It's a balmy 34º here on the first day of February and the air has that soft, earthy smell like spring is on its way. It may still be hibernation, hearty casserole and hot chocolate time of year, but a girl can dream that we don't have 3 more full months of winter before that green haze starts wisping across the trees when spring actually does arrive. A desperate yearning for tiny shoots of green makes this seed catalog time of year. Garden porn anyone?
Since my own garden space is so limited, there's a high premium on what I'm willing to offer space to. I want to grow things that I might only be able to get in my back yard, something so delicious my eyes roll around in my head when I eat it, and that produces a bumper crop. When Slow Food Huron Valley offered free heirloom seeds from the Seed Savers Exchange a couple of years ago, I was hooked. Hefty Aunt Ruby's German Green Tomatoes and chestnutty Christmas Lima Beans have been my best finds so far - they fit all my criteria.
I got to explore the qualities that make an "heirloom" vegetable in the "Edible Antiques" article I wrote last fall. I found basically four things define heirloom seeds: they are passed down from generation to generation; were developed before the 1950s major wave of hybridization; are open pollinated so they breed true to type; and have been adapted for flavor and resistance in a particular region.
So what about heirlooms from my own Great Lakes region? Are there even any traditional Michigan heirlooms? I was so excited to find a list last fall of Michigan's traditional and endangered foods in this article about Rediscovering Up North Traditional Foods with Gary Nabhan. It turns out that in addition to many endangered (and extinct) native edible species, there are also many traditional varieties of vegetables and fruits (and animals) that have been adapted to our region that are also disappearing or disappeared. The Shiawassee Beauty Apple that Nabhan writes about is one example.
But what are examples of tasty, Michigan-adapted foods that might still be out there? With an hour of searching this morning, I found a few likely sources for some of the endangered Michigan varieties listed in the article. Probably the best resource is the Seed Savers Yearbook. You become a Seed Savers Member for $35 and they send you their Yearbook, a catalog of people across the country who are growing particular varieties and have seeds to share. They say there are over 20,000 listings and over 13,000 unique varieties. Among the best resources for heirloom seeds in our own community are Seed Saver Royer Held and the Project Grow Community Gardens.
Below are some of the Michigan varieties I found online. I'm going to be looking to plant some of these in my garden this year. Since my thumb is only partially green, I wish that some enterprising business (Frog Holler, Project Grow?) would sell these starts at the market. Put a "Michigan Traditional Variety" label on it and I bet it would fly off the shelves....
Michigan Traditional Varieties in the Seed Saver's Yearbook include:
Eastern Butterwax Beans - http://seedsaversyb.dreamhosters.com/pt_search.php?PlantType=BEAN
Red Valentine Beans - http://seedsaversyb.dreamhosters.com/pt_search.php?PlantType=BEAN
Early Rose Potato - http://seedsaversyb.dreamhosters.com/pt_search.php?PlantType=POTATO
Green Mountain Potato - http://seedsaversyb.dreamhosters.com/pt_search.php?PlantType=POTATO
Alaska Pea - http://seedsaversyb.dreamhosters.com/pt_search.php?PlantType=PEA
Grand Rapids Lettuce, Hanson Lettuce - http://seedsaversyb.dreamhosters.com/pt_search.php?PlantType=LETTUCE
Michigan Varieties from Heirloom Seeds
Henderson Bush Lima - http://www.heirloomseeds.com/beans.htm
Sunset Lettuce - http://www.heirloomseeds.com/lettuce.htm
Boston Pickling Cucumber Improved - http://www.heirloomseeds.com/cucumbers.htm
Alaska Peas - http://www.heirloomseeds.com/peas.htm
Country Gentleman Sweet Corn - http://www.heirloomseeds.com/corn.htm
Michigan Varieties from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
Country Gentleman Sweet Corn - http://rareseeds.com/seeds/Corn
Boston Pickling Cucumber - http://rareseeds.com/seeds/Cucumber
Michigan Varieties from Victory Seed Company - I like that they give a brief historical note about each variety, along with photos, description of flavor, strengths and pests to watch out for.
Alaska Peas -http://www.victoryseeds.com/catalog/vegetable/peas/peas.html
Boston Pickling Cucumber Improved - http://www.victoryseeds.com/catalog/vegetable/cukes/cukes.html
Hanson Improved Lettuce - http://www.victoryseeds.com/catalog/vegetable/greens/lettuce.html
Silvermine Roasting Corn -http://www.victoryseeds.com/catalog/vegetable/corn/corn.html
Silver King Dent Corn - http://www.victoryseeds.com/catalog/vegetable/corn/corn.html
Country Gentleman Sweet Corn - http://www.victoryseeds.com/catalog/vegetable/corn/corn.html