My hand-pollinated hybrid pea (sadly destroyed by a storm before it set seed) was an absolute beauty, made from a cross between two heirloom varieties
If you've been reading this blog for any length of time you'll know all about my purple pea quest, a project to breed my own personal idealised pea using the genes of my favourite heritage varieties. To start with, the project involved hand-crossing Alderman, a voluptuous Victorian pea in a flavour class of its own, with Mr Bethell's Purple Podded, a British family heirloom purple-podded variety with moderately good flavour compared to other purples. My aim is to breed something with the gorgeous looks and flavour of Alderman but in a purple version with pink or blue flowers. Why? Just for the hell of it. Alderman is lovely but I like pink or blue flowers better than white.
Or, to look at it the other way round, I love Mr Bethell's Purple Podded as it is but I'd love it even more if it had sweeter peas.
Although my plants were destroyed I'm starting again with another lot from the same 'sessions' and hope they'll turn out the same. They certainly should do, because they're F1 hybrids, which tend to be quite uniform. The next step in the project is to grow the F1 hybrids to maturity and collect as much seed from them as possible. Those seeds will be F2, and the offspring from them will be a hotchpotch of diversity from which I can select the plants I like best.
In fact these are so beautiful I think I'll do another gallery post soon to show them off ...
The purple colouring in pea pods is created by anthocyanin, which I mentioned in my purple sprouting broccoli post. It's a vacuolar flavonoid pigment. That didn't help did it? I don't know what it means either, but anthocyanin is also a very beneficial antioxidant, and it's not present in most green varieties. So purple varieties have nutritional advantages as well as looking quirky. (This applies not just to peas but to most other vegetables that have red or purple forms, like beans, carrots, broccoli and cauliflower ... and dark fruits like blackcurrants.) But only if you actually eat the purple bits. Alderman is a shelling pea and if I breed purple colouring into it I won't get any benefit from the anthocyanin because the pods just get discarded. The peas inside are green and don't contain the magic pigment.
So clearly while I'm at it I ought to try breeding a purple mangetout (snow) pea and a sugarsnap. And that's exactly what I'm planning to do this year.
I'm not the only person with an interest in purpling up the available pea range. Carol Deppe in her wonderful fabulous and unequalled plant breeding manual for amateurs Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties describes her own purple pea projects along with enough genetic information and practical detail for you to try it at home. You can also see some varieties under development at purplepeas.net. And Ben and Kate at The Real Seed Catalogue would like to be able to offer a really good purple mangetout in their catalogue. There isn't anything quite right at the moment but they have ideas about how they could develop one. Except that they're engrossed in courgette breeding projects and don't have time to take it on at the moment. So they asked me to do it for them.
It's very flattering to be asked to take on a project like this, because I must own up to being an entirely amateur plant breeder with no training whatsoever. Everything I know I either learned from Carol Deppe or the internet, or from the hours spent in my garden prodding things with a scalpel. But I think there's a huge need for people doing what I'm doing at the moment. Plant breeding has become almost entirely the preserve of commercial enterprise, and a totally different mindset prevails in the industry from that of people who just enjoy gardening and want to grow a few nice veggies. It's not that plant breeders don't care about gardeners. But they have to make a living from what they do, and there's not much funding available to breed new vegetables just because they look pretty or taste nice. It's only us amateur dabblers who have the luxury of being able to experiment with whatever takes our fancy.
Ben and Kate run a not-for-profit seed company in South Wales. They select everything in their catalogue from their own experiences of growing it and eating it, and produce much of the seed themselves. The varieties they offer are collected from all over, many of them heritage or traditional types and eclectically sourced from seed banks and individuals across the world. They also offer some of their own new varieties, which you occasionally come across as you browse the catalogue. The thing that makes them stand out from other seed companies is that they only sell open-pollinated varieties, not F1 hybrids, because they promote seed saving as good gardening practice. That's right, they actively encourage you to save and replant your own seeds rather than buying it from them again next year. And just to be sure you know what to do, they give seed saving instructions for all their vegetables on their website and with the seed packets.
So where do you start when you want to create a new purple mangetout pea? Ben thinks Golden Sweet is the best mangetout pea around. It has smallish yellow pods, blue flowers and purple-flecked seeds. I bought some from them last year and it did well. The texture and flavour are good, and the plants are vigorous. He's also keen on a purple-podded pea called Desirée, which is one I've never grown myself so I don't know much about it yet. So this is the first stage of the breeding project, to cross those two varieties. Ben sent me the seeds and I currently have a batch of each variety growing in Rootrainers. I got 100% germination from the seeds he sent, which doesn't happen all that often with peas. Now I just have to hope they'll both flower at the same time.
Golden Sweet and Desirée in Rootrainers, being hardened off for planting out. They were both sown at the same time but Golden Sweet (on the left) is faster growing!
It will of course take a few years to produce a stable new variety and trial it sufficiently, and then it may take more time to bulk up the stocks of available seed before it can be offered for sale. And there's no guarantee I'll come up with anything that's worth selling anyway. But it's going to be a lot of fun to try and I'll be blogging its progress as it goes along.
And of course as a little sideline project I mustn't forget the purple sugarsnap. I'm currently growing a few plants of Sugar Ann, a shortie height-wise but well esteemed for flavour, and my intention is to cross it with one (or several) of the purple podded varieties I'm growing this year and see what happens.