Some jubilation is in order, for recent news has been dominated by stories of a general revival of Britain’s agricultural heritage. In the 1970’s, EU regulations concerning the stringency of seed testing, and also the unprecedented rise in commercial and individual popularity of foreign produce, meant that many of our traditional varieties were no longer grown and indeed thousands became extinct. However, a recent relaxation in the rules, the devotion of a few to Britain’s ancient cultivars and, more so, a sudden surge of nostalgia for culturally specific species, has meant that many are seeing a welcome revival.
Two examples of this horticultural patriotism can be found in the Brighstone Bean and the Martock Bean, both of which faced extinction less than half a century ago. However, thanks to the selflessness of one Rhoda Cutbush, species like the crimson-flowered broad bean were granted a second chance at survival. Other older vegetables making a comeback are Tomato ‘Black Russian’, Sweetcorn ‘Ashworth’ and Carrot ‘Afghan Purple’. Many of the old varieties have a place in history too for the events they were named to commemorate – the ‘Trail of Tears Bean’ for example, was named by the Cherokee Indians, who took it with them when they were displaced by American settlers in 1838.
However, the credit for these cultivars’ revival does not go entirely to humans - open-pollination (the distribution of seed through natural means such as birds and insects) has been a major contributor to their increased propagation.
Referring the renewed interest in these ‘heirloom’ varieties, Chris Smith, co-owner of Pennard Plants, had this to say
"It results from the fact that people want to grow a variety of flavours that are good for the garden…
…They’re remembering what their grandparents grew and they want to do the same."
As Smith paraphrased, the majority of this assumed knowledge of heritage species stems from a time when residential agriculture was the status quo - even a civic duty, given the economic pressures of World War Two. Of course, the reality of this is that species originally intended for individual plots must now be adapted to meet their rising demand;
"Many varieties up until the 1920s, maybe later, were bred for gardeners rather than for growing twenty acres of it…
…We’re going back to a time when most people grew their own food and that’s when most of the varieties were developed."
Following the end of the second world war, attentions shifted to mass agriculture for the sake of increased land efficiency, a necessary step considering the limited land mass of the British isles and, as such, farmers leant toward tried and true species that could depended upon to yield in large and consistent numbers. However, regular cross-pollination of these varieties leads to the inevitable risk of failure, with the collective gene pool becoming so convoluted.
Toby Musgrave asserts the potential solution that could be found to this problem with the aid of our ‘heritage’ species.
"It is essential that we preserve the varieties and cultivars because we may well need them if one of these big commercial varieties fails…"
One gardener who aims to do just that, is Nicola Bradley, productive garden supervisor for the Lost Gardens of Heligan. Her expertise in heritage gardening is unsurpassed, as the major impetus of the project has been its restoration to the glory it enjoyed from the beginning of the Victorian era to the outbreak of The Great War. One of the initiatives favoured techniques is the use of fan training their fruit stocks, in a greenhouse for the more delicate species, but also outdoors with the cultivars durable enough to withstand the Cornish weather.
So, it is now incumbent upon us all to become familiar with the appropriate techniques and, if possible, raise and nurture some of these wonderful varieties in our own plots.
Finally, we have to award due credit to the plants themselves. The primary response when the public are pressed for the reasons behind devoting such effort to agriculture is often, simply, ‘It tastes better’.