Heirloom varieties offer new options

Photo Courtesy of Lisa Richards.
Mack Hill Farm in New Hampshire is finding purple potatoes to be a popular choice. (Inset) Purple Haze carrots sport purple skin with orange inside.

Nutritionists recommend that loaded dinner plates resemble rainbows; that is, to have foods in several colors to strike a dietary balance. Those rainbows are getting an overhaul as new colors, sizes and shapes are developed and some forgotten heirlooms are returning.

Purple carrots and potatoes, white peaches and yellow watermelons are becoming more common. How do these varieties differ from the old standbys and how does a grower choose? Most importantly, will consumers accept and demand fruits and vegetables with different looks?

Heirlooms make a comeback

Lee Jones of the Chef’s Garden in Huron, Ohio, is a big fan of heirloom varieties. He says the nutrition and flavor they offer outstrips the growing challenges that led to the development of hardier varieties.

Through the Culinary Vegetable Institute, an offshoot of the Chef’s Garden, Jones works with chefs in variety experimentation. One could argue that he has built a business around heirloom, rare, new and different vegetables. His production is based upon the needs and desires of the chefs whom he supplies; as new ideas are generated and perfected through the institute, those crops may change.

“Lots of fast food and other restaurants do research and development in our test kitchens,” Jones says. “Two hundred fifty to 300 products are being designed annually.”

This means that Jones may be growing up to 700 varieties a season, but some are in small quantities. Those selections not only include heirloom crops such as Native American blue corn, but also focus on unexpected uses of familiar vegetables. Bok choy, for instance, is harvested for culinary use at seven different stages of development.

The Chef’s Garden markets its produce exclusively to chefs, who are largely responsible for the greater diversity seen in today’s fruit and vegetable selections. They’ve helped to bring back heirlooms such as the lemon cucumber, which resembles a lemon and retains the traits of ordinary cucumbers. Combining heirlooms, new varieties and produce not common to the United States, specialty produce suppliers may offer hundreds of varieties.

Why color matters

While developing or rediscovering vegetables in alternate colors may seem to be a marketing technique or novelty niche, those shades do make a difference nutritionally.

Photo Courtesy of www.Parkseed.Com.
Cauliflower Romanesco Veronica offers a sweet flavor and is most successful as a fall crop.
Photo Courtesy of Siegers Seed Co.
Siegers Seed Company’s new Super Freak pumpkin line includes two warted pumpkins and gourds in a variety of new shapes, sizes and colors.

Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists have learned that color isn’t merely cosmetic; it is determined by the nutrients in the plant. Carrots have occurred naturally in assorted shades around the world throughout history. The familiar orange carrot originated in Europe and the Middle East about 400 years ago. Its color is derived from the beta-carotene and alpha-carotene that make it a good source of vitamin A. A variety that is purple on the outside and orange inside has been around since the 900s and is packed with anthocyanin, beta-carotene and alpha-carotene that provide cardiac and antioxidant benefits. Lycopene and beta-carotene combine to produce red carrots. Xanthophylls result in yellow roots that are especially beneficial to the eyes. The differing pigments do not affect flavor and were acceptable to participants in taste tests, according to ARS reports.

With that knowledge, researchers are developing more nutritious varieties by tinkering with pigment. Scientists at the Genetic Improvement of Fruits and Vegetables Laboratory (GIFVL) of the Henry A. Wallace Beltsville, Md., Agricultural Research Center are whipping up healthier potatoes. Their Peter Wilcox variety has purple skin and a pale yellow flesh that produce a carotenoid content that is about 15 percent higher than its closest competitor, the Yukon Gold. At the Vegetable and Forage Crops Production Research Unit in Prosser, Wash., orange-fleshed potatoes with up to 52 times the antioxidants zeaxanthin and lutein found in white potatoes have been developed. The research team’s red and purple-fleshed varieties have more than four times the antioxidants of existing commercial dark-fleshed potatoes.

In time, ARS will doubtless release super vegetable varieties that are suitable for commercial production. In fact, what is considered the everyday orange carrot in the United States today is actually an ARS variety that packs far more beta-carotene than its predecessors 50 years ago. Although seeing a pink cauliflower on the dinner table may seem a bit strange, some believe that alternate colors may be a marketing asset. The altered pigments help to signal that the improved vegetable truly is something new and different.

Photo by Peggy Greb, Ars.
ARS Technician Holly Sisson, left, and Horticulturist Elizabeth Baldwin homogenize guava for antioxidant and pigment analyses. Nutrition content gives fruits and vegetables their color.

Growing purple potatoes

Lisa Richards of Mack Hill Farm in New Hampshire is one grower who doesn’t shy away from vegetables that look a little different. She sought out varieties that would make her products stand out, like purple potatoes.

“The novelty factor definitely helps, and people often try the purple potatoes just because [they are] different,” she says. “I also find they taste slightly different, too, in a nice way.”

Richards, who direct-markets her produce, has sold out of the purple spuds each season, leading her to increase plantings every year. The yield isn’t as substantial as some other varieties, so she is experimenting with site selection, composts and bedding practices to improve that. When the potatoes are perfected, she plans to give other unique varieties a try.

What’s new

Some color variations don’t signal nutritional boosts so much as flavor enhancements. Park Seedsays the golden orange hue of its Beet Touchstone Gold Hybrid offers a sweeter and smoother taste than typical red beets. Tomato Big Rainbow is an heirloom that combines unique color with excellent flavor. The fruit can weigh in at a hefty 2 pounds and sports green, yellow and red skin when young. The ripe tomato is gold with red stripes inside and out.

Tomato Golden Rave is a Roma-grape hybrid. The 2-inch-long golden fruit combines Roma’s meatiness with the high sugar content of grapes.

Beyond changes in the color scheme, other alterations in appearance are available. Siegers Seed Company unveiled its Super Freak line of pumpkins and gourds this year. Their Knuckle Head and Goose Bumps pumpkins are heavily warted, creating a unique Halloween product. The Gremlins gourds offer stripes and solid colors in a plethora of shapes, from star to mushroom to neck. A dedicated Web site has been established at www.superfreakpumpkin.com.

Other petite melons are joining the popular personal-size watermelons. Tasty Bites is a Charentais-Ananas hybrid that matures around 1 pound in weight. Squash are popping up in new sizes and shapes, too, along with color change. One Ball Hybrid is a 3-inch-round zucchini. The orange fruit matures in little more than a month and boasts large, tasty blossoms to boot. The compact plants support a high yield in a small space.

Finding the right balance

Choosing varieties can be tricky as growers attempt to balance costs, growing requirements, consumer demands and other concerns. Should you risk trying a new, unproven crop? How about diversifying the varieties of best sellers?

Some points to consider include …

  • your customers’ interest in new varieties;
  • your risk tolerance;
  • market trends;
  • fellow growers’ experiences; and
  • recommendations of your trade association and area universities.

If, like Jones, you have or can develop relationships with chefs, restaurants or other industry movers and shakers, you can benefit from the input of those who help create demand.

“Every product matures and has a life cycle,” Jones says. “Some are fads, but the current U.S. trend is that the end user is more savvy and interested in food and its origins.”

Bruce Follett, a merchandiser with the Co-op Food Stores of Hanover and Lebanon, N.H., agrees.

“When I first started, cherry tomatoes were big,” he says. “Now, it’s grape tomatoes.”

That means that a philosophy of adapting to new and emerging trends may be a solid way for growers to select the most profitable varieties.

The author is a freelance writer based in Greensboro, N.C.