Heirloom varieties featured at UCSC Farm's annual spring plant sale May 4-5

More than 60 heirloom varieties of vegetables and flowers will be featured at the UC Santa Cruz Spring Plant Sale on May 4-5, the only collection of organically grown flower, herb, and vegetable starts, perennials, grasses, and other landscape plants available in the region.

The sale takes place from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the Barn Theater parking lot at the intersection of Bay and High Streets at the base of campus. Members of the Friends of the UCSC Farm & Garden enjoy a 10 percent discount on purchases and, on Saturday morning only, early entry beginning at 9 a.m. New memberships and renewals are available beginning at 8:30 a.m.

A banner event for local gardeners, the plant sale features more than 400 types of annuals and perennials, including 15 types of lavender, the star of last year's sale. A complete annotated list of plants available at the sale can be found online, with the list of perennials followed by annuals, at http://zzyx.ucsc.edu/casfs/plantlist2.html.

In an era of mass-produced hybrids, heirloom varieties are valued for their mouthwatering flavors and array of unusual colors, shapes, sizes, and textures. Technically defined as open-pollinated plants that have been around for at least 50 years, heirlooms are living artifacts brimming with historical importance and cultural ancestry that have been handed down from one generation to the next, attracting chefs and gardeners alike. Because heirloom vegetables tend to ripen over a longer period of time, home gardeners enjoy an extended harvest, and growing heirlooms helps safeguard the genetic diversity of the world's food crops.

Among the classic heirloom vegetables featured at this year's sale are:

  • Cherokee Purple Tomato: Flattened globes boasting spectacular purple-pink-brown flesh color. This flavorful tomato is known to be more than 100 years old, and is believed to have originated from the Cherokee people.
  • Lemon Cucumber: Introduced as a novelty in 1894, this highly productive round cucumber is beloved for its bright yellow color, nonbitter skin and easy digestibility.
  • Antohi Romanian Pepper: A delicious tapered yellow pepper that turns red when fully ripe. (Jan Antohi was a touring acrobat when he defected to the U.S. In late 1991, he returned from a visit to his family in Romania with the seeds of this treasure.)
  • Rosa Bianca Eggplant: This Italian eggplant has stunning light pink fruits with occasional creamy white shading.
  • Waltham Butternut Squash: Prized for its rich, dry, yellow-orange flesh, nutty flavor, and high-yielding vines.
  • Red Russian Kale (aka Ragged Jack): A rare strain with tender, frilly, purple-veined blue-green leaves tinged with reddish-purple and a mild sweet flavor.

Among the heirloom flowers featured this year are:

  • Mexican Sunflower 'Torch': Branching plants grow 4-6' high with fiery orange 2-3" flowers that attract lots of butterflies. A favorite because of its extremely long blooming period.
  • Bachelor's Buttons "Blue Boy": Growing up to 3' tall on tough silvery stems, this flower will bloom all season. "Blue Boy" was cultivated by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello.
  • Love-in-the-Mist 'Persian Jewels': A delicate-looking, hardy, self-seeding annual, this plant tolerates poor soil and produces flowers that are a mixture of blue, white, pink, and crimson shades and black seedpods that last indefinitely in dried arrangements. Native to Southern Europe and Northern Africa, it was cultivated in gardens before 1548.

New this year will be "rainbow" vegetable six-packs featuring three varieties per pack grown from seeds from Renee's Garden, a seed company owned by Felton resident Renee Shepherd, who has introduced international vegetables, flowers, and herbs to home gardeners and gourmet restaurants.

Returning this year will be an impressive array of peppers, representing all spots on the flavor spectrum from sweet to mild to hot. Among the lovely perennials that will be available are columbine, coral bells, statice, and Japanese anemone. The flower selection will include a wide variety of sunflowers, yarrows, zinnias, alstroemeria, roses, and penstemons.

This year's lettuce selection will feature new varieties and time-honored heirlooms from the five basic classes: loose leaf, butterhead, romaine, iceburg, and batavian. A number of tasty crosses between butter and romaine lettuces will be available, too. The vegetable selection also includes six-packs of broccoli, cauliflower, salad mix, and Asian greens. The tomato selection will include Camp Joy Cherry, Sungold, Crimson Carmello, Brandywine, Stupice, Red and Yellow Pear, and Rainbow's End. Medicinal and culinary herbs will also be available.

Sponsored by the Friends of the Farm & Garden and the Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems, the sale will benefit the UCSC Apprenticeship in Ecological Horticulture. For more information, call (831) 459-3240.