Favorite Heirloom Stories

heirloom on seed packet

One of the reasons I started Botanical Interests was to continue the tradition of passing down gardening and plant knowledge to future generations of gardeners. Heirloom varieties fall into that same romantic notion—knowing that the seeds I’m sowing today are the “children” of the seeds sown generations ago. Whenever we find a good story, we include it on the seed packet. Here are some of my favorites.

Walla Walla’ onion: Peter Pieri, a French soldier, brought Italian sweet onion seeds from the Island of Corsica to the Walla Walla Valley in Washington in the late 1800s, hoping to sell them as green onions. Unfortunately, Pieri wasn’t able to sell the whole crop, so much of the onion crop was left in the field over the winter. He was surprised that the onions survived the winter, growing into a robust, large, slicing onion, and reseeded the following summer, making ‘Walla Walla’ one of the most cold hardy onions!

‘Padrón’ chile pepper: The ‘Padrón’ pepper became well known as a Spanish pepper but it was actually brought from South America in the 1700s by Spanish monks who cultivated it at their monastery near Padrón. There is now an annual festival held on the first Saturday in August in the parish of Herbón, in Padrón, Spain where everyone can taste these famous peppers. There is a local saying, “Los pimientos de Herbón (Padrón), unos pican y otros no,” which means “Herbón (Padrón) peppers, some are hot, others not”.

Jimmy Nardello’ sweet pepper: Guiseppe and Angela Nardiello of Southern Italy grew this pepper each year in their homeland, and in 1887 they immigrated to Connecticut, bringing the seeds of their beloved pepper. Their son Jimmy continued to grow and preserve this unique variety, eventually sharing it with the public before his passing in 1983. Since its release, it has gained a big following of foodies, chefs, and gardeners alike. Over the years, the spelling of the Nardiello name changed, but the flavor of ‘Jimmy Nardello’ persists, gaining it an entry into Slow Foods USA® Ark of Taste catalog in 2005 as a cultivar to preserve due to its rich, unique flavor.

Miss Jekyll’ love-in-a-mist: Gertrude Jekyll was a 20th century, influential garden designer and botanical painter, who used her knowledge to experiment with garden designs, specifically with perspective and complementary colors. Maybe for this reason she preferred to call herself a “garden artist” rather than a “garden designer.” But it was in her younger years that she selected and bred plants, including the love-in-a-mist that bears her name, primroses, foxgloves, and lupines. And perhaps her name sounds familiar? Gertrude’s younger brother was friends with the author, Robert Louis Stevenson, who borrowed their name for his famous novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Russell Blend lupine: This stately mix of lupines was developed after decades of breeding work by George Russell (1857–1951) of York, England. He grew several species of lupines and let the bees pollinate the flowers. At the end of each season, he saved seeds from the plants he liked, always removing the plants he felt were inferior. He did this year after year, keeping seeds from only those plants with denser, larger flowers in bright colors and fast maturity. Russell was rewarded for his work at the age of 80 with honors from the Royal Horticultural Society, and an MBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire certificate) at the age of 94. His breeding efforts made it possible for gardeners in mild climates to also enjoy lupines, as previously the available lupines needed a winter period to perform well.

‘American Legion’ flanders poppy: Long known as the corn poppy because it flourishes as a weed in the grain fields of Europe, the Flanders poppy as it is now often called, grew profusely in the trenches and craters of the WWI war zone of historical Flanders Field along the coast of Belgium and France. Lt. Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian Army field surgeon was inspired to write the poem, “In Flanders Fields” after the burial of his friend, Lt. Alexis Helmer who was killed in battle. The corn poppy has since become a symbol of wartime remembrance. The significance results from the fact that on the World War I battlefields of the Flanders region, poppies sprang up in abundance to blanket the fields with a sea of red. The red poppy is symbolic of the blood that was shed there. (368 U.S. soldiers from World War I are buried in Flanders Field cemetery in Belgium.) In 1920, the American Legion adopted this red poppy as its memorial flower. This packet is dedicated to those men and women who fought for the Allies during the two World Wars; as time passes, the number of men and women from that unique generation dwindles. We must not forget the lessons they learned. We must strive to hear the stories they tell, and respect the price they paid for future generations to be free.

Which are you favorites? Share with us!

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