A really unusual pea ... Irish Preans, which is possibly a cross-species hybrid
This year I've volunteered as a Seed Guardian for the Heritage Seed Library. I've been meaning to do it for a while, but wanted to do some informal seed swapping for a couple of years first to make sure people were happy with the seeds I produced and I wasn't getting any unexpected cross-pollination problems. The Heritage Seed Library grow a lot of their own seed to distribute to members but they're also hugely reliant on volunteers to grow seed on their behalf.
It's a pretty straightforward process to become a Seed Guardian. You write to HSL and tell them you want to volunteer. They send you a set of instructions for saving seed for various types of plant. And then in March they send you their list of "orphans". You can choose up to three varieties to become a guardian for ... this year's orphan list has 12 beans, 8 peas and 10 tomatoes. And they do let you choose which ones you want to look after (on a first-come first served basis), which is nice, and send you descriptions for each variety so you can make an informed choice. Some of the varieties are things already available in the HSL catalogue, others are new acquisitions or things which haven't been listed for a few years.
There is a sense of responsibility in taking on a guardianship role ... and it is important to ensure the purity of the seed you send back to them. But it's not the end of the world if you have a crop failure, they keep spare stock of everything. Neither do you have to commit yourself to producing vast quantities ... and you are allowed to eat some of it. They welcome feedback on the flavour and cooking qualities.
Here are my three charges. Irish Preans in the top photo is thought to be a hybrid between a pea and a broad bean. I didn't know such a thing was possible, but I don't see why not. They're different species, but they are distantly related and wide crosses like this are sometimes possible. This one was developed at an unnamed crop research institute in Ireland. The seeds are larger than most peas and are dark olive green and slightly oval, so they do look a bit like tiny broad beans ... at least they resemble some of the older, smaller types of broad bean, and unlike most peas they have a black hilum. Very curious.
Very wrinkly and slightly elongated ... the seeds of Gravedigger
I've also taken on a pea called Gravedigger. That's probably not its real name, if indeed it ever had one, but it came to the Heritage Seed Library from someone who got it from a retired farmer who in turn had got it from a gravedigger. In the absence of any other provenance, HSL varieties often get named after either the person who donated them or the earliest known person they can be traced back to. So there you go.
Finally, I have a climbing French bean called Major Cook's Bean. This one has never been available commercially, it's an heirloom which was originally bred by a First World War officer. I've got a strong connection with WW1, having written a play and a novel about it, so I couldn't pass up the opportunity to grow this. Major Cook worked for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission after the war and gave the bean to a colleague, whose family have diligently kept it going since 1920. Amazing really.
So hopefully these three varieties will be listed in the HSL catalogue for 2009 ...
Major Cook's Bean