By Shannon McCabe

The 2019 growing season is upon us and Baker Creek is proud to introduce our newest selection of heirloom seeds. The seed team has dug through a treasure trove of history, and trekked across the globe, connecting with hundreds of passionate growers and seed savers. We are excited to share this heirloom bounty with you, our gardening friends.

The diversity of heirloom gardeners and seed savers is astounding. Whether you grow on a rooftop or a mountain top, we all share a common dedication to preserving rare seeds and nourishing ourselves and our communities.. Our list includes an expansive selection of open- pollinated varieties, from traditional Native American corn to Asian crops not often seen in western gardens. We have consulted expert growers to offer something for every gardening style; we would like to share the selected seeds of giant vegetable growers, urban gardeners, flower farmers, homesteaders, market farmers, permaculturists and more.

International Introductions

The Baker Creek team travelled to both China and Japan in the past year. We learned about the farm and garden culture through visits to farms, markets, and family-owned seed companies..

In China, we were struck by how each vegetable is regarded as both a culinary delight and a powerful medicine. The idea of food as medicine is a fundamental factor in the traditional Chinese diet. We encountered several unique, delicious crops that are virtually unknown in the western diet. Despite the fact that these crops are new to our palate, we have found that China and the U.S share similar growing zones and that many of these crops are well suited to our conditions.

The importance of a diet that is replete with colorful vegetables cannot be overstated, as those vibrant colors are indicators of nutritious compounds! Chinese Pink Celery is our favorite colorful new find. It is popular in the city of Beijing in northern China where it can be found in high-end restaurants. Asian celery is known to be easier to grow than the extra large, European types that we see in the grocery store. This bubblegum pink celery is so flavorful and nutritious, and the unique color is a feast for the eyes!

Purple Lady Bok Choy, an Incredible Variety From China! We love this eye-catching purple, baby bok choy, and we believe this is one of the best strains available. It is loaded with high levels of antioxidants with anti-aging properties, as well as a sweet, rich flavor that is perfect for the wok, grill or in salads. We love the highly refined, uniform heads, averaging 6-7 inches tall. The neat little plants make a perfect presentation tucked into the tidy kitchen garden or displayed at the farmers market stand. A beautiful variety, the antioxidant-rich plum colored leaves really pop against the lime green stems. Crunchy, juicy and flavorful, this is an excellent culinary variety. Much work has been put into selecting for consistently attractive, delicious heads. A must have for market and home use.

Chinese Python Snake Bean is an unusual and delicious gourd relative that is referred to and used as a bean in its native China. Its fruit tastes much like green beans, except even more delicious and tender. Snake bean is almost completely absent in U.S. markets. Its long, delicate fruit doesn’t ship easily. Chinese Green Python snake bean is the largest snake bean variety, growing up to 60 inches long and 1.5 inches thick! As it matures, it turns bright green and develops a thin, waxy layer on the skin. When harvested at 12- 30 inches long, it can be used like green beans or summer squash. Traditionally stir fried with peppers and onions, this vegetable has many culinary uses.

Green Mountain Winter Celtuce is a massive stem lettuce variety popular in southwest China. Originally from the Mediterranean, celtuce is a type of lettuce that is grown for its large, swollen stem. Green Mountain Winter Celtuce produces jumbo stems that remain crunchy, tender and juicy as they reach epic proportions. In the Baker Creek test kitchen, we love to experiment with this new vegetable, serving them raw in salads, stir fried and even as a gluten-free pasta substitute. The flavor is exceptional, with refreshing notes of cucumber and sweet corn. First-time celtuce growers will appreciate this carefree, prolific variety.

Flavor and nutrition are of paramount importance when choosing your varieties, but we cannot forget the more abstract but still important quality of beauty in the garden. Chinese Multicolor Spinach is the answer to the green salad doldrums —  its lime-green leaves are splashed with magenta. This glossy, vibrant salad green is also one of the most tender and flavorful greens we have tried. The leaves are supremely succulent, even in the heat of summer, as Chinese amaranth is bolt resistant and heat loving. It will continue to provide nutritious, colorful and flavorful leaves while other greens succumb to heat and drought.

