Heirloom vegetables are designated as such if they have been around for at least 50 years, according to most gardeners. Others believe that the seeds must be at least a century old.
Some say that the seeds can be designated as heirloom, regardless of age, if they have been passed down through generations or if the plant has a story.
If seeds could talk, they would spin some fascinating tales. Some seeds were tucked into the dress seams of immigrants or hidden under suitcase linings to avoid the eyes of customs officers.
One of my favorite stories is the tale of Jimmy Nardello and the "Jimmy Nardello Italian Sweet Pepper." Giuseppe and Angela Nardello grew these sweet frying peppers in their garden in a small village in southern Italy. Angela carried her one-year-old daughter Anna and a few pepper seeds when they sailed from the port of Naples in 1887 bound for America. After the family settled in Connecticut, they grew peppers and eleven children.
Giuseppe and Angela's fourth son, Jimmy, saved the seeds and donated some of them to Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa before he died in 1983. You can purchase these seeds from several seed companies including Seed Savers Exchange, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, LocalHarvest, Bountiful Gardens and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.
The banana-shaped fruits are about an inch wide and about 10 inches long. Take a bite of these bright red peppers and you'll get a sweet taste. They reach a height of about two feet, so try them in containers on your patio or deck. These sweet peppers are disease-resistant and very productive.
According to Bountiful Gardens, the peppers' "thin walls have a perfect combination of sweetness and crunch, with smoky, delicate, complex flavors. Arguably, the finest frying pepper becomes perfectly creamy and soft when fried. Roasted, it caramelizes: sweet with a tinge of heat." These flavorful peppers are great for grilling, frying, or drying, and in salads and salsa too.
Heirloom plants are open-pollinated varieties, meaning they can reproduce themselves from seed. Seeds from these plants grow true to type in that their offspring look like the parents. Collect the seeds when the fruits have reached the color of their maturity, red in the case of these sweet peppers. Remove the seeds from the peppers and spread them out to dry on a plate. Store them in a cool, dry place, once they are dry.
Try saving your own seeds this year. It's a great way to pass on a little taste of history to your children, friends and relatives.