Biological and cultural diversity in your backyard

This is a great time to be a gardener. Each year the choice of what you can plant seems larger and more eclectic. And for the home grower, especially, much of what’s new is what’s old. Many catalogs include heirloom vegetables, many of them from places far distant, throughout the world. By not sticking to the standard market varieties, you can celebrate biological and cultural diversity in your backyard.

Appearance might not be everything, but the way vegetables look these days is a good indication of how adventurous we’ve become in our kitchens and our gardens. Just look at the colors! Flower gardeners know that roses are not always red, nor violets blue, but welcome to a world where cauliflower can be golden yellow. For that matter, so can the flesh of watermelons, carrots, tomatoes and beets. Swiss chard mixes such as Bright Lights can have stems and ribs in a rainbow of hues.

There have never been very many white vegetables — parsnips, radishes, the odd pattypan squash or conventional cauliflower. But now you also can grow white eggplants, creamy white tomatoes, white cucumbers, white carrots, white beets and white pumpkins you can draw on with a magic marker. Small, round white eggplants are, in fact, older than the usual deep purple ones (hence the “egg”), and if you’re curious about where carrots come from, pull up a Queen Anne’s lace plant and look at the skinny white root — original wild carrot.

Blue is a rare color in nature, but the Andes have given us potatoes that are deep blue, both inside and out. Not my favorites for cooking, but interesting on the plate.

You hear a lot about color in vegetables these days, because of the “discovery” that they are good for you and that color has something to do with it. All those reds, yellows, purples and greens signal the presence of phytochemicals that keep us healthy, with our immune systems humming along. There are children’s coloring books designed to teach the value of eating vegetables in lots of different colors — five different colors each day — so as to absorb a wide variety of antioxidants. You don’t even need to remember that lycopene is red, folate is green and beta-carotene is orange so long as you just follow a multicolored diet.

After all, color is one of the natural world’s best adaptive strategies, whether it camouflages or calls attention. A bright fruit tempts us to eat it and help scatter its seed, and we hope that we have enough basic instinct left to view the poisonous ones with suspicion. Or at least more suspicion than we bring to the color photographs in seed catalogs. I am still wondering why my Sweet Chocolate pepper never made it past muddy purple. And why I even wanted to grow a brown pepper.

Many of the new/old colors are reddish or purplish versions of green plants. There are red carrots and red celery. We can have ancient purple artichokes from Italy, purple broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, string beans, Brussels sprouts, carrots and purple-black tomatoes such as Black Prince. (Heirloom tomatoes, along with dried beans and native corn, are among the best examples of making progress by going backward.) I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more of certain nutrients among the ruddier-hued veggies, even though some of them revert to green when cooked. But I will often choose them just for looks. Purple shiso (also called perilla), an Asian herb used in making sushi, is much prettier than its green counterpart. And I’ll plant purple basil for its color as long as I have enough of the green varieties like Genovese that I prefer for their flavor.

Naturally, in the end, flavor wins out. All those frilly, colorful “ornamental” kales, which look like can-can, are striking enough, but I wouldn’t bother to eat them if I had a tasty green variety like Winterbor.

May the exploration continue! Yellow-fleshed potatoes such as Rose Gold and are delicious, but I wish I could plant some of the papas amarillas I tasted in Peru 40 years ago, with their golden, mealy flesh. Would they taste as good now as they did then?

We use all our senses when we judge the quality of the food we grow — taste, smell, touch, and even our hearing if we’re thumping a melon to gauge the deep, slightly hollow sound of ripeness. But right now we have our eyes fixed on the seed catalogs, and the kaleidescope is turning.

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Gardener’s Cookbook.”

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