Bitter melon is a relatively unknown vegetable in the U.S, but it is a staple in the Japanese diet. It is especially popular on the Island of Okinawa, where a healthy diet has been attributed to the famously long Okinawan life span. The Jyunpaku Okinawan White Bitter melon is a perfect variety for first-time bitter melon eaters. The pearly white fruit is more mild in flavor, but still possess the healthful compounds that make bitter melon so valuable. Bitter melon is a climbing vine that thrives in heat and humidity, making it surprisingly easy to grow. The vines are covered in nutritious fruit and produce throughout the long season.

Burdock is mostly known in the U.S as a weedy invasive plant. In Japan, however, it is considered a refined root vegetable. The more domesticated burdock varieties from Japan are not quick to bloom and therefore are considered a safer, less invasive burdock option. The roots are an excellent source of antioxidants and have been shown to help purify blood and to help to prevent certain cancers. Takinogawa burdock is a very special late-maturing Japanese burdock variety that is known for flavor and length. Grown in traditional Japanese burdock boxes, this root is know to reach 3 feet! With a thin outer skin and crisp flesh, it cooks beautifully and is a must for many Japanese dishes. The winter hardy root can be dug late in the fall and even into winter for cooking.

Manpukuji carrot is a super long variety from Japan that is descended from the ancient Japanese long carrot types of the Edo period. For those looking for a sweet carrot for fall harvest, Manpukuji is a top choice. This variety is sweet, especially when harvested after fall frost. Traditionally served as ‘Namasu’ (grated carrot salad) for Japanese New Year celebrations. It also makes an incredible snacking carrot, ideal for fresh eating. Roots easily reach over 2 feet in length when grown in the right soil. All in all, it’s a fantastic choice for market or giant vegetable growers.

Heirlooms from America’s Antiquity

The Baker Creek team has had the pleasure of working with various seed savers and farmers across the U.S. We are so thankful for this eclectic blend of preservationists, farmers, home gardeners and talented open-pollinated breeders for their hard work.

Aside from saving seeds from various globe-trotting expeditions, the Baker Creek team has searched the archives of gardening history to revive old favorites as well as obscure treasures.

Our extended family of seed growers is a diverse group, with each and every one dedicated to quality and preservation. One of these growers was introduced to Baker Creek when word of his famously delicious cantaloupe reached Jere Gettle while he was on vacation visiting family in Oregon. Tommy Apple has been growing his eponymous melon in his home garden by the banks of the Snake River in eastern Oregon since receiving the seeds from a local nurseryman in the early 1970s. Now known as the Tommy Apple Melon, this silky, sweet variety introduced to Tommy as “oriental melon” and was quite late maturing but remarkably tasty. The fruit of this eastern Oregon landrace is oblong and varies in size from football-sized to jumbo. Over the decades, Tommy has selected for earlier maturation, but he says the incredible, sweet, mellow flavor and refined texture are just as good as the original melons he received almost 50 years ago. Tommy is our seed grower for the variety and says that he harvests fruit by hand, visiting the garden each morning barefoot with a fruit sack slung around his shoulder. He says harvest is easy: the fruit picks itself! Indeed, the mature fruit turns a golden color and slips from the vine when perfectly ripe.

Montana Cudu is a beautiful spotted corn that is descended from a historic Native American variety. Ed Shultz, a renowned corn breeder from Montana, has worked to adapt a blended corn as a tribute to a sacred Native American variety. Cudu corn is said to be an ancient Native American variety used for sacred ritual. A sample of seeds was donated to the USDA seed bank by Oscar Will in 1958. This original donated seed may have been accidentally inbred or crossed, as the cobs were stunted and short, and kernels had begun to lose their signature blue eagle marking. Ed is a far northern grower who has worked to create beautiful and early-maturing corns like Atomic Orange and the Papa’s corn. He received a sample of seeds from the USDA and has worked for over five years to adapt it to his northern region and to create longer cobs. He reports that this variety has long, slender ears and beautiful blue spotted kernels.

Bringing back rare and forgotten heirloom varieties is more than just an exercise in preservation; these living pieces of history are also incredibly flavorful! We are also delighted to help resurrect favorite old-time varieties like The Classic Beefsteak Tomato. These are the tomatoes that Grandma grew, meaty and firm, perfect on sandwiches or served straight up with a pinch of salt. Massive fruit easily reach 1- 2 lbs and have deep red flesh and good old-fashioned tomato flavor. Classic Beefsteak is a particularly good producer in the Northeast, but is well adapted to almost the entire U.S. as well. Scientists recently determined that beefsteak’s massive fruits were originally caused by a chance mutation. This happy accident created a much larger tomato. Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez brought samples of beefsteak tomato back to Europe. 

