Designer crops cropping up on seed websites, in catalogs

farm-droughtIt’s chic to have a backyard garden full of fancy new produce, and nurseries and seed companies are competing to bring gardeners the most colorful and flavorful designer edibles possible.

“People have always sought out new colors and plants for the flower garden, so it’s only natural that the gardener’s pursuit of unusual, rare or new plant varieties would extend to the vegetable garden and orchard,” said Tony Banks, a commodity marketing specialist for Virginia Farm Bureau Federation.

“This isn’t a new phenomenon, but with today’s renewed interest in vegetable gardening and greater access to gardening information and seed sources, there is a demand for these so-called designer crops. The attraction of many of these plants is their unusual colors. Color sells, so plant breeders and seed companies are offering a great selection of colors such as yellow and boldly striped tomatoes, purple and yellow radishes, pink pumpkins and more.”

NPR’s blog The Salt recently published an article naming the top new designer crops for 2014.

Glass Gem corn has translucent rainbow kernels that look more like Swarovski crystals than food. It is a flint corn, not a sweet corn, so it cannot be eaten fresh, but it can be dried and popped for popcorn or ground for polenta or cornbread.

The Indigo Rose tomato was developed with genetic material from wild tomatoes from Chile and the Galapagos Islands. It gets its pigmentation from anthocyanin, the compound that gives blueberries and eggplants their hue.

The pineberry, or pineapple strawberry, has a dramatic color contrast and notes of pineapple flavor. It first appeared in the 1750s in europe as a cross between an American wild strawberry and a Chilean strawberry. It was a poor producer until 2003, when a Dutch strawberry breeder stepped in to transform it into a stronger plant. Pineberries are now available for the first time in the United States.

Oca is a stubby tuber native to Bolivia and Peru that comes in a rainbow of colors from bright pink to dark red to light yellow. When eaten raw, the different varieties taste similar to celery, chestnut or apple. They also can be boiled or fried.

Wasabi is a green-colored root with heart-shaped leaves. It comes from the same family as cabbage, radishes and broccoli and often is enjoyed alongside sushi as a dollop of green paste. That paste, however, often contains more horseradish and green dye than actual wasabi root. Researchers with Washington State University’s extension service worked with 20 different cultivars of wasabi to find one that is suitable for backyard gardening.





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