I’ve recently submitted my second essay for my ethnobotany course, and I chose to write it on the way that the history of heritage vegetable varieties (their origin stories) influences the choice people make to grow them. Whether or not I share any more of it with you will depend, in part, on whether it turns out to be any good 😉

In the course of my research I came across an interesting article by Derrick Purdue who did some research into people who save seeds in the west of England. He divides them into four ‘tribes’:

  • ‘Botanic’ – people inspired by our botanic garden heritage, interested in plant families and endangered species
  • ‘Biodynamic’ – people inspired by Steiner and New Age spirituality, who are motivated by improving the fertility of seed
  • ‘Organic’ – people inspired by the organic gardening movement, and motivated by the current biodiversity crisis to preserve heritage vegetables
  • ‘Permaculture’ – people inspired by the work of Mollison and committed to forest gardens and sustainability by design to save seed from perennial vegetables

Clearly there’s going to be some overlap between the categories, and a certain amount of over-simplification – it’s par for the course in anthropology/ ethnobotany, I’m afraid.

My essay concentrated on the heritage varieties available from the Heritage Seed Library and similar organisations overseas. (A sponsored vegetable, or membership to the HSL, makes a good Christmas gift for a gardener, by the way 😉 I have been a member for years, and love reading the stories printed in the catalogue each year and wondering about the paths seeds have taken to get to me.

Daubenton kale plants in Patrick Whitefield’s garden, photo copyright Patrick Whitefield

One of the varieties I chose last year was the perennial Daubenton’s Kale. I have grown it myself, from a cutting (if you’re looking for your own then have a word with Alison from Backyard Larder and she may be able to hook you up), and was under the impression that it didn’t set seed. And yet there it was, in the HSL catalogue. And I had been trying to root some cuttings to pass on to a friend, but I failed miserably (Alison can’t understand why, as it should be easy 😉 and so I ordered the seeds not for myself, but for him.

And I’m thrilled to say that he has had success growing the seeds, and has some young plants flourishing in his garden:

“I sowed them early in the spring and planted out two strong plants. Then I had to go off and teach a course in May and, despite leaving them surrounded by a generous cordon of bran, the slugs duly defoliated them. So I resowed, many more plants this time.

To my surprise the first lot recovered and started growing again, so I had both lots in the ground. Then I went away on another course and the cabbage whites defoliated the spring sowing again and did a fair bit of damage to the second sowing. But both lots have regrown! What an amazing plant.”

Daubenton kale in Patrick Whitefield’s garden, photo copyright Patrick Whitefield

What living history are you growing in your garden?

Purdue, D.A. (2000). Backyard Biodiversity: Seed Tribes in the West of England, Science as Culture 9(2):141-166.