Educators and gourmands alike will appreciate the historic and tasty Succotash Bean, a rare, ancient bean from the Narragansett Indian tribe of Rhode Island and grown in southern New England. This uniquely shaped, dime-sized bean closely resembles a kernel of corn. This variety was used for succotash — the iconic indigenous northeastern dish of corn and beans that historians believe was served at the first Thanksgiving. An ideal teaching crop for Native American classroom gardens, this variety will grow especially well planted in the traditional three sisters method. Aside from historic significance, the bean is exceptionally flavorful and the moody purple color is spectacular.

Giant vegetable growing is a rewarding gardening pastime that requires equal parts skill and dedication. Many giant pumpkin growers live and breathe their sport, dedicating hundreds of hours and sometimes winning thousands of dollars! The network of giant pumpkin growers has spent decades selecting for the most mammoth-sized fruits possible and Premium Atlantic Giant Pumpkin is the result of that dedicated work! We offer select seeds from pumpkins that weighed 500-1,000 each! Lovely, giant, pale pink to deep orange pumpkins can weigh over 1,000 lbs, and do so every year, with some select fruits reaching over 2,000 lbs! This variety was introduced by the late Howard Dill of Nova Scotia in 1978. Dill is considered the granddaddy of giant pumpkin growing, and this variety has been the gold standard for competitions ever since.

New Heirloom Innovations

The Baker Creek trial gardens is our home base, where long rows are filled with new varieties. These gardens are always buzzing with excitement as fruits ripen to fantastic colors and taste tests are performed right in the field.  Recently, there have been several fascinating open- pollinated breeding projects. These new heirlooms have been developed using natural techniques and the seeds can be saved reliably, just like other antique heirlooms. 

Nadapeño is an exciting new take on the classic spicy jalapeño. It may look identical to the iconic pepper, with one major difference. The Nadapeño is completely heatless! Yes, this pepper is perfect for those who do not care for or are unable to eat spicy foods, but who still love the juicy crunch and unmistakable flavor of the beloved jalapeño. Great for pickling, stuffing, poppers and salsa. This new innovation has been improved for an earlier and more prolific production of peppers than the traditional jalapeño. 

Black Magic Cosmos are originally from the pine and oak woods in Mexico. Believed to now be extinct in their native range of the Trans Mexican Volcanic Belt. The intoxicating aroma of chocolate cosmos have made them a favorite of gardeners for centuries, and until recently, plants were wild and a bit scraggly and could only be propagated by cuttings. Renowned flower breeder Dr. Keith Hammett of New Zealand has created the incredible new Black Magic cosmos. With larger blooms, a neater growing habit and viable seeds, this is an exciting new heirloom innovation! Plants average 2 feet tall with blooms almost 2 inches across and the rich, velvety blooms truly look and smell like chocolate.

Urban Heirloom Gardening

The good food revolution should not be exclusive to only those who have farmland or even garden space. Urban gardeners and green thumbs with limited growing space are some of the most creative growers. Thankfully, there have been many great strides in breeding compact crops that are ideal for container gardening!

Mini Bell Pepper Mix is a  perfect sweet pepper for your patio garden. This colorful mix of dainty bell peppers is an old Ohio family heirloom. A trio of mini red, yellow and chocolate bell peppers, Mini Bell Mix was introduced to the Seed Savers Exchange by member Lucina Cress. Lucina received the seeds from an elderly neighbor woman and began to grow them out. The 2-inch mini bell peppers became locally famous, as Lucina would sell hundreds of jars of cabbage-stuffed pickled peppers at her local church bazaar each year. We love these little peppers for snacking, stuffing or pickling. Plants produce an abundance of tiny colorful orbs, easy to grow and so rewarding.

Radishes are perfect for small plots and equally well suited to large-scale cultivation. The Easter Basket Radish Mix is ideal for those who love to keep a supply of nutritious little roots all season long. This magnificent mixture includes some of the most colorful spring radishes on the planet. These easy-to-grow roots add lots of color and flavor to salads. This rainbow of color consists of about 15 different heirloom varieties.

By growing heirlooms and selecting and perfecting your favorite varieties, you are helping to make a better and tastier food supply for the future. Try some of these exciting heirlooms in your garden and become a part of gardening history!