TBT: Preserving Old Varieties

On Saturday I wrote a bit about an arrangement my neighbor and I have regarding my fig trees and grapevines:  I grow them, he picks them—and makes them into delicious preserves.  He’s also provided me with heirloom broccoli plants, which I shamefully think have largely died (though two stalks have somehow soldiered on through the hot summer months; I’m surprised they survived the heat!), and he grows an impressive garden himself.

So when casting about for this week’s TBT feature, this post about the Bradford watermelon—a variety thought lost to the world—fit neatly with what was already fresh on my mind.

There is so much variety out there compared to what the supermarkets put on offer.  We’d probably all be a lot happier and a good bit healthier if we tried some of these old varieties.

With that, here is 24 August 2021’s “Preserving Old Varieties“:

My local paper, the Darlington New & Press, features a number of editorial writers typical of the kind that get gigs writing human interest pieces for tiny small town papers:  local pastors writing brief devotionals; a guy griping about the things we all gripe about; an astronomer.  They all write in a similar, mildly folksy manner, which I’m sure appeals to the more advanced age of the paper’s readership.

One of their writers, Tom Poland, wrote a fascinating piece last week about rare heirloom vegetables, “Long-lost treasures and heirloom seeds.”  The piece tracks down the Bradford Watermelon, a watermelon variety thought to be extinct, but which survived on the land Nat Bradford inherited from his family.  The watermelon variety dwindled in popularity in spite of its sweet, superior flavor because the rind was too thin to survive bulk shipping.

After years of research into arcane newspaper clippings and agricultural history, Bradford discovered that the melons growing on his ancestral farm are, indeed, the legendary Bradford Watermelons.

To quote Poland quoting Bradford:

In Nat’s words, “The greatest watermelon to have come from the great age of watermelon breeding fell out of cultivation. Lost to the world, the melon lived on in the Bradford family farm fields. The last seeds on the planet of this wonderful melon were in a couple of mason jars.”

What a remarkable legacy—and a fortuitous one.  Heirloom varieties of many plants are enjoying increased interest lately as part of the current homesteading movement, as these varieties are often tastier than their supermarket, genetically-modified alternatives.

I suspect, too, that there is a certain joy in knowing that by planting these forgotten seeds, you are directly contributing to the survival of a variety.  There is a link to the past, and the agricultural experiments of our forebears.

I’ve thought about this idea more lately, as I’ve been growing my own feeble garden.  My dog, Murphy, has also gotten me to consider breeds, varieties, etc.  The bull terrier was bred initially as a fighting dog, but then was re-bred into the distinctive, dinosaur-snouted breed it is today by John Hinks, who sought to turn the creature into a gentleman’s companion.

Outside of massive agribusiness research departments, do people breed, cultivate, and develop varieties and new breeds any more?  I know that Jackie Clay-Atkinson, a regular contributor to Backwoods Home Magazine, started a seed business to help preserve a variety of squash.  But is anyone cultivating new varieties from heirloom seeds?

For that matter, are there new breeds of dogs being raised?  There is the goldendoodle, of course, a mix between golden retrievers and poodles.  I also recently discovered the bullmatian, a Dalmatian-Bulldog mix.  From what I have read, almost all of the established breeds were bred to do some kind of job:  hunt for pests, guard and guide sheep, protect their homes, and the like.  In an age of exterminators, supermarkets, and home security systems, there’s not quite the same need for working dogs as there was even one hundred years ago.

Still, I’m curious:  is anyone out there trying to create the next breed of dog?  Are there any modern Mendel’s cross-pollinating peas?

I suspect there are.  If so, we should celebrate their efforts.  I’m not opposed to genetically-modified organisms, per se—we’ve been genetically-modifying plants and animals since settled living began—but I like knowing there are varieties in existence beyond what imposing industrial farms are making.  Those industrial GMOs have fed millions and produce massive yields, but they are also highly dependent upon a cocktail of fertilizers, pesticides, and all other manner of chemicals and machinery to grow correctly.

That’s all fine, but what happens when it all collapses?  Preserving and maintaining some hardy, delicious, ancient varieties seems prudent.

It also seems like a great deal of fun, and a hands-on way to honor our ancestors, whose gardening ingenuity sustained us in less abundant times.


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