The mailbox fills with seed and plant catalogs boasting the newest bounty of crops bred and born to meet our modern gardening needs. And I’ll be the first to admit that I browse effortlessly until that unique plant catches my eye. And I will also admit to having shelled out significant amounts of money for these new and unusual varieties and species. But some of the plants that I truly cherish are those that were handed down – the “old world fairy” rose bushes, taken from a house long gone to development; the forsythia bush and lilacs also saved from the very same development; the tomato plants, grown from the lovingly hand-pollinated seed, saved from year to year and given to me by my grandfather. These older variety plants are vanishing from our landscapes as we replace them with the “new and improved” versions. But all is not lost. Heritage societies are preserving our plant diversity, especially older variety plants.
Why is this important? Well, it is estimated that “within 50 years a fourth of the earth’s 250,000 flowering plant species could vanish because of habitat loss.” (National Geographic, Volume 192, #3, September 1997, pg 141.) While this is just an estimate, this loss of diversity could be devastating, not only to the environment, but to humans as well. We could be losing species that hold keys to medical mysteries. In fact, “a Mediterranean vetch yielded a protein that has helped detect rare human blood disorders.” (National Geographic) It really is in our own best interest to save the plants in these seed banks.
There are many seed banks around the world and most of them are working banks. They will send seed samples to researchers in agricultural institutes and universities. There are heritage societies where people can contribute their own heritage seeds and receive other people’s seed in return, in order to propagate these plants in a wide variety of locations. Not only do these plants hold potential value for use in the kind of medical research mentioned above, but some of the older varieties are resistant to the pests, insecticides and herbicides that plague the newer versions of plants. When a set of corn viruses nearly wiped out the crop in the 1970s, researchers were desperate to protect the corn from the main nine damaging viruses. With some luck and some looking, a perennial ancestor of corn, Tao sente, was found in a remote area in Mexico. It was resistant to seven of the nine corn viruses! Careful breeding back into modern corn has resulted in a much stronger, disease-resistant crop. But Tao sente grows only in a small area in a specific habitat. This plant could have easily been lost to us altogether if that very particular habitat had been damaged or destroyed. And along with a destroyed habitat, we also would have been destroying our own chances at survival. I wonder how many other such plants we have already committed to extinction.
So while we may ooh and ahh over the latest developments in plant genetic manipulation and the careful pollinations of plant breeders, it takes a bit more heart to find the value in the older species. The modern designer plants? They have their place. But in my book, they take a back seat to those older varieties which remind us of the strolls in our grandparents’ gardens. After all, haven’t our heritage plants been crafted over time? Do we have the time to recognize that our plant diversity is disappearing? Do we have the heart to save them from extinction – if only for our own sake?