Know Your Heirloom Varieties: A Guide to the Season’s Best Heirloom Fruits and Vegetables

heirloom varieties, heirloom tomatoes

The season is here for the most delicious fresh produce, perhaps even grown by you. But whether coming from your backyard or a local market, you can enhance that delicious fruit and vegetable experience by opting for heirloom varieties.

Modern fruits and vegetables have come a long way from what our ancestors ate. We bred out bitter and sour flavors, enhanced color, shape, texture. These traits aren’t necessarily bad things, mind you, but if you crave a more balanced and full flavor, heirloom varieties express more of the essence of a plant’s true nature. Give some of these a try this season:

Tomatoes: The tomato is perhaps the poster fruit for heirlooms. You can thank the flavorless, mealy tomatoes that dominate the market for sending our pallets towards juicy, sweet and tangy heirlooms. They’re everywhere now, even your local supermarket. Look for these heirloom varieties: Brandywines,  Cherokee Purple, Green Zebra, Black Prince, Marvel Stripe and Flamme Orange.

Beans: Summer is full of bean varieties that bring so much nutrition and flavor to your plate. There are an incredible variety of heirloom beans as well. In fact, the Blue Coco variety is one of the oldest known heirloom beans available. It’s a pole bean, also known as Purple Pod and Blue Podded Pole.  Keep an eye out for others, including the Brown Lazy Wife pole bean, the butter bean variety Beurre de Rocquencourt Bean, the Hickman Snap Bean, and look also for fresh varieties of hardier beans like the Light Brown Zebra Bean, a variety of the pinto and Black Turtle beans.

Peppers: Sweet or spicy, peppers are crunchy, full of flavor and vitamins, and make any dish better. Check now for some of these sweet heirlooms: the Sweet California Wonder, Jimmy Nardello’s, Napoleon Sweets; and these spicy varieties: Anaheim chiles, Caribbean red, Cubanelle, Fresno Chiles, and the Purple Tiger.

Melons: Nothing says summer like juicy melon all over your face. No more should you eat watermelon that tastes as dry as cardboard! Give some of these delightful heirlooms a try: Canary yellow, Crenshaw, Iroquois,  Sakatas sweet and the Petit Gris De Rennes.

Cucumbers: Like their sweet melon cousins, cucumbers come in a tasty variety that make summer truly special. Try as many as you can as often as you can! The Lemon Cucumber may be my all time favorite heirloom summer treat. Others include: Arkansas Little Leaf, Crystal Apple, Lebanese Mirella, Tendergreens and Suyo Longs.

Don’t see any of these varieties at your farmers market or grocery store? There are thousands of heirloom varieties, so just ask your farmer or produce manager what heirlooms they’re stocking.

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Image: zacklur

Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites and, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better.