Wisconsin gardening: Heirloom plants ripe with state connections

GREEN BAY – When you think about foods synonymous with Wisconsin, you probably conjure up a plate of steaming bratwurst, golden cheese curds and a side of Friday fish fry. And don’t forget the frozen custard. Also accurate, but with a lot less arterial blockage, would be a plate dressed with a rainbow of tomatoes, bell peppers, musk melons, beans and corn.Decades before Sheboygan was legally awarded the title Bratwurst Capital of the World, Lithuanian immigrants arriving in the city in the early 1900s planted a variety of tomato now known as a Sheboygan tomato. It produces pink, quarter-pound fruits that are great for canning.  There’s also the Beaver Dam Hot Pepper, assuming the pun was intended, though seed catalogs give it a three out of five on the heat scale. It was brought to the Great Lakes region by Hungarian immigrants more than a century ago.

Large food companies may value productivity, resistance to disease and fast-producing traits to ensure yields, while gardeners prize, preserve and share heirloom plants for traits like flavor and color, said Karen Stahlheber, a University of Wisconsin-Green Bay professor of biology who focuses on plant ecology.

“Heirloom plants are ones that have been around for a really long time, usually handed down through generations of gardeners,” Stahlheber said. “Because they are selected by gardeners, they tend to really emphasize taste. Heirloom varieties can be among the best-tasting types of that vegetable: Complex flavored tomatoes, peppers with really interesting levels of spiciness and flavor.”

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