Back by popular demand! Part II of the appeal on behalf of Garden Organic, in its effort to save rare and endangered vegetable cultivars. Part I appeared yesterday–technically, the day before yesterday, but I refuse to call it that, since I've only slept once since posting that part. Onwards–
Source: Garden Organic, on-line newsletter, Endangered Seed Appeal, March 2009.
So, you want to know what heirloom vegetables are? Sit down nicely, children, and granny will explain.
Once upon a time back at the green dawn of the world, all seeds were open-pollinated by wind, gravity, or insects. Horticulturalists (once they came along) developed a particular flower or vegetable strain by painstakingly selecting plants that had the look or smell or taste they liked, saving and planting their seeds, and when they sprouted, discarding seedlings and plants that did not have the desired traits and saving seeds from those that did.
The strains that were developed in this way are known as heirloom plants, and at one time there were thousands of them for us to choose from.* Because they were developed through the process described above, in which seeds are saved only from plants that exhibited the bloom color, or fruit size, or cold tolerance aimed at, seeds from heirloom plants can be saved and planted, and they will reliably produce plants like the parent plants. (Cross-pollination from another nearby variety may occur occasionally, but in general heirloom plants run true to type.)
Then, in the grey autumn of the world, (yes, I know I’m mixing my metaphors), scientists experimented with hand-pollinating plants (applying the male pollen from one variety to the female stigma of another) to produce what are known as hybrids. The first tomato hybrid, the “Burpee Hybrid,” came on-line in 1945. Hybrid vegetables have been bred to resist disease, to grow to a uniform size, color, and shape, and to survive the rigors of transportation to distant markets.
Taste, you may note, is not on the list of desired traits, and it shows. Nor was variety a goal; rather, brand recognition, which is necessarily limited to a few select cultivars, became increasingly important. As a result, the number of varieties dwindled, and many heirloom vegetables became endangered and in some cases extinct.
In the British Isles, where hundreds of heirloom varieties have nearly or entirely disappeared, The Heritage Seed Library is dedicated to finding and preserving these many cultivars.
Here’s the exciting part: Seeds for the Library are collected not only from its own gardens, but also from gardeners who act as Seed Guardians, volunteers who raise specific varieties under prescribed conditions and send the seeds back to the Library. The Orphan’s List (Isn’t that a great name?)—the list of varieties needing Guardians—goes out in March, so it should still be possible to participate. If not, there’s always next year.
This is a marvellous way to put gardening expertise to work for a good cause. I like to think of it as preserving the past for the future.
I'm not sure I qualify to participate, here on this side of the water, so I'm hoping to inspire (or bully) some of you folks on the other side to get on the stick and do the necessary.
* The term heirloom originally applied only to cultivars that were passed down within a family or community and that had bred true for forty years or more. (Some purists insisted on a hundred years.) More recently, heirloom has become almost synonymous with the term open-pollinated (OP), which applies to plants that may have been developed more recently, some of them (gasp) for commercial use and distribution, but through essentially the same process as that followed to develop traditional heirloom varieties.