With literally hundreds to choose from, it can be tough to know where to start with growing heirloom vegetables. Try some of our favorites.
Armenian Cucumber (a.k.a. Serpent Melon)
Introduced from Armenia to Italy in the 1400s, this cucumber is actually a true melon, but if harvested at 12 inches or less, fruits offer sweet cucumber flavor. Thin-skinned with few seeds, fruits grow straight, 12 to 18 inches. Plants thrive in poor, sandy, well-drained soils.
French Breakfast Radish
American seed catalogs first sold this French beauty in the late 1800s. Oblong fruits grow to 2 inches, boasting scarlet skin with a white tip. Roots have a smooth texture, no strong bite, and ripen in 20 to 30 days.
In 1798, a sea captain carried squash seed from the West Indies or South America to Marblehead, Mass. Mrs. Elizabeth Hubbard grew the squash, and around 1842 shared seeds with a local seedsman, who liked the squash for its non-stringy, sweet flesh with flavor like a sweet potato. Vines yield at least 10-pound fruits that store well.
Jimmy Nardello Sweet Pepper
In 1887, Giuseppe Nardiello brought seeds of this Italian sweet frying pepper from Ruoti, Italy, to Naugatuck, Conn. Son Jimmy followed in his father’s gardening footsteps, raising crops of the family’s sweet pepper and saving seed, year after year. The tall, bushy plants often require staking. Dry (and store) peppers by stringing a thread through individual fruit stems.
Kentucky Wonder Beans
Originally called “Old Homestead” bean in 1864, this pole bean was renamed and sold as Kentucky Wonder in 1877. Rust-resistant vines run 5 to 7 feet, yielding up to 9-inch pods all season long. The tender but brittle pods are generally fiber-free.
Moon and Stars Watermelon
Dark green skin speckled with tiny gold stars and at least one larger moon encase sweet pink flesh on this Tennessee/Missouri gem. First introduced in 1926, it was believed to be extinct until a seed saver produced seed in 1981. Fruit size can vary dramatically depending on growing conditions, from 2 to 50 pounds. Fruits ripen in 100 days.
Négresse (Vitelotte Noire) Potato
Blue-black skin isn’t the only surprise on this potato; the flesh is also blue-toned. When boiled, the color shifts blue-gray; steamed, it turns bright blue. Mashed potatoes are purple; add lots of butter to get green. Négresse was introduced to Europe in 1815 from Peru.
Ronde de Nice Zucchini
This round zucchini has been raised for generations in France, where its fruits are typically harvested at a 3-inch diameter for peak flavor. Larger fruits are stuffed. Thin skins and tender flesh, both prone to bruising, make this zucchini impossible to ship. The only way to taste it is to grow it.
Speckled Trout Lettuce
Also known as Flashy Trout Back, Speckled Trout Back, or Forellenschluss (which means “speckled like a trout”), this romaine lettuce unfurls green leaves with reddish-maroon speckles. The coloring resembles spots found on a juvenile brown trout. Dating to 1660 in Holland, Speckled Trout seed arrived in North America in the 1790s.
Heirloom tomatoes offer rich flavors and equally delicious histories. Classics include:
Brandywine: reddish-purple, two-fisted tomatoes; cultivated over 100 years, true origin unknown; outstanding flavor
Cherokee Purple: rose-purple to black tomatoes from the Cherokee nation; rich, sweet flavor
Nebraska Wedding: orange tomato that ripens in June; given to Nebraska brides as gifts; seeds first carried from Minnesota to Nebraska by pioneers in the late 1800s