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Buy a piece of edible history

CENTRAL POINT — Gardeners will be able to buy a piece of growing history at the old Hanley Farm on Saturday.

Heirloom tomato plants, along with many other garden vegetables and flowers that would have been grown on the farm when it was young, will be among some 10,000 plants that will be offered for sale from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

"A lot of our varieties go back to the 1800s," said Lori McTaggart, who works at the picturesque farm at 1053 Hanley Road, which is owned and operated by the Southern Oregon Historical Society. "These are varieties that could have been brought out here by settlers. The beauty of heirlooms is that you can save the seed.

"And the seed runs true," she added. "What you plant is what you get, again and again and again."

The tomato plants being offered include 34 varieties, most of which are heirloom, including Brandywine, Cherokee purple, great white, pineapple and potato-leaf tomatoes.

There will also be a variety of vegetables, from cucumbers to zucchini, as well as annual and perennial flowers. Young fruit trees will be available.

In addition to the plant sale, activities will include a food booth operated by Dutch oven expert Will McLaughlin of Jacksonville and a draft horse demonstration by the Southern Oregon Draft and Harness Association. Access to the farm is free.

A composting class also will be offered by expert Denny Morelli. Admission to that class is $10 per person.

America's economic slump has drawn a lot of folks back to backyard gardening. Interest in heirloom varieties has increased, too, McTaggart said.

"People are thinking ahead that if they can't get seed, or varieties I like are discontinued, then at least I will have my own," she said. "Saving the seeds is easy. And it makes you feel good."

Proceeds from the sale of the plants, most of which are grown in a new greenhouse on the farm, support the historical society.

Michael F. Hanley bought the original 636-acre farm in the late 1850s from Central Point homesteaders for $3,000 cash.

His direct descendants — sisters Mary, Martha and Claire — were the last family members to live on the farm, which has been reduced to 37 acres over the years. It was deeded to the SOHS in 1982 by Mary Hanley.

Several fruit trees planted by the original Hanleys, including a Gravenstein apple, an Italian plum, a fig and a persimmon — still thrive. Lilacs, willows and snowball bushes that were propagated from old Hanley plants will be sold Saturday.

"You will be able to own a little piece of the Hanley history," McTaggart said.

Most of the plants were grown in the new greenhouse built with funds from a Meyer Memorial Trust grant. A blower in the greenhouse is heated by a deep gravel bed on the floor that absorbs heat during the day, explained Chelsea Fine, program assistant at the farm.

"It circulates air from the ground that is stored overnight," she said. "Even when the sun is not out the heat flux is not that extreme."

While the greenhouse has produced a rich variety of regular crops, the focus has been on heirloom varieties, in part to help celebrate Oregon's 150th anniversary this year.

"We're excited to introduce the public to these old-time varieties," McTaggart reiterated. "I'm sure most people haven't seen these."

Consider, for example, the pineapple tomato.

"What's striking about it is the color," she said. "It is basically a yellow tomato but when you slice it open it has red inside. It is absolutely gorgeous."

Or the Paul Robeson, a Russian heirloom black tomato named for the prominent African-American singer and actor who went to Russia in the 1930s. It is packed with flavor, McTaggart said.

"It is just about everybody's favorite out here," she said. "We really enjoy that tomato."

The greenhouse is stuffed with 20 different kinds of peppers, some as mild as a cucumber, others, firecracker hot.

One heirloom variety is the California wonder bell pepper dating back to the 1920s. There are habañeros, too, the kind that burn your tongue just by uttering the word. And they have a mild jalapeno.

"You get the flavor without the heat," McTaggart said.

With the innocent-looking padron peppers, you could get both. Although most of them are mild, about every tenth pepper is hotter than blazes, she said.

"It adds some interest to our lives," she concluded.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

Golf balls are used to coax hens into laying eggs at Hanley Farm. The farm’s annual plant sale is scheduled for Saturday. - Jamie Lusch