Landrace Gardening: Foreign Imports

Reader Contribution by Joseph Lofthouse
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I am constantly working on projects to incorporate beauty, resilience, and higher nutrition into my landrace crops. I do this by paying attention to what is going on in my garden, and by importing seeds from other gardens. This week’s blog documents some of this year’s selection projects and explains why I am working on them.

Some years ago when I started my landrace moschata squash project, I included seeds from Seminole Pumpkin because they are a wild squash. They may be closely related to the ancestral squash from which butternuts were derived. It is likely that there are many useful genes in these squash that were lost during domestication. Alas, the Seminole Pumpkin is a native of Florida, so when I planted it in my garden it had not even started flowering when it was killed by frost. I can’t do survival of the fittest selection among the offspring of a plant that fails to produce seeds or pollen in my garden, so my moschata squash landrace went forward without the Seminole Pumpkin. I have been sad about that for years.

I grow an abundance of seed, and share it widely. One of the collaborators with which I shared landrace moschata seed lives in a similar climate which has a longer frost-free growing season. He crossed my landrace squash with Seminole Pumpkins and returned the seed to me. I grew that seed this summer. Many of the resulting plants were still too long season for my garden and didn’t mature fruit, but a few did. I am elated. Due to the generosity of a collaborator whom I have never met, I will be able to work with the genes from Seminole Pumpkins. I’m expecting to find some clever traits among the offspring.

I imported some South American corn composites into my garden. A composite is new mixed population containing many different varieties. Composites are similar to landraces, in being genetically diverse, but they have not yet been adapted to any particular garden. I grew the South American corn composites in a patch by themselves. The seed that I collected this year is a composite of composites: I call it a hybrid swarm because of the huge diversity that exists in this population. I am attempting to combine the South American and Caribbean corns into a population that is suitable for growing in my garden. A lot of the plants in the patch were not suited to my garden and didn’t produce offspring, or had a very long season so they are only marginally useful to me. Overall they produced a lot of offspring which will be useful to me and contain traits which are not available in the North American corns that I have previously grown. It is my intention in a coming growing season to hybridize the South American population with my sweet corn, and with my popcorn. This should significantly increase the resilience and bio-diversity of my current crops.

This summer I also worked on projects to incorporate more color and nutrition into my popcorn landrace. I did this in several ways:

I selected white kernels and grew them in a separate patch. White is a recessive color which tends to be swamped out by other colors. Because it looks really good to have a few mostly white cobs among the landrace popcorn I add a bit of white kerneled corn into the bulk seed before sharing so that the visual interest of the harvested crop remains high.

One of the ancestors in the South American composites produces extravagant amounts of beta-carotene I value that trait because of its high nutritional potential. I selected the high nutrition seeds from the composite based on deep orange color. They popped poorly, so I planted them in