The next time you pull a vibrantly colored carrot out of the soil, or sink your teeth into a delicious and colorful heirloom tomato, please don't forget to thank your ancestors! It was their diligent and loving selection of traits over centuries that crafted the incredible diversity we enjoy today. As home gardeners and market farmers, we can appreciate the patient and thoughtful practice of selective breeding by those who came before us. They shared our interest in the most delicious varieties for cooking, the most stunning varieties to entice and dazzle customers, and the most rugged varieties that thrived in adverse conditions. The seed savers of yesteryear have bequeathed these incredible heirlooms to the next generation of farmers. With today's renewed love of local foods and home gardening, we continue to cherish these beautiful heirlooms that represent their hard work and love. It is not clear whether our ancestors fully understood the correlation between nutrient density and plant pigments; perhaps for them it was more about their visual appeal. In any case, these highly nutritious and colorful veggies have been passed down for us to enjoy. Let's celebrate the gift of gorgeous heirlooms by growing a rainbow of nutrition!
Watch Shannon eat a rainbow!
Shannon briefly discusses the benefits of colorful vegetables and taste tests the Pusa Asita black carrot.
The time honored technique of natural, selective breeding is still practiced by some, and we have a brand new crop of heirloom plant breeders to thank for some of the most outstanding modern specimens. The delicate beauty of selective breeding has not been forgotten by these "renaissance seedsmen". Dr. Pritam Kalia is a plant breeder in New Delhi, India with an honorable mission. His passion is breeding more nutrient-dense varieties to help financially disadvantaged farmers throughout his home country. He uses inexpensive natural breeding techniques to keep his seeds available at very low prices for his low income community of growers. Dr. Kahlia has found that nutrient density if often indicated by vibrant pigments in vegetables, and this simple correlation makes his vegetables as exquisitely beautiful as they are healthful. The Pusa Asita black carrot is high in the antioxidant anthocyanin, which has been shown to aid in healthy aging, prevent and fight certain cancers, and protect against cardiovascular disease. Additionally, anthocyanin rich foods are often lauded for their ability to help prevent age-related mental decline and enhance memory function. Aside from its rich pigment and nutrient profile, the Pusa Asita black carrot boasts an incredible flavor with hints of fruitiness.
To Purchase Heirloom Pusa Asita Black Carrot Seeds Go HERE
Purple sweet potatoes are another fantastic antioxidant-rich root crop. You can store tubers in the root cellar to ensure a healthy and colorful staple throughout the cold winter months. The Molokai Purple sweet potato is a local Hawaiian variety that is as tasty as it is nutritionally beneficial with a deep purple skin and flesh loaded with anthocyanins. Anthocyanin has also been shown to aid in the prevention of diabetes while purple sweet potatoes are a fantastic food for diabetic maintenance because their carbohydrates break down much more slowly than those found in white potatoes. The result is a slow and steady release of glucose into the blood stream. The flesh of these beautiful potatoes is super sweet and creamy, making them perfect for baking or roasting even without any further adornment.
To Order Heirloom Molokai Purple Sweet Potato Live Plants Go HERE
Corn is believed to have been first bred in Mexico and may be one of the world's first domesticated crops. It is a cornerstone crop for many Native American tribes who have bred heirloom corn for thousands of years. Many of our favorite heirloom corn varieties have been hand selected by generations of Native American farmers to thrive in North American climates. Hopi Pink flour corn is a drought tolerant variety with a beautiful pink color that was bred by the Hopi Nation. We can thank generations of Hopi seed savers for creating a rugged yet beautiful corn that will stand up to drought while remaining extremely high in protein. Another factor in the selection of Hopi Pink corn was its fine grained flour lending itself perfectly to making silky soft tortillas and tamales. The pink jewel toned kernels suggest the presence of lycopene, an antioxidant also present in tomatoes and strawberries.
To Order Heirloom Hopi Pink Flour Corn Go HERE
To Order Native American Heirloom Po'suwaegeh Blue Corn Seeds Go HERE
Chinese Green Luobo radish is an old Chinese heirloom native to Northern China. It's brilliant green pigment indicates high levels of magnesium rich chlorophyll which promotes healthy bones, muscles and blood pressure. Radishes have been beloved in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years for their ability to promote respiratory health. This radish was bred for growing exclusively in the cooler weather and can easily be stored in the winter. Radishes are such a cherished vegetable in China that for the past 600 years the Quingdao radish festival has celebrated the versatile root in an annual event complete with intricate radish sculptures.
To Order Heirloom Chinese Green Luobo Radish Seeds Go HERE
The Orangeglo watermelon has won the hearts of the entire Baker Creek staff. According to our group of self proclaimed watermelon connoisseurs the complex, sweet-citrusy flavored Orangeglo is a unanimous favorite. This orange fleshed variety was developed in the early 1960s by a small family owned company famous for their watermelons called Wilhite Seeds. The radiant orange color of the flesh is an indicator of high vitamin C content as well as beta carotene which is a well known antioxidant also found in orange carrots. As an added bonus, this tasty heirloom is also more cold hardy than most and can be grown to maturity as far north as zone 4.
To Order Heirloom Orangeglo Watermelon Seeds Go HERE
Perhaps the toughest of vegetables, Scarlet kale, will endure brutally cold conditions. The bright purple frilly leaves make this variety a dual purpose ornamental and edible. Please don't relegate this one to garnish status because you'll find the tender leaves have a lovely flavor and an antioxidant dense nutritional profile! Kale is an ancient European crop and this particular variety represents an incredible feat of selective breeding for cold tolerance.
To Order Heirloom Scarlet Kale Seeds Go HERE
It can be difficult to decide weather to grow Jing Orange okra in the flower bed or in the vegetable garden. The brilliant red-orange foliage and pods dotted with creamy white flowers make a statement as an ornamental, but the high fiber, low calorie pods also possess a delicate flavor that tastes amazing when ! Jing Orange is an Asian variety that grows exceptionally well here in Missouri and just about anywhere with hot summers.
To Order Heirloom Jing Orange Okra Seeds Go HERE
The Red Beauty carrot is a recently bred heirloom from India, where red carrots are very popular. The presence of red color is an indicator of vitamin C and the antioxidant lycopene. Also found in red watermelons and tomatoes, this antioxidant has been linked to a lowered risk of heart disease as well as lowered risk of prostate cancer in men. Researchers have found that lycopene is most effectively used in your body when bound to a fat molecule like olive oil. Try roasting the Red Beauty carrot in olive or coconut oil. This also makes an excellent juicing carrot.
To Order Heirloom Red Beauty Carrot Seeds Go HERE
Another renaissance seedsman, Brad Gates of Wild Boar Farms in California, has a passion for tomatoes. Over the past 15 years he has employed traditional methods of selective breeding to create show-stopping tomatoes with unusual colors, patterns, shapes and flavors. Due to the outrageous demand for tomatoes that are high in the purple-tinted antioxidant anthocyanin, he has created the world's darkest tomato. So dark purple, in fact, that it is almost black. The Black Beauty tomato is an awe-inspiring masterpiece that possesses a deep onyx color and a flavor that is incredibly earthy and smooth. Brad Gates' fantastic work will no doubt be passed on by enthusiastic seed savers, crystallizing his hard work in the diverse heirloom tomato profile for many generations to come.
To Order Heirloom Black Beauty Tomato Seeds Go HERE
Golden beets are an old heirloom that dates back to the 1820s. The regal golden hue and sweet, mellow flavor set them apart from traditional red beets. As far as nutrition goes, this humble old standby is more valuable than gold. The yellow color represents high levels of vitamin C, vitamin A, lutein and zeaxanthan. Lutein and zeaxanthan are known to reduce the risk of chronic eye issues such as cataracts and age related macular degeneration.
To Order Heirloom Golden Beet Seeds Go HERE
Our favorite bell pepper, the Etiuda, was originally developed as a commercial variety in Poland. We have found that it grows exceptionally well in the home garden and in greenhouse culture. The flavor is absolutely incredible when compared to the standard varieties we are used to finding on grocery store shelves. The thick walled Etiuda bell pepper has a bright orange skin that alerts us to its high levels of carotenoids which are converted to vitamin A by your body. Vitamin A is known to promote eye health as well as to boost your immune system and promote healthy skin.
To Order Heirloom Etiuda Pepper Seeds Go HERE
A perfect pronouncement of the stunning spectrum of palatable plant pigments is certainly the Glass Gem corn! Each kernel is a different jewel contributing to the rainbow you see on each cob. The glass gem was bred by Karl "White Eagle" Barnes, a Cherokee corn collector and breeder who is in his 80s. Mr. Barnes began growing old Native American varieties of popcorns and flint corns to reconnect with his Native American roots, when eventually Glass Gem was created. This is a spectacular discovery of a new variety bred from old genetic material. The results are unbelievable! This corn is not just ornamental. The flavor is equally amazing when popped into popcorn or ground down for flour.
To Order Heirloom Glass Gem Corn Seeds Go HERE
We simply cannot ignore the hard work and love that has been passed down to us in our nutritional food rainbow. The industrialization of our food system has drifted us away from Hippocrates' sage advice, "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food". With chronic disease at the forefront of American ailments due to nutritionally barren food, we owe a nod to those seed savers of yesterday and today for handing us the key to our own health. Today, honor that hard work and eat a rainbow!
To Plant Your Heirloom Carrot Rainbow Go HERE
Shannon McCabe is a co-garden manager at the Baker Creek headquarters in Missouri. She studied Environmental Horticulture and Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Rhode Island. She was a market farmer in her Hometown of Block Island, Rhode Island as well as in Wakefield, Rhode Island.