Like many gardeners, I have developed an interest in heirloom varieties of vegetables and flowers.
When our youngest, Joel, was a student at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, I always took the opportunity to visit the Seed Savers Exchange. The exchange was founded in 1975 by Diane and Kent Whealy after her grandfather gave them the seeds of two garden plants, Grandpa Ott's Morning Glory and German Pink Tomato, his parents had brought from Bavaria when they immigrated to Iowa in the 1870s.
Now, the Heritage Farm is an 800-plus acre spread dedicated to maintaining genetic diversity of crops. Seed catalogs now offer a variety of heirloom species. I try something from those selections each year, and because these plants are not hybrids, I save seed from my favorites to propagate for the next year.
Beans are fun that way. Among varieties I plant are scarlet and pink runners, cranberry, soldier and Jacob's cattle for soup and purple-, green- and yellow-pod bush beans for fresh and frozen side dishes. The name of the brown-speckled Jacob's cattle bean comes from the story in the Bible about Jacob working years and years for his miserly father-in-law, Laban. The deal was that Jacob tended Laban's flocks, but could keep the spotty young to build his own herd. So, because God favored Jacob, he made the speckled animals reproduce faster than Laban's plain-colored beasts, and Jacob got rich.
Squash varieties are also colorful and happy plants. About three years ago, I attended the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Health Fair. Some of the give-aways at the event were seeds for Anishinaabe squash. It's a beautiful winter squash, bright orange inside and streaked with pink, orange green and buff outside. It's such a good keeper that we ate the last one from the 2005 harvest last month. This year, I'll add another ancient squash to the list. Elaine and Evan Hazard gave me some seeds for squash originally grown by indigenous Dakota people.
Besides beans and squash, heirloom tomatoes are so much in current favor that specimens with stripes, bulges and colors other than red show up, not just at farmers markets, but in produce sections of supermarkets.
When we moved to this area, I was introduced to an heirloom tomato that has a special place in my garden because I know its provenance. Every spring, Harold Fruetel sets up his gro-lamps and plants seeds for a yellow tomato that he has saved from the previous year's harvest. He gives his extra plants to friends and family.
I call the variety the Carlson Gold because Harold obtained the seeds for his first planting about 60 years ago from his mother-in-law, Ellen Dahlgren Carlson of Wildwood Township near Northome, where his late wife, Erma Carlson Fruetel, was born. Harold said no one knows where Ellen first obtained the seeds, but the descendants of this tasty and beautiful variety have marched in a true line through the generations.
The connection with the original farmers in this country -- the Anishinaabe and Dakota peoples -- is satisfying and somehow spiritual, as well as agricultural. And growing Ellen Carlson's tomato gives me a personal contact reaching back to the early days of North Country European settlement.
As a gardener, I am grateful to be an inheritor from both these legacies.