Rescuing Australian Heirlooms

Clive Blazey explores the importance of heirloom seed stewardship and the legacy of the Seed Savers Exchange

Cucumber ‘Richmond Green Apple’

Kent and Diane Whealy founded Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) in Iowa

in 1970.

Anxious to keep precious heirlooms in circulation, they heard about a legendary watermelon that had moon-like markings and star-like dots that had disappeared from US catalogues in 1920.

A local US TV station picked up the story and an old farmer who still grew it passed on a few seeds to SSE. It soon became the poster child of the heirloom seed movement.

Today, Seed Savers has 20,000 cultivars of vegetables properly named and true-to-type that have been grown by migrants from South and North America, Europe, Asia and even Australia in their seed banks, continually renewed on 10 year rotations.

How did Diggers get involved?

I read a story about SSE and visited Iowa in 1991. David Cavagnaro was the farm manager and he was de-tasselling and bagging corn to avoid pollen contamination.

If he stopped to talk with me his precious heirloom strains would be lost, so I helped him for three hours until the female cobs and male tassels were isolated from each other. I realised that David was probably the most knowledgeable vegetable grower in the world — after all, he had personally grown many of the 12,000 varieties in the SSE collection at that time.

I had to return home but as luck would have it, I asked David if we could grow out his most interesting heirlooms in Australia. He sent Diggers about 100 tomatoes which we grew at Heronswood.

Top gardeners and chefs raved about the taste compared with the rock hard supermarket hybrids. Kevin Heinze, our local garden guru, said when he tried the taste test winner ‘Tommy Toe’ that “it was the best tomato he had eaten in 50 years.”

David flew out for the event and did the first of four lecture tours which created such demand for heirloom seeds (way before the US) that Diggers had to set up its own production nursery at Seymour (called Heritage Farm, see page 20) in 1992.

I didn’t realise at the time that David was a world-class photographer, an author and biologist, as well as gardener. He inspired us all at Diggers but the heirloom re-introductions took another 20 years to reach mainstream Australians.

Diggers has been supporting SSE for nearly 20 years and the rescue of heirloom vegetables as an exchange goes both ways. We have sent SSE Silverbeet ‘Five Colour Mix’ and rescued Australian heirlooms like Lettuce ‘Australian Yellow Leaf’ and Cucumber ‘Richmond Green Apple’.

Seed Savers Exchange describe the extraordinary measures they take to ensure purity of heirloom seed

Heirloom Seed Stewardship

This is the tradition of sharing seeds from neighbour to neighbour, friend to friend, mother to daughter, generation to generation.

The United States pulls together people from around the globe and every culture carries with it distinct seeds, foods, and culinary traditions. Heirloom seeds are passed down in communities and families, outside of commerce.

Historic Seed Trade

As recently as the early 1990s, most farmers and gardeners saved at least some of their own seed. Commercial seed companies developed and introduced many new vegetable varieties over the years.

But every year seed companies add and drop varieties based on their commercial demand. By growing these varieties in your garden, you are helping maintain heirloom, historic and rare seeds for future generations.

Gardeners, seed savers and family members have donated thousands of varieties to Seed Savers Exchange. Each year we grow between 500 and 700 varieties from about 40 different crop types and observe them closely in the field.

Check for Varietal Purity

SSE assess all varieties in their collection for purity. When a variety is grown for seed, a “lot check” is performed the following year to ensure the variety is uniform and true to its original type, matching the donor’s descriptions.

SSE evaluated Lettuce 1119 ‘Venezianer’ and found three distinct types of plants within the population.

Avoiding Duplicates

Some varieties in the SSE collection are duplicates of each other.  Sometimes they have the same or similar names, but often it takes more work to be certain.  SSE grow potential duplicates in the field and compare them side-by-side.  SSE evaluated Cucumber 233 ‘Apple Crystal White’ and Cucumber 44 ‘Crystal Apple’ (see images at right) as potential duplicates.  It was found that the plants and fruit of the two varieties were virtually indistinguishable.


A weed by any other name

Marcelle Swanson talks about the benefits of weeds and the unexpected culinary delights they can offer.

Heirlooms: Trialled and taste tested

Taking the guesswork out of the vegetables you have grown to love.

Peas from the Gold Rush Days

Bernadette Brady digs into the rich history of some gold rush heirlooms

SEED - The untold story

Clive Blazey reviews this pivotal documentary.

Sharing an heirloom pea

When May Barnes sent in peas dating from 1853, grown by her family for generations, she knew they were worth sharing.

Should you grow heirloom or modern seeds?

Clive Blazey explains why gardeners must take back control of our seeds

True-to-type maintenance of open-pollinated varieties

Ian Magnus talks about maintaining heirloom seed integrity.

Related Authors

Clive Blazey

Clive is the founder of The Diggers Club, a pioneer in the rescue of heirloom vegetable and fruit varieties and author of seven books on flower, vegetable and fruit gardening.

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