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Heirloom vegetables are those kept going by seed-saving gardeners after most seed dealers and nurseries have dropped them. They taste better, or they have some special quality that the newer vegetables don’t have. On the other hand, they usually lack a desirable quality, making them less attractive to commercial dealers. The Mortgage Lifter, the Zebra, and the Brandywine, heirloom tomatoes found in West Virginia gardens, take a week or 10 days longer to mature than the commercial Big Boy. The heirlooms are also less resistant to some tomato diseases.

Until the mid-20th century, the saving of agricultural seeds from year to year was a common practice among gardeners and farmers. Because of this, vegetables, fruits, and grains often evolved into regional strains that were adapted to local climate and soil conditions. With the advent of hybrid varieties, however, it was necessary to purchase seeds each year, as hybrid seeds are not true to the mother plant and in most cases generate only useless plants in the next generation.

Many traditional West Virginia gardeners cling to the older ways. They value the older, time-tested, non-hybrid fruits and vegetables, which have been saved, cared for, and planted. Some varieties are associated with certain families, communities, and even individuals and are exchanged by neighbors and relatives. Folkloric motifs and floating names are common, as well as oral history of a more substantial sort. The Wild Goose bean name, for instance, designates dozens of actual varieties in various localities in West Virginia. There is an associated story of a wild goose being shot with this bean found in its craw. According to most versions of the story, the seed was planted, propagated, and the result is this marvelously productive, tasty, and resourceful bean. Some seeds, as with the Mortgage Lifter, imply their worth through their name.

The free classified advertisements in the West Virginia Department of Agriculture’s Market Bulletin have long provided a means for exchanging the heirloom varieties. Ruby Morris of Braxton County once told Goldenseal, the state’s magazine of traditional life, that she grew nearly 30 different beans, including the Trout bean, the Grandpa bean, and the Red Cut Short bean. A Summersville woman offered Fat Man beans and Logan Giant pole beans in the Bulletin, as well as a brown-seeded half-runner, a contrast to the white-seeded half runner West Virginians have grown for generations.

An active market persists for Bloody Butcher corn, reputed to be the best for cornbread. Bloody Butcher’s kernels come in colors from white to red—but never purple or black—and some of the kernels are variegated on the outside. The inside of the kernels is white. Bloody Butcher yields a cornmeal somewhere in taste between white corn meal and yellow corn meal.

Although not consciously based on science, the practice of seed saving ensures that heirloom varieties are subjected to continual review and scrutiny over generations of time. This selection process may pick only the hardiest, the earliest or latest, or the strongest seeds to be planted the following year. Ninety-nine percent of today’s edible cultivated vegetables and grains were developed through this folk process, practiced worldwide through the millennia of agricultural history.

This Article was written by Gerald Milnes and Bob Schwarz

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Cite This Article

Milnes, Gerald and Bob Schwarz "Heirloom Seeds." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 23 February 2012. Web. 19 July 2018.

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