Thursday, May 23, 2013

Infinite Varieties...
...Strength in Diversity

I read an article on the Irish Potato Famine today.  Using DNA samples from dried leaves stored in botanical collections (leaves that were more than 160 years old!), the scientists were able to sequence the genome of the offending pathogen and determine not only was it not the strain believed to be the culprit but that it also no longer exists.

As amazing as this is to a science geek like me, what caught my eye was the reason why the blight decimated the Irish potato crop and why the pathogen no longer exists.  Virtually all of the potatoes planted in Ireland were a variety known as 'Irish Lumpers'.  This variety was highly susceptible to the blight.  According to the article this strain of blight circulated around the world for 50 years after the famine and then disappeared, partly because people stopped planting lumpers and partly because they began to breed disease resistant varieties.

A similar event occurred in this county in 1970 when a corn leaf blight decimated the U.S. commercial corn crop.  Once again, a lack of genetic diversity was part of the problem. Fortunately for the home gardener and small farmer there are numerous heirloom varieties of seeds out there.

Anyone who has planted a garden knows that some vegetables do better than others due to a variety of factors, from precipitation to disease.  Why not increase your odds of success by planting multiple varieties of your favorite vegetables?  As an added bonus you will get a bigger variety of flavors. As an example, there are 100s of types of tomatoes in various sizes, shapes, and colors. Some are grown for eating raw, others for cooking.

Even the apartment dweller who is limited to container gardening or a couple of pots of herbs on the windowsill can experiment.  One year I grew three different types of basil, each with unique qualities.

No green thumb?  You can still support bio-diversity by shopping for multiple varieties of your favorite fruits and vegetables.  Sadly, the breadth of most people's apple experience seems to be the Red Delicious, the Golden Delicious, and the Granny Smith (maybe a McIntosh if you're feeling adventurous).  Go a little crazy next time and try something different.  Personally, I think Cortlands are the best pie apple on the planet.  Why not buy 3 or 4 varieties and do a side by side apple tasting? It's a good lesson for the kids and much better for you than a slice of cake!

Not sure where to start?  Organizations like Seed Savers Exchange are good resource. Many living history museums plant heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables. Some even sell seeds, but at the very least they can point you to various sources. Your local Cooperative Extension Service is also a great resource for finding out what grows well in your area as well as handy 'how-to' information. You can also check out local greenhouses and nurseries.

For those who prefer to buy rather than grow their food, try local farmers' markets, health food stores, and ethnic grocers. The Internet and your local library can also offer a wealth of information for figuring out what to do with those odd looking tomatoes or that apple variety you've never heard of.  Not only might you discover some new favorites, but you will be helping to create a healthier ecosystem -- sounds like a win/win to me.

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