carrots. An added bonus, this tasty heirloom is also more cold hardy than most, and can be grown to maturity as far north as zone 4.
Perhaps one of the toughest vegetables, scarlet kale will endure brutally cold conditions. The bright purple, frilly leaves make this variety a dual-purpose ornamental/edible. Please don't relegate this one to garnish status; the tender leaves have a lovely flavor and an antioxidant-dense nutritional profile! Kale is an ancient European crop; this variety represents an incredible feat of selective breeding for cold tolerance.
It can be difficult to decide whether to grow jing orange okra in the flowerbed or the vegetable garden. The brilliant red-orange foliage and pods dotted with creamy white flowers makes a statement as an ornamental, but the high fiber, low calorie pods also posses a delicate flavor and when picked young taste amazing raw! Jing orange is an Asian variety that grows exceptionally well here in Missouri and just about anywhere with hot summers!
The red beauty carrot is a recently bred heirloom from India, where red carrots are very popular. The presence of red color is an indicator of vitamin C and the antioxidant lycopene, which is also found in red watermelons and tomatoes. This antioxidant has been linked to lowered risk of prostate cancer in men as well as lowered risk of heart disease. Researchers have found that lycopene is most effectively used in your body when bound to a fat molecule, like olive oil. Try roasting the red beauty carrot in olive oil or coconut oil. Red beauty also makes an excellent juicing carrot.
A true renaissance seedsman, Brad Gates, of Wild Boar Farms in California has a passion for breeding colorful tomatoes. Over the past 15 years he has employed traditional methods of selective breeding to create show-stopping tomatoes with unusual colors, patterns, shapes and flavors. Due to the outrageous demand for tomatoes that are high in the purple-tinted antioxidant anthocyanin, he has created the world's darkest tomato, so dark purple that it is almost black… the Black Beauty Tomato. This awe-inspiring masterpiece possesses a deep onyx color and a flavor that is incredible, very earthy and smooth. Brad Gates' incredible work will no doubt be passed on by enthusiastic seed savers, crystallizing his hard work in the diverse heirloom tomato profile for many generations to come.
Golden beets are an old heirloom dating back to the 1820s. The regal golden hue and sweeter, mellower flavor set them apart from traditional red beets. As far as nutrition goes, this humble old standby is more valuable than gold. The yellow color represents high levels of vitamin C and vitamin A, as well as lutein and zeaxanthan, the latter two being known to reduce the risk of chronic eye issues such as cataracts, and age-related macular degeneration.
We simply cannot ignore the hard work and love that has been passed down to us in this nutritional food rainbow. The industrialization of our food system has drifted us away from that sage advice from Hippocrates: "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food." With chronic disease at the forefront of American ailments due to nutritionally barren food, we owe a nod to those seed savers of yesterday and today for handing us the key to our own health. Today, honor that hard work and eat a rainbow!
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