TOCCOA, Ga. -- All Cynthia Jeffries wanted to do was find the little yellow pear-shaped tomatoes her mother grew in her garden, the sweet ones that hung in golden clusters.
That was six years and 350 kinds of tomatoes ago. Quickly enraptured by heirloom gardening, Jeffries now also grows heirloom squash, beans, peas and gourds and sells heirloom seeds on her Web site.
Heirloom gardening -- growing old-fashioned plant varieties from seeds passed over a backyard fence or down through generations, not hybridized in a botanist's lab -- has been practiced by gardening aficionados for years.
Now it's gaining ground among those who merely dabble in dirt.
"You go, like, 'Whoa! There are 3,000 varieties of heirloom tomatoes!'" Jeffries said. "I went crazy."
Not everyone agrees on what makes an heirloom. Some insist on a 50-year or 100-year pedigree. Others say a plant must be "true to type" -- meaning that a seed taken from the plant would grow into an identical plant, something not often true of hybrids.
There is little disagreement, however, on heirlooms' growing popularity.
Seed Savers Exchange, an Iowa-based nonprofit that began in 1975 as a loose network of seed-swapping friends, now has roughly 10,000 members and produces a yearly directory of people who save and trade heirloom seeds.
The latest directory was 457 pages, with no pictures -- just column after small-type column listing vegetable varieties, and names and addresses of people who sell seeds.
"It started out like a little newsletter and now it looks like a phone book," said Diane Whealy, the exchange's co-director.
The exchange works to save rare varieties and revive lost ones, and maintains Preservation Gardens, featuring 4,100 kinds of tomato, 3,600 types of bean, 1,200 different pepper varieties and 400 sorts of melon. A historic orchard contains 700 varieties of apples, about 20 percent of the number that flourished in the United States in the 1800s.
Meanwhile, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington is completing heirloom gardens surrounding the Museum of American History. Filled with hollyhocks, flowering tobacco and sweet peas, the gardens are scheduled to open in spring 2002.
"I tried to put in plants that people remember from their grandmother's garden," landscape architect Karen Swanson said.
Burpee, one of the oldest and largest plant and seed companies in the country, has always offered heirlooms, such as Golden Bantam sweet corn and the Brandywine tomato. In 1996, during the company's centennial, the company began offering a catalog listing only heirloom varieties.
"We were getting a lot of inquiries about it, asking for a special section in the catalog," said Don Zeidler, a spokesman for the Warminster, Pa.-based grower.
But Zeidler said heirlooms will never replace hybrids: "Heirlooms are like antiques. An antique table or bookcase looks great in your house, but do you want an antique refrigerator?"
Few commercial growers have adopted heirlooms because hybrids can be bred for long shelf life, resistance to bruising, and uniform shape and color. Often lost, though, are flavor, fragrance and variety.
Many who are drawn to heirloom gardening are attracted by the oddities: a bite-sized orange eggplant that originated in Turkey, striped tomatoes, a pumpkin cultivated in the 1500s by Seminoles.
Kevin Fielding, 60, never gardened much, but wanted to plant something in raised beds left by the previous owners of his home in Princeton, Mass. An e-mail buddy sent him seeds for a dozen or so varieties of tomato.
"They all looked the same coming up, but then they started to bear fruit," Fielding said. "I had all these different kinds -- red with yellow stripes, Brandywine, which is kind of purple, Black Russian, Uncle Charlie."
That was three years ago. This spring, Fielding planted green beans, snow peas, butternut squash and more.
"I get an enormous kick out of it," he said.
On the Net:
Tanager Song Farm (Cynthia Jeffries' Web site): http://www.angelfire.com/biz2/collectibles4u/tomatoes.html
Seed Savers Exchange: http://www.seedsavers.org
Smithsonian Institution: http://www.si.edu/horticulture/landscapes.htm
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