For many, heirloom seeds and heirloom plants varietals are prized possessions. These seeds were often brought via immigration from distant homelands, and many heirloom plants have been developed locally over generations. Both directly link a gardener to a particular cultural history and to the gardening and cooking practices of preceding generations.
Gardener Adriana Prioleau is from Linares, Mexico, and remembers taking long walks with her grandfather on his farm. He taught her how to identify the native chile pequín plant that grew wild under the tall trees. She learned how to harvest and prepare the peppers, but remembers the warning from her grandfather not to touch her eyes or face because of the chile oil on her hands. “When I got to Austin, I was like, hmmmmm, where am I going to get those peppers?” she says. Then she discovered that the heirloom pepper plants are native to Texas, as well. “I got one plant and then another one, until I had a porch full of chile pequín.” In addition to growing the peppers in pots on her balcony, Prioleau plants them in her plot at Sunshine Community Gardens. And she prepares the chiles the same way she did as a child—either by making an escabeche (pickled chiles and vegetables) or using a molcajete (a type of mortar and pestle) to make a chile paste.
Gardener Liem Nguyen is from Vietnam but has lived in Austin since 1984. At 84 years old, he proudly boasts that he only sees a doctor once a year for a checkup, and says he still prefers to eat the type of healthy diet he grew up on in Vietnam: soups, fish and vegetables. He has a small home garden where he grows the same heirloom vegetables and herb varietals he remembers from Vietnam. While his wife tends a rose garden, Nguyen grows Vietnamese okra, squash, bitter melon and winter melon. He donates some of his plants to the Gardens at Gus Garcia (a community garden for seniors at Gus Garcia Recreation Center), and he and his friends swap seeds and vegetable starts. He says he grows these heirloom varietals “first as a hobby and second for healthy food and a healthy body.”
Whether the motivation to plant heirloom seeds comes from their high quality or from the cultural connections they provide, cultivating these plant varieties ensures their survival and preserves the rich agricultural biodiversity humans have developed over millennia.
By Liz Cardinal • Photography by Bianca Bidiuc Peterson