Twelve British peas which are either extinct or rarely seen outside gene banks in the UK, now here on my windowsill awaiting trial in 2009. You can already see the diversity in this little lot.
Christmas came early in the Soil household. This collection of peas was generously sent to me this week by Dave "American Gardener" Thompson at Worldwide Seed Trader. Dave is in the process of setting up a seed order business with the largest range of varieties offered by anyone, anywhere. An ambitious goal, you might think. But he's already well on the way to achieving it, because I can honestly say he has the largest collection of vegetable varieties I've ever seen. It's mind-boggling. He reckons he has "1000 varieties of peppers, 1000 of beans, and hundreds of everything else". Pop along to the Homegrown Goodness forum and have a look. Dave has been looking for volunteers to take seeds and grow them, and give him feedback and/or seed increases. You can even choose what you want to trial, if you don't pass out from lack of oxygen while reading the list.
I nearly had to reach for the smelling salts myself when I saw his pea list. Not just because there were so many of them, but because half-familiar names kept jumping out. Names of peas I'd read about in Victorian and early 20th century gardening books, but which have long since vanished without trace. May Queen, Battleship, Webb's Stourbridge Marrow.
I immediately picked out 17 or so varieties which I either knew to be of British origin or which I thought likely to be and which are difficult or impossible to obtain in the UK. I suspect there are many more, when I get a chance to research them. Some stood out because they include British placenames, while others preserve the names of well known nurseries and pea breeders of the 19th century. Veitch's of Devon, Carter's of Raynes Park, Sharpe's of Sleaford and Webb's of Stourbridge. Creations by Thomas Knight, Thomas Laxton, William Hurst and William Fairbeard.
Fairbeard created the much esteemed Champion of England in 1843, and most of his other varieties I assumed were lost. Fairbeard's Nonpareil was one I'd heard of but didn't know it still existed. Laxton bred some of the best tasting peas (Alderman) and earliest (Alaska). The Heritage Seed Library and Irish Seed Savers Association are maintaining some of his varieties but Laxton's Omega is one I've never seen outside 1870s gardening manuals.
After making my list of peas for trial, I scuttled over to the Pisum database at the John Innes Centre and looked them up. And lo, only four of these 17 varieties are held in the JIC collection. If the JIC don't have it, not many other people will either. This is very, very rare and precious stuff indeed.
Should we be surprised that a whole bunch of heritage peas which are all but extinct in their country of origin should turn up in a private collection in the US? Probably not. There was a huge market for British pea varieties in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. All the popular varieties favoured by gardeners and market growers over here were shipped out to the states and sold widely. Sometimes their names were changed for the US-market, such as the super-early pea (still popular in the US) known as Alaska which is a selection of Laxton's Earliest of All, introduced in the UK in 1881 and no longer available here. But most still carry their original names.
Over the years they've dropped out of the mainstream catalogues on both sides of the Atlantic and become scarce. Here in the UK, we were clobbered by the most dunderheaded EU legislation which not only failed to recognise the value of heritage varieties but made it illegal to distribute them. From the 1970s onward, our vegetable biodiversity has haemorrhaged. It's not surprising that so many of the varieties familiar to British gardeners a century ago have disappeared. In the US, however, the heirloom seed movement has always thrived. Marginalised by market forces, it chugs along beneath the radar of mainstream gardening but carries on its important work through small businesses and various formal and informal networks. All those old British peas, thoughtlessly discarded by the British ministries who didn't understand their cultural and genetic value, have been carefully maintained from year to year by gardeners in America.
I'm immensely grateful to Dave for sending me these peas for trial. And to all those people who cared enough to keep them from total extinction.
The first step is to grow them and evaluate them and find out exactly what they are. I will collect information and pictures to send back to Dave, which will help him in developing accurate and meaningful descriptions of them for his seed business. But a longer term benefit (once Dave has had a chance to distribute them through his seed company) will be the repatriation of some of Britain's long lost genetic heritage, because I'll take whatever steps I can to ensure their continued survival here.
The British stuff is just the tip of Dave's pea iceberg. He's sent me a number of other rare and special things, including some purple-podded breeding lines with unusual genetic traits to make use of in my own breeding projects. Look at the lovely seedcoat markings on this one, Musus. The markings suggest it's probably a field-pea but it supposedly has red-splashed pods. Just don't try googling for it because Google rather unhelpfully assumes that you meant to type "mucus" and comes up with all sorts of hits you really didn't want to see.
Another treasure I'm looking forward to growing next year is the umbellatum type, sometimes known as the Mummy pea on the basis of a common 19th century scam where gardeners paid a small fortune for seeds falsely claimed to have come from Egyptian tombs. (This claim is still doing the rounds and ironically the myth has survived more robustly than the "mummy vegetables" themselves.) This type of pea has a weird top-heavy shape, producing very wide thick stems and bearing all the flowers and pods in a crown-like clump at the top. At one time they were given their own species name, Pisum umbellatum. But this has now been dropped as it turns out that they are botanically the same as normal Pisum sativum peas, and their radically weird appearance is simply down to fasciation (broadening) of the stem, which is a recessive genetic trait. Umbellatum-type peas are now almost unknown outside gene banks, although I unwittingly picked one up from the Heritage Seed Library a couple of years ago (Salmon-Flowered) which whetted my appetite for them.
Two umbellatum types, Mummy White which I assume is white flowered, and Umbellata which I have no information about but from the speckling of the seedcoat it looks to have the genetic wherewithal to make purple colouring. Below those, Nigro-Umbilicatum whose name presumably refers to the fact that it has a black hilum, an unusual trait in peas.
Meanwhile, if you think you can help Dave with his seed increases or future trials, then hie thee to his blog at Worldwide Seed Trader.