Deb Babcock: Preserving the diversity of our plant life

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Try growing heirloom plants, such as this Native American sunflower that dates back to the late 1800s, in your garden next spring.

Deb Babcock

Deb Babcock's gardening column appears Thursdays in Steamboat Today.

Find more gardening columns here.

Did you know that in the past century, about 75 percent of the genetic diversity of crops in the world has been lost to plants that have been developed for genetic uniformity? And did you know that just six companies control 98 percent of the world's seed sales: Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont, Mitsui, Aventis and Dow?

Because these companies supply the world's large-scale food producers, this means fewer and fewer plants that commonly were grown in earlier periods of our history can be found and enjoyed. These newer hybrids generally were developed for reasons of long shelf life, ability to be transported long distances and a tolerance for pesticides, drought, frost and other conditions. Note that nothing is said about their flavor, nutrition, aroma, color or perhaps specialized use.

The loss of diversity of our vegetable varieties isn't just an aesthetic regret of someone who wants blue potatoes or an unusual squash as a novelty; it also can have a profound impact on our ability to feed ourselves should we experience a sudden change in climate or a devastating plant disease that wipes out an entire variety of food. Think back to the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s. Farmers there began relying on one particular variety of potato, which ended up being susceptible to potato blight fungus, starving Ireland's populace and ruining the economy of the country.

There is a growing school of gardeners who treasure rich diversity of flora and are growing heirloom plants. By preserving and growing heirloom plants, gardeners can pass on the rich history of plants that were grown for their particular hardiness in a microclimate or for a wonderful flavor, color, shape, aroma, flower or culinary use. Or perhaps it was a variety that distant relatives grew or brought to America from their native countries.

You often can find out the origins of heirloom seeds and pass along the information (along with some seeds) to other gardeners, friends and family who also may want to preserve a bit of horticultural history. Many of the heirloom seed and plant suppliers also can provide you with a history of the variety. Additionally, the Amish, Mennonites and American Indians have made special efforts to collect, save and preserve the stories behind many heirloom varieties.

Heirloom seeds differ from hybrids in a number of ways. The most important difference is that the plant is able to reproduce itself and that the seed produced will make another plant with the same traits through many generations. This is not true of hybrids. Heirloom plants also are open-pollinated, meaning the plant requires no human intervention to reproduce. It does so naturally through insects or wind.

Generally, heirlooms are at least 50 years old - often 100 years or older - although some varieties with shorter histories are considered heirlooms because of some unique trait. For a list of suppliers of heirloom seeds and plants, visit www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/hil/hil-130.html or check out the list of heirloom suppliers in the small box with this article. If you're in Fort Collins, check out the seed storage site at Colorado State University.

Wouldn't it be fun to try some varieties of vegetables in your garden next year that offer unique colors, shapes, aromas and tastes you cannot find anywhere else? Consider adding more diversity to your family garden with heirlooms.

Deb Babcock is a Master Gardener through the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Service Office in Routt County. Questions? Call 879-0825 or e-mail gardeners@co.routt.co.us.

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