One of the signature characteristics of heirloom plants is their regionality. Many varieties were developed in specific areas of the world, where over time they proved to be very well adapted. Organizations such as Seed Savers Exchange and Native Seeds/Search are well known for saving and redistributing heirloom varieties. Now a group is doing the same for varieties that were traditionally grown in the eastern United States.
The Eastern Native Seed Conservancy, established in 1993, helps educate gardeners about the medicinal and culinary herbs and vegetables that were grown by Native Americans as well as early American immigrants. This nonprofit group collects, propagates, distributes, and sells rare heirlooms with an eye toward keeping them in existence by having home gardeners grow plants and save the seeds.
Many varieties have a rich history. In colonial times, 'Fish' hot pepper was grown by African Americans in the Philadelphia area. It has variegated leaves and orange and brown striped fruit. It was, of course, used in fish cookery. 'Seneca Pinto' pole bean, grown by the Seneca tribe, who lived in what is now New York state, matures early to 5 feet tall; the beans can be eaten fresh or dried. (The conservancy offers this and other garden seeds traditionally grown by Native Americans free to tribal descendants.)
The Eastern Native Seed Conservancy also has an heirloom demonstration garden at the Bidwell House Museum in Monterey, Massachusetts, and hosts educational events such as an annual heirloom tomato tasting. Members receive the catalog and copies of their occasional newsletter. You'll also be helping to preserve heirloom varieties if you grow some of them and share seeds with other members. For more information, write or call the Eastern Native Plant Conservancy, Box 451, Great Barrington, MA 01230.