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SEEDS OF DIVERSITY:What are Heritage Varieties?

by Garrett Pittenger


Perhaps the best definition is "varieties at risk": those kinds of cultivated plants that, regardless of age or historical record, are in danger of disappearing from cultivation. Included in this concept are several classes of cultivated plants.

Land races are stable mixtures of crop plants that were grown by ancient farmers and their successors, often in or near the primary or secondary centers of origin of those crops. These "varieties" are the living artifacts from a time when farming was associated with subsistence agriculture, in which crop variability was an important survival strategy. Many of the samples of grains in government gene banks are land races brought back from collecting expeditions. These often possess genes of potential significance in plant breeding, and many have disappeared along with the decline of the subsistence farming systems that supported them.

Folk varieties are cultivated varieties of plants that were developed, grown and exchanged informally among gardeners and farmers. These originated among a particular people or culture and are perpetuated for their valued special qualities and significance. In North America we have a rich mosaic of cultivated plants. Many folk varieties have disappeared in their homelands but survive among growers in North America. Some continue in commercial use to this day. ‘Oxheart’ tomato, and ‘Jacob’s Cattle’ and ‘Soldier’ beans are examples.

Founded on the folk varieties are the improved varieties from the past century and a half up to the present. Often highly developed strains, but considered obsolete because they do not fit modern mechanized production systems, these include once popular favorites ‘Golden Bantam’ sweet corn, ‘Neal’s Yellow Dent’ and ‘King Philip’ field corns, ‘Irish Cobbler’ and ‘Early Rose’ potatoes. Following these are the originations of private seed houses and publicly funded plant breeding programs in the universities and government-sponsored experiment stations. The ‘Rutgers’ tomato, ‘Buttercup’ squash and a good portion of the "old fashioned" rose varieties could be included here.

Species of plants that currently live or formerly existed in natural habitats and which are cultivated in their "unimproved" state are another important group. Many ornamental plants fall into this category. Cultivated specimens of Paphiopedilum delenatii, the Vietnamese pink lady slipper orchid, are all descended from two original collections of wild material that has never been rediscovered in its natural state. The few original Saintpaulia (African violet) species imported from limited habitats in East Africa in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century are the progenitors of today’s commercially important house plant. The wild relatives of our cultivated vegetables and fruits are notable for their importance in breeding programs to impart insect and disease resistance. Hope for the development of new crops and the improvement of old ones rests on preservation of wild populations and the genetic variation that they represent and reproduce.

Clones of species have been selected from wild or cultivated populations as fortuitous mutations. The pink dogwood, Cornus florida rubra, the dwarf Alberta spruce, the weeping hemlock and the named clones of thornless honey locust (‘Moraine’, ‘Shademaster’ and others) are noteworthy examples in ornamental horticulture. Most of the high quality pecans, hickories, black walnuts and saskatoons were discovered in the wild and subsequently propagated by grafting. In many instances, the early advances in the cultivation of new crops have depended on wild selections. Only much later did deliberate plant breeding (including that done by farmers as well as scientific institutions) contribute significantly to their improvement.

The heritage of our cultivated plants represents an enormous accumulation of wealth, the result of generations of natural evolution; the cumulative efforts of selection by millions of gardeners and farmers from the earliest days of agriculture to the scientific breeding of recent years; and the enormous amounts of time and money expended over the past few centuries of global plant exploration and collection. The advances in modern breeding and genetic engineering (whatever your views on it may be) depend on the foundation of that accumulated capital. Its value can only be comprehended by imagining what resources it would take to replace it, if that were indeed possible. Its perpetuation involves both the preservation of wild populations and plant communities within larger ecosystems and the maintenance of all the heritage varieties in our farms, gardens, botanical gardens and gene banks.

Copyright 1996. Garrett Pittenger.

Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

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