Purple snow peas, white carrots and orange cauliflower all seem like wonderful heirloom vegetables, passed down through generations. Now that people’s palates have changed they want more color, different textures and interesting flavors. So were those vegetables hiding away in family gardens in Italy and France, just waiting to be discovered? Nope, they are new varieties developed by plant breeders. Heirloom is a term that often gets misused, partly because it doesn’t have a very strict definition. Some say that the variety of fruit or vegetable must be at least 100 years old. Others use the word to distinguish open-pollinated varieties from hybrid varieties.
We’re inclined to use the word heirloom only if we know a bit about its history. Like the Cincinnati Market radish, which is long and skinny like a carrot and a wonderful shade of fluorescent pink. It has been grown since 1885, which we know because it was described in Vilmorin’s “The Vegetable Garden.” And we’re suckers for Amish Deer Tongue Lettuce and big fat Purple Cherokee tomatoes. But the truth is that we love our hybrid vegetables just as much. The term hybrid refers to seeds that are the result of breeding two plants that come from very different genetic lines. For instance plant breeders might create a variety of carrot by breeding a particularly sweet, hardy variety with a carrot that is purple but not particularly sweet. And so the result is a purple carrot that is sweet and hardy. The downside of a hybrid is that it is not true to seed: the seeds from a hybrid will not produce a carrot that is as sweet, purple and hardy as the first generation. But those hybrids are some of our favorite vegetables.
Most plant breeders work at universities. Cornell has a particularly wonderful agriculture department, as does the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. These plant breeders are responsible for creating many of the varieties that you buy at the market: beefsteak tomatoes, tiny Tri Star strawberries and, yes, those purple snow peas too, which were created by a great plant breeder named Calvin Lamborn. Some of these varieties are hybrids and some are not. Us humans have been plant breeders for thousands of years, since we first began farming. The first and simplest method of plant breeding is to grow only seeds chosen for a particular trait. Early farmers would have chosen wheat plants that grew bigger or more grains and planted seeds from those plants, ensuring that next year’s harvest would be more bountiful.
This is all a very round about way of saying that all of the vegetables we eat have wonderful origin stories, whether it may be in the mountains of Austria or at a plant lab at the University of California Davis.