Have you ever eaten rainbow corn, purple carrots or pink radishes? Varieties such as these, that sound too magical to be true, are known as heirlooms or old cultivars. In recent years they have become highly sought after for their superior taste, interesting appearance or because they are uncommon in supermarkets. For these reasons, they are perfect for the backyard veggie patch, and your dinner plate!
Historically, the food that we eat today has changed a lot since the 10th Century. It may be hard to imagine that carrots were originally white or purple. It’s believed that orange varieties were developed in 16th Century Holland, in honour of the ruling House of Orange. Growers used seed from purple and yellow varieties to produce the now popular orange roots. Over time, the need to deliver large scale crops has meant that some edibles have been bred to grow quicker, be more resistant to pests/ disease and to withstand varying growing conditions. On occasion, these newer varieties compromise on taste, size and goodness which is why many smaller scale growers are planting older varieties.
The bright colours that often distinguish heirlooms, also offer nutritional benefits. Nutrition Australia groups edible crops into five different colour categories: red, purple/ blue, orange, green and white/ brown. Each colour carries its own set of unique disease fighting chemicals called phytochemicals. It’s these phytochemicals that give fruits and vegetables their vibrant colour and some of their healthy properties. Red carrots, for example, contain very high levels of the cancer fighting anti-oxidant lycopene; while maize contains the highest total percentage of lutein, which is stored in the eye and can help to prevent two of the most common causes of blindness.
Another reason to grow heirlooms is their ability to remain consistent year upon year. Unlike hybrids, heirlooms are open-pollinated, which is key to their survival. This means that seed collected one year, will go on to produce seedlings with most of the characteristics of the parent plant in subsequent seasons. Basically, if you choose to grow heirlooms, save the seed and replant, your crops will continue to be consistent and cost effective.
Now that Spring is upon us, it’s the perfect time to source some heirloom seeds and see what tasty, colourful and interesting food you can grow yourself. Try planting a carrot rainbow with Purple Dragon, White Belgian, Atomic Red, Paris Market and Solar Yellow varieties. Broadcast the seed together in a sunny position with loose, free draining soil and keep them well-watered until established. To save on space add Watermelon Radishes to the mix. These grow very quickly so will be ready before the carrots require the growing space. Their speed is also perfect for kids who are eager to see results and there’s few things more exciting than pulling up homegrown root vegetables, especially when their colours are a surprise!