There is always something new to learn on Ask A Master Gardener! This week, Cathy Christie joined us for our monthly discussion about seed saving, introducing landrace plant varieties and the preservation of these species.
Landrace is a genetically diverse crop that is locally adapted that has grown in the same place long enough to become part of the local ecosystem and cultural heritageJoseph Lofthouse
The plants we grow face enormous challenges. Rain (or not), temperature extremes, insect pests, diseases, and more …. It is a wonder that we are able to put food on the table! And with our changing climate, these pressures are increasing.
What is a Landrace Variety?
Landrace refers to a plant (or animal) variety that, over time, has adapted to the local environment. They are genetically diverse traditional species that have evolved their characteristics without human intervention, as a result of a connection to the local conditions (soil, temperature, pests) in which they are grown.
A landrace population has not been deliberately bred for specific and consistent traits like cultivars, hybrids or clones might be. They freely exchange genetic material with their compatible neighbours; those that meet the challenges of the local situation will survive and thrive. Thus they are unpredictable in the sense of uniformity, but offspring are likely to grow well under the specific conditions in which they were developed.
Fun fact: The word landrace, which is not familiar to at least some, has origins in the Germanic languages (Landrasse) and translates as “country-bred”.
The Best Laid Plans
Cathy points out that industrial agriculture often cultivates just a few varieties of a particular crop. While this is an efficient way to produce high yields when things are going according to plan, there is a risk when genetically identical crops form the bulk of our agricultural production. A perturbation in the system, such as drought or abnormal temperatures, may result in decreased crop yields or failures.
Evolution in Action
The need for resilience in our food systems is illustrated by weather events such as the 2021 “heat dome” in Alberta, a period of four weeks with virtually no rain and 27C temperatures. Researchers at the University of Calgary’s Simon Farm Project had been testing whether locally-saved and traditional seed varieties could withstand climate events such as extended periods of heat and drought. According to researcher Tatenda Mambo, when the heat dome arrived “Most potatoes, kale and other plants from the seed of national distributors succumbed to the heat and withered away. The same plants from the locally-saved seed held on”, albeit with a modest harvest.
Cathy also described the work of plant breeder Joseph Lofthouse who has been working to develop landrace muskmelon adapted to his region, with its short dry season, cool nights and hot days. He began by planting numerous varieties of melons with the attributes he desired, and allowed them to freely cross pollinate, saving seeds from the very best to sow the following years. While it takes patience, generations of offspring have resulted in melons that are particularly suited to Joseph’s climate and are genetically diverse enough to continue evolving as conditions change. Think of this diversity as nature’s crop insurance!
The Open Source Seed Initiative
The Open Source Seed Initiative is a private foundation whose mission is to maintain “fair and open access to plant genetic resources worldwide in order to ensure the availability of germplasm to farmers, gardeners, breeders, and communities of this and future generations.” Their website includes a wealth of information as well as a searchable database of seeds. Some, although not all, all landrace varieties.
The plant breeders working with OSSI have committed to making their varieties available and have pledged the freedom to:
- save or grow seed for replacing or for any other purpose
- share, trade or sell seed to others.
- trial and study seed and to share or publish information about it.
- select or adapt the seed, make crosses with it, or use it to breed new lines and varieties.
Plant Breeding at Home
Begin with any open pollinated seeds. If you chose those from a local source, they will already have been grown out under our conditions for several plant generations.
Of course if you find landrace types, by definition they will be adapted to their own local environment. Initially not all seeds planted will necessarily do well in your home garden, depending on the source. Plant as many compatible varieties as possible, allow them to cross pollinate and harvest the seeds from the plants that thrive (and taste good!). Continue the process and watch the offspring continue to adapt.
Cathy is excited about exploring landrace cultivation in our bioregion. She joyfully mixed and planted seeds from twenty varieties of dry beans from the KASSI Living Seed Commons this weekend. We look forward to seeing and hearing how they grow!
Carol Deppe. Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties: The Gardener’s and Farmer’s Guide to Plant Breeding and Seed Saving, 2nd Edition Chelsea Green Publishing, 2000
Joseph Lofthouse, Landrace Gardening: Food Security through Biodiversity and Promiscuous Pollination. 2021