I often tell my seed customers that seeds are alive. Many seem puzzled by this, but it is true. They may be dormant, and some seeds require very specific conditions to break dormancy and germinate, but as long as they remain viable, seeds are living things. It has always been a source of fascination for me that something as small as a pinhead can hold all the information necessary to replicate its parent, given the proper conditions for growth, and assuming it is not a hybrid or genetically modified.
Hybrid plants are crosses of two similar plants, such as tomatoes, but can also occur within a plant category. For example, broccoli (a brassica) can cross with any other brassica such as cauliflower, kale, brussel sprouts or collards. This can and does occur naturally, but is also the means by which plant breeders create new varieties, selecting for specific traits. It can take years and generations of such crosses to create the desired result. And if “grown out” for several more generations, a hybrid can become a stabilized “open pollinated” variety. In fact many heirloom varieties once were hybrids. Modern plant breeders are fond of patenting their creations, thus limiting dissemination (at least legally) of the variety. This is why heirlooms are so desirable.
Heirloom plants (and seeds) are open-pollinated. That is, seed saved from an open-pollinated plant will produce an identical plant. It is how our ancestors grew, saving the best of a crop for the following season, selecting for best taste or other traits. Such seed could be carried with them as they migrated to new environs. Many of the seeds grown by Thomas Jefferson, one of the great horticulturists of early America, were collected by him during his European journeys, or by the Lewis & Clark Expedition for Jefferson. It is gratifying that these varieties still exist, in their original genetic form, having been handed down through the generations.
The diversity of open-pollinated heirlooms is astounding! Sadly, dissemination of heirlooms is diminishing, as more and more seed producers/sellers limit their offerings of heirlooms to just a few, opting instead for hybrids, especially patented varieties. Why? Because customers must return each season to purchase such seed, whereas seed produced by heirloom plants can be saved by gardeners for the following year. Although many heirloom varieties are saved in seed “banks” we have lost 93% of the variety in our food crops in the past 80 years!
Our future as a species depends on seed diversity. There are growing threats, however, including climate change, corporate consolidation of seed suppliers, and breeders who select for uniformity and other commercially desirable qualities. A frightening example comes from Canada. USC Canada reports that “in the last 60 years, the average Canadian potato lost 100 per cent of its vitamin A content, 57 per cent of its vitamin C and iron, and 28 per cent of calcium. Most of the world’s potatoes are bred for French fries.”
And we wonder why there is an obesity problem worldwide. Food for thought.
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It’s about time you shared your gardening expertise with everyone. Even if we don’t have gardens it’s so important to know what’s going on with our food and food supply as recalls seem to be on the increase. We all have to be proactive.