Saving seeds of the future from threats of the present

 

ANOTHER LIFE: IN BETWEEN the leeks and the courgettes a little clump of redundant lettuce is heading for half a metre tall. As one of the newer varieties with leaves that you pluck as you want them, this ultimate bolting into frilly green towers has made them simply too pretty to toss on the compost heap.

Shooting up into flower, they also offer the chance to save their seeds. Most vegetables don’t flower and set seed until their second year; ­brassicas, for example, erupt in spring in clouds of yellow blossom that bumble bees adore, while many leftover root vegetables send up tall flower heads to remind us of their origins in umbelliferal flowers of the wayside.

The Irish Seed Savers Association website (irishseedsavers.ie) currently pictures the golden sprays that parsnips put up, for example, and carrots can be no less rewarding. Salsify, on the other hand, once gave me a show of tall and exquisite amethyst daisies, opening and closing with the sun, and ultimate seed heads like giant dandelion clocks.

Asparagus kale offered pods for hanging up to dry in brown paper bags, rattling out thousands of seeds that stayed viable for years. But that is an old-fashioned, naturally pollinated plant, whereas seeds of the many hybridised varieties of brassica (the cabbage family) and of other hybrid vegetables may grow disappointingly or not at all. My bolting lettuce, of the Lollo Biondi family, comes from the modern breeding of new lettuce shapes and colours, and its progeny could also be uncertain.

The great success of Irish Seed Savers in rescuing heirloom plant varieties goes back to its pioneering founder, Anita Hayes, an American agricultural student who moved to Ireland with her husband, Tommy, in 1989.

Disturbed by what she knew of the world’s rapid loss of genetic diversity, and inspired by Iowa’s Seed Savers Exchange, she founded the Irish Seed Savers Association (Issa).

When, in 1992, this column asked, “Does anyone grow Irish Peach now? Or Kerry Pippins?”, Hayes was already on the trail of Ireland’s forgotten apple trees, still fruiting in mossy corners across the island.

Today, after covering thousands of kilometres that built on the original travels (by bicycle in the 1940s) of UCD’s Dr Keith Lamb, Issa grows no fewer than 140 Irish apple varieties at its base at Carraroe, Co Clare, and sells grafted seedlings to its growing legion of supporters.

On a vastly different scale, but identical in spirit, Russia’s famous Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry, near St Petersburg, grows trees and bushes to conserve some 5,500 distinct varieties of apple, pear, cherry and other fruit plants, few of which exist anywhere else.

As I write, it seems that only an edict from Premier Putin will save its orchards from being bulldozed for housing development, a prospect that has shocked plant scientists across the world.

The founder of the institute, Nikolai Vavilov, scoured the continents in the 1920s and 1930s to amass the world’s first seed bank of fruits, vegetables and grains. He found eight distinct global hot spots of astonishing genetic variation, including hundreds of ancient varieties of wheat, for example, in just one pocket of the Ethiopian plateau. He saw these as founding centres for the wider evolution of agriculture.

Vavilov fell foul, however, of the political ambitions and pseudo-science of Trofim Lysenko, notorious for his treatment of geneticists in his rise to power over Soviet agriculture, until he found himself arrested in 1940.

A year later, as Hitler’s army besieged Leningrad, some of his scientists let themselves starve to death rather than eat the packets of seeds in their care – such, anyway, is a celebrated story – and Vavilov himself died in prison in 1944. Only in 1968 was his name restored to the institute.

Today, the better-known world seed bank is the Global Seed Vault, opened in 2008 on Norway’s barren Arctic archipelago of Svalbard (formerly Spitzbergen). Housed deep in an ice-cold mountain, it is the planet’s ultimate back-up reserve of biodiversity in crop seeds, holding duplicates from seed banks against the risk of Armageddon and the hazards of climate change.

By this summer they numbered 526,000 samples from nearly every country, including Ireland. Teagasc’s research centre at Oak Park, Co Carlow, has sent boxes totalling several million seeds, mostly of ryegrass and clover, but also of cocksfoot, timothy and fescue, all native grasses. The Department of Agriculture has added boxes of oats, barley and wheat.

Exploring the lodgments online (at nordgen.org/sgsv), I have been fascinated by the exotic variety of seeds on deposit, from indigo and bundleflower to sesame and hibiscus. In the same column of English equivalents to scientific plant names, I was disconcerted to find “nightshade” listed among the contributions from Oak Park. Eventually the confused translation dawned: the potato is a somewhat less deadly member of the plant family of Solanum.

Eye on nature

I watched our two resident breeding wood pigeons squat flat in the short grass near our bird bath for about an hour, preening and extending a wing at a time skyward. They then took turns in the bird bath. Were they anting?

David Grant, Waterford

The wood pigeons were resting and grooming, as both have been sitting on the nest, incubating eggs and feeding nestlings.

I saw a wasp land on a dragonfly and sever its head with its pincers.

Andrew Trentham, Eyrecourt, Co Galway

It can happen either way: a wasp will kill and eat a dragonfly, and several species of dragonfly kill and eat wasps.

A few times I have been surprised to see goldfinches feeding on gutweed in an estuary near where I live. Would they have some nutritional reason for doing so, or were there insects in it?

Niall Power, Rush, Co Dublin

They were picking insects for their nestlings.

I have frequently observed a pine marten around my house and garden, once with a pigeon in its mouth. Another time it jumped up on the window sill and put its paws on the glass within two feet of me.

Jack Foley, Cootehill, Co Cavan


Michael Viney welcomes observations at Thallabawn, Carrowniskey PO, Westport, Co Mayo, or viney@anu.ie. Please include a postal address