Sunday 21 December 2008

Welcome home, little peas

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.


Jeremy said...

This is such exciting news, and I wish you every success. As you've guessed, I've long had a thing about peas myself, and reading about your adventures is the next best thing to being able to grow them. Two questions: I don't recall you writing about Carlin. Have tou tried it. And another brilliant and interesting variety is Parsley, which might be fun to integrate into some of the Purple projects.

Rebsie Fairholm said...

Thanks Jeremy. I haven't tried Carlin. Nor Parsley, though I am in the process of sourcing that for 2009, and may try some experiments if it looks interesting.

Happy to be your window into the pea world.

Anonymous said...

I´m so happy to find your blog and to read about your experiments. Thanks to you I found the REal seed company, the have very interesting comments and also Forellenschluss, my favaourit lettuce. I´m a Swedish kitchen gardener and a writer of gardening books, mostly about kitchen gardening . I grow lots of heirlooms and read your Heritage Vegetable Reviews with great interest, have tried most of them myself. Do you know if there is a Carouby pea that´s small, about 50-70 cm. Weibulls, which is the biggest seed company in Sweden, introduce them 2009 and I wonder if they might know something that I didnt´know.

How is it going with your red peas? Hope your dear cat has recovered.
lena in Stockholm

petoskystone said...

does eu legislation still consider it an illegal act to distribute heritage seeds?! wow--what an idiot of an idea. which gm seed company came up with this?

Kath said...

What a bountiful Christmas! The musus peas have markings similar to the Latvian pea I grew last year. You just want to run them through your hands and play with them don't you? (Well, I do!)

Bishops Homegrown said...

Great Post Rebsie! What Dave is doing is great and I wish him much success, I haven't recieved my package from him as of yet but I look forward to it greatly, I did however today get a huge order from the Gatersleben gene bank full of all kinds of great diversity, I may do a post on that soon, 185 varieties all together.

Anonymous said...

How exciting Rebsie!

I might try a few myself!

Anonymous said...

Hi Rebsie,
I have been browsing through your blog over the past few weeks and have found it absolutely fascinating. This post about very old varieties of peas has me puzzled though.
How can one be sure that the seeds that you have acquired are the same as those described a century ago? Wouldn't there be a slow drift away from the "pure" line over the years? How would one prevent a cross? It sounds to me that peas cross very readily.
As I said, it's fascinating. So much to learn.

Rebsie Fairholm said...

Lena - thank you. I'm looking forward to growing the next lot of red peas, hoping to find one with edible pods. The cat has been through a few more traumas in recent weeks but now recovering.

Petoskystone - it is still illegal, but there are variations in how it's enforced. Nobody worries about gardeners swapping seeds, but seed businesses can and do get into trouble for supplying unregistered varieties.

VH - it's not just you. One of life's great pleasures is running seeds through your fingers. I have the Latvian pea too and the seeds do look very similar.

Alan - 185 varieties?! I wish I had the energy and space for that! Keep up the good work.

Barkingdog - yes, go for it.

Jim - that's a very good question. The honest answer is that I don't know that they're the same as they were 100 years ago, or even that they are what they're supposed to be.

Genetic drift is an issue, and it's natural and inevitable that varieties will change over time. Crossing is also possible, but doesn't happen much with peas. And of course it only takes one incident of mislabelling during the last 140 years for a completely wrong identification forever after. That is a concern and there's not a lot I can do about it.

For some of the varieties I can find descriptions in old books which will give me some idea what they should look like. I can also send samples off to a molecular biologist friend who can hopefully help me build up an idea of the kinship between them. But I still won't know for sure.

Anonymous said...

Having been out of town, I'm a little slow to show up in the discussion here. I too want to express my excitement at your package from Dave, and am looking forward to hearing more about the peas in the coming months and years.

What we need now are a lot more gardeners to step forward and do what you're doing. I really hope some people reading this will contact Dave or other people offering seeds through the Seed Network (, gene banks or any other heirloom seed source and help keep plants like this alive!

There's really a huge shortage of gardeners doing this kind of thing, and there are limits to what any of us can do on our own.

Thanks too for mentioning the Seed Network and me in your previous post, and for all the other nice things you've been saying about me lately!

I hope you've had a nice Christmas and all the best for the New Year.

Anonymous said...

I have some parsley peas you can have, funny thing, I received them from someone in the UK, and now they could go back to the UK; and, as I told you before, keep up the great work!,

Ottawa Gardener said...

Interesting coloured hilum on that pea, and I second the hilarity of doing google searches sometime. I especially enjoy when I try an image search. It is amazing how many search terms will bring up naked people... it's just my plants I want undressed!

B + S said...

Thanks for the fave, I adore your pea experiment!!!! i would love to see you breed a red pea. The are the crop that i wait for all year long, and you inspired me to enjoy them even more. I tried my hand at cross breeding but won't know how things have mixed until later this year... can't wait.

chaiselongue said...

How exciting to try growing all these different varieties! Good luck with them - I'll be very interested to see how they all do. I'm hoping on a much smaller scale to try varieties of plants which are local to the Languedoc this year from Kokopelli.

Silverleaf said...

I've just asked for some seeds myself, thanks for the heads up!

Yay, exciting peas!!!

Steve said...

Nice blog! Found it googling for "Red Duke of York". I, too, garden on Cheltenham's "free draining" soil. Some of the results are on

Anonymous said...

Well i certainly enjoyed your post.

I haven't seen you around much at homegrown.. so i figured i'd come read your blog and see what you're up to. Hope you're ok and you're making beautifull music. Anyways.. next chance you get stop by the forumn. I have a few more varieties of peas you might be interested in.


Maggie said...

Late to the party, but... Just wanted to mention that if you google "google cheat sheet" you will find a list of cheats that allow you to manipulate your searches beyond what is ordinary. So, for your Musus issue, I searched for "pea, musus -mucus" and got a little bit of info about Musus peas instead of mucus. Not much info, but at least it was searching for the right thing. Just an FYI in case you run into this issue again.

yarnivorous said...

I'm looking through your blog and just happened to notice that one heritage pea is called William Hurst, same as my husband's "proper" name (but not what he is called). I'll have to see if there are any in the US. Or back 'ome in Oz.

AMIT said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
keen101 said...

Hey Rebsie, Do you happen to know if American Gardener is still around?

I tried to check his website, but it looks un-updated since 2009...

Well, maybe you can answer my question. I'm very interested in the umbellatum-type peas, and I'm wondering if you could list all the know varieties for this trait that you know of. Thanks!