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rich perfume missing, dropped as breeders selected for colour or form,” explains Coulter. Old-fashioned varieties are often better sources of

pollen and nectar for beneficial insects and butterflies than modern versions, too adds, Wildfong. Heirlooms are a great choice for organic gardeners

because they’ve adapted over time to whatever condi- tions they were grown in, Coulter continues. “Many are resistant to pests and diseases as well as extremes of temperature and rainfall.” And many heirlooms have a story to tell. “Some have a

fascinating history or they have been part of the cuisine, politics, folklore or science of Europe or the Far East, or wherever they came from,” she says. “They can tell us about other cultures by the way they were cooked or used or enjoyed.” Finally, heirlooms are the keepers of the genetic base

in the plant world, states Mary Brittain, co-owner of the Cottage Gardener, a seed company specializing in heir- loom seed near Port Hope, Ont. Heirloom plants are all open-pollinated — that is developed through natural selection, which means they have a broad genetic base. On the other hand, modern hybrids have been developed through successive inbreeding of two parent varieties giving them a narrow genetic base. “Each time we lose an heirloom we lose some potentially important genetic

material that could be critical in the future,” Brittain says. “About two-thirds of plant genetics are not avail-

able commercially,” adds Wildfong. For example, 100 years ago there were 5,000 varieties of apples grown in Canada. Today there are only 15 apple varieties grown commercially. Most commercial seed is grown in South America and

marketed through global wholesalers, which is why so many seed catalogues list the same varieties. “Canada is a small market so it’s not worth it to them to develop varieties geared to our short season, but many heirloom varieties were developed specifically for our conditions,” Wildfong points out. Seeds of Diversity (formerly the Heritage Seed

Program run by the Canadian Organic Growers) was founded to help preserve this genetic base. Fourteen hundred members grow and share 1,900 varieties of heritage vegetables, grains, flowers, herbs and fruit. They run a seed exchange for their members and main- tain a resource list of seed companies that sell heirloom and rare varieties of vegetables, fruits, flowers and herbs. So there’s no need to settle for hum-drum tomatoes or

scent-less sweet peas when there is a whole world of heir- loom varieties available. For more information, check out the Seeds of Diversity website at x

Mary’s Picks By Mary Brittain, co-owner, the Cottage Gardener Heirloom Seed Company

‘Red Malabar’ spinach: This beautiful Indian heirloom, not a true spinach, is a vine that grows to 15 feet, with deep burgundy stems and juicy, spoon-shaped leaves whose taste is far superior to our regular spinach. Best of all, it loves the heat and will grow and produce leaves for harvest all summer when regular spin- ach would have bolted and gone bitter.

‘Lazy Housewife’ bean: Origi- nally from Germany and brought to North America in the early 1800s, this bean is one of the oldest documented beans we know of. It was so-named because it was one of the first green beans that didn’t need de-stringing! It’s a pole bean that produces tender, straight, green beans prolifically until frost. Some beans can also be left on the vine to plump out and be used as shell beans.

‘Tennis Ball’ lettuce: This ancient variety of lettuce was introduced in the United States in the 1850s and has been grown in Canada since at least 1878. This perfect

miniature lettuce produces loose heads of light green leaves that are only seven inches in diameter — one head makes a perfect salad for two. Although originally devel- oped for small plots, it is perfect for today’s urban gardeners who want to grow in pots on balconies and patios.

‘Tennis Ball’ lettuce.

Calendula: An annual flower. Not the various puffed-up modern forms of it, but the origi- nal, single-flowered variety that has been grown in gardens for millennia. Beautiful, daisy-type flowers in a colour range of yellow to orange bloom continuously all summer on two-foot-tall plants. This flower has so much history!

‘Red malabar’ spinach.

Named by the ancient Romans, who grew it just because it was attractive, it was used from medi- eval times on to treat minor aches and pains, was a major staple in cooking (used in practically every dish one can think of), was a source of yellow dye and was considered a powerful magical plant. What’s more, they’re super easy to grow and care for.

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