Thursday, February 14, 2013

Winter School 2013 Report - Part IV - Heirloom Vegetable Tales

Did you know of the vegetables that were commercially available at the turn of the century, 97% of them are not available commercially now?  That doesn't mean they're gone for good.  It just means that unless you grow your own vegetables and take the time to seek out heirloom seeds, you're limited in the variety of vegetables that you have access to.

Moon & Stars Watermelon
This fact is only one of the conclusions that Fiona McAnally reached as she worked on her master's thesis, documenting the historical, cultural and botanical significance of heirloom vegetables that continue to be grown in home gardens in Southern Appalachia.  Her presentation on "Heirloom Vegetable Tales" was fascinating.

Her goals were:
  • Demonstrate the role of heirloom seeds in genetic diversity
  • Show the importance of a multidisciplinary approach to subjects
  • Share methodology on "memory banking" with collecting heirloom seeds
Her objectives:
  • Give the rationale of Appalachia as the region for research on heirloom seeds
  • Describe how historical documents contribute to horticulture history
  • Describe the difference between heirloom and hybrid seeds and their development
  • Share oral history and varieties documented to date
As I said, fascinating.  The reason Appalachia is such a good subject for heirloom seed research has its roots (so to speak) in geography.  The "hills and hollers" of Appalachia made each community somewhat isolated, so that there was limited crossing of genetic material.  Just as the islands of the Galapagos resulted in animal species taking different paths on different islands, so too the plant life in Appalachia.  Fiona has found diaries kept by residents of this region that describe how farms were laid out, and what was planted where.  She has recorded interviews with dozens of people sharing stories of seeds that have been planted by their families for generations.

What a great presentation for children!  And for adults - I can assure you that we were enthralled.

She listed several sources for heirloom seeds:

The Organic Seed Grower by John Navazio

Of course, you can find many more sources on the internet.  Also check with your local Extension Office and/or Master Gardener organization.  I know that Lichterman Nature Center in Memphis has a seed swap every year (it was January 26 this year); other places may have one, too.

As a side note, Fiona used a presentation software called Prezi that organized her slides in a way somewhat different from Microsoft Powerpoint, very cool.

Next:  The Leadership Track

Fiona McAnally
Graduate Student, Department of Plant Sciences

Fiona grew up on a farm in East Tennessee and spent many summers gardening with family members while developing a lifelong interest in history. She graduated from the University of Tennessee in political science and worked in state and federal government in Washington, D.C., before returning to Tennessee where she became the Director of Ramsey House Plantation, a 1797 historic house museum. Working with a well-known regional seed saver, Fiona reconnected with vegetable gardening through demonstration gardens. Eventually, she decided to return to academics to gain a background in plant science and pursue her research goals in heirloom plants. 

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