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Heritage or Hybrid?

Heritage plants represent a collective effort to preserve the genes of natural plants and foods.

I wish I had a loonie for every time I’ve heard someone lament over garden plants. “Those sweet peas don’t smell as good as they used to… Store-bought tomatoes don’t taste like tomatoes.”

We probably all have memories of our grandparents’ gardens: ripe red tomatoes that tasted like tomatoes rather than cardboard, brilliant coloured flowers that bloomed profusely and smelled divine, apples that weren’t perfect in shape, but made the best pies.

Somehow, these old varieties seemed better than many of the offerings we see on the glossy pages of so many commercial seed catalogues—particularly from big international companies. Listings are dominated by modern F1 hybrids, producers of uniform blooms, or vegetables, or fruit.

Maybe the sweet peas are huge, or the tomatoes will store longer, or the apples are perfectly round and red—but will they stand up to the winds of a coastal garden, grow well without resort to chemical warfare, or taste or smell as they should?

In some cases, practicality wins out over taste. With food plants, commercial growers demand crops of uniform size and colour, that grow in a wide number of climates, ripen all at once, and keep well on store shelves.

Plant breeders have responded by developing cultivated varieties exhibiting the desired tendencies for growth, harvest, and storage. Flavour is often what is lost in the process. The huge multinational corporations which own many larger seed companies are profit-driven, and tend to push consumers, whether commercial or backyard growers, into F1 hybrids. Hybrids produce high yields, often of uniform size and colour and quality, but also often frequently perform best only with administration of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to feed and protect them from disease and pests. Coincidentally (or not), such products are also often produced by those same companies.

Hybrids grow well in a wide array of climatic conditions, a benefit for large companies wanting to capture worldwide markets. These hybrids do not breed true from seed, if they even produce seed at all. So you or your farming neighbour are destined to be repeat customers of the multinationals.

Losing Genetic Variety

In the United States, the Seed Savers Exchange estimates that 90 per cent of food crops grown in the early 20th century are no longer commercially available, and that two-thirds of the 5,000 open-pollinated varieties available in 1984 had disappeared a decade later. The United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that during the 20th century, 75 per cent of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops was lost.

A few months ago, a modest article ran in a number of papers worldwide mentioning that another decade could see a world with no bananas. Two fungal diseases are wreaking havoc on the banana crop (with uncomfortable echoes of the potato famine that devastated Ireland in the 19th century). Bananas come from a tiny gene pool, with just one variety being grown on almost all commercial plantations today, leaving the crop highly vulnerable to new pathogens. While the loss of bananas may only mean an inconvenience for people in the northern hemisphere, up to half-a-billion people in developing countries could face harm if deprived of this food staple.

Embracing Heritage Varieties

The way to mitigate concerns about genetically modified organisms and related issues is to take up growing heritage plants from seed. Nurturing heritage or heirloom vegetables, fruits and ornamentals is increasing in popularity and also offers us intriguing glimpses into our agricultural heritage. Since these plants aren’t hybridized, they come true from seed, or are perennials propagated by division rather than from seed. For those concerned about pesticide residues, most heritage plants thrive under an organic regime because they tend to have natural disease and pest resistance that has sustained them over the centuries.

Kim Edmondson of Keswick Ridge, NB, became interested in saving seeds after learning about the Heritage Seed Program (now called Seeds of Diversity). “My grandmother always gardened and gave me some flower seeds at about the same time, and I wanted to keep them going.” Her initial interest led Edmondson to establish her family-operated business, Hope Seeds and Perennials, in 1997. She is dedicated to preserving Maritime heritage varieties as well as other open-pollinated types particularly suited to growing in Maritime conditions.

Kim says many people are interested in growing heritage plants because of concerns over genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. As more people become aware, they are starting to question how their food is grown, and where and how the plants they use in their own gardens are produced. While GMOs are a concern, she worries more about the diminishing gene pool in plants.

“Globally, the safety of the seed supply, especially in some places, is in jeopardy, partly because people are losing the traditional knowledge of how to save seeds. Basically our food destiny is in the hands of a few huge companies. It’s important to educate people about that.”

Many of the varieties Kim offers in her catalogue are very rare, developed locally. She sees the uncommonness of her seeds as another appealing aspect of working with heritage plants. “It’s a type of community building. In getting samples from people, you also collect a little bit of the history that goes along with the plants and seeds, and that’s important. It’s a bit of our agricultural heritage, it’s interesting to hear where the seeds came from, who brought them to the local area, who has kept them going.”   

Supporting Local Seed Companies 

People are also interested in supporting local business, by purchasing locally grown seed. There’s also a practical aspect in buying local. “If you buy seed that was grown originally in the southern U.S. or in Britain, it might not do so well in our cooler climate,” Edmondson says.

Pam Frail and Cathy Millner operate The Rock Garden, the only certified organic greenhouse operation in Nova Scotia. Their selection of plants and transplants includes many heritage varieties.

“We started our business by dividing and propagating the perennials we had in our own gardens, many of which were heritage varieties,” says Frail. “Our interest in heritage vegetables comes from our being certified organic.”

Open pollinated varieties tend to be hardier and easier to produce under organic conditions. While Frail and Millner don’t produce seed themselves, they buy from a number of smaller seed operations because they can get the open pollinated and heritage type plants they prefer.

Cathy Millner says tomatoes are one vegetable that heritage variety buffs seek out regularly. We all know and despise those hard, pale, and flavourless things passing for tomatoes in some stores; the identical sized globes packed into plastic baskets and tightly wrapped in cellophane. They’ve been bred over the years for their uniform size and shape, and their ability to ripen all at once and keep for long periods of time. To develop all these characteristics, something had to be sacrificed: in this case, that something is flavour.

Enthusiasts of real tomatoes seek out heritage varieties such as Banana Legs, Pink Pear, Brandywine Yellow, Black Krim. Millner observes: “There are so many interesting varieties, you almost want to grow them just for their looks!” Most people, however, grow the heritage types for their flavour, and many carefully save seeds year after year to preserve the precious genes.

Saving Your Own Seed

Planning to grow heritage varieties, and perhaps save and exchange seeds? Different types of seed require different methods to preserve them and help them to germinate. Save seeds from the very best of your plants, the biggest tomato plant, the sunflower with the finest blooms, the bean bush that was healthiest and bore the most beans. Storage containers to keep the seeds dry are important, though faithful seed savers store their seeds in everything from envelopes to Mason jars to specially-made tins.

Just Whose Genes Are They, Anyway?

Gardeners are a generous breed, always willing to share seeds or plant divisions. It’s fine for me to share my heritage annual poppy seeds, or to dig a sucker from the old fashioned rugosa rose that’s turning from one plant into a hedge. But if I were to propagate a cutting of my Morden sunrise rosebush to give to another gardener, or saved seeds from a newer cultivar of vegetable or flower, I’d actually be committing plant theft of sorts.

The Canadian Plant Breeders’ Rights Act came into effect in 1990, and makes it possible for plant breeders to legally protect the fruits of their labour. Newly developed plant varieties can be protected under the PBR for up to 18 years from exploitation by others. It’s essentially patenting or copyrighting a new plant.

Plant breeders can invest years and much expense in developing a new variety of plant, be it for food, medicinal or ornamental purposes. Certainly they deserve to be compensated for their work, but do they own the raw material of life?

Kim Edmondson doesn’t believe plant life should be patented. “If somebody develops something that is unique and usable, they should have royalties, but I don’t think they should hold a patent and be able to dominate that group of genes because it could be important for some other reason.  If they’re able to do it with plants, they’ll be able to do it with other things.”

With heritage varieties of plants, you don’t have to worry about treading on a plant breeder’s rights. So dig up a clump of that old-fashioned bleeding heart for your neighbour, or share the seeds of lupine, Caspian pink tomato, or beurre de rocquencourt wax beans with fellow seed savers.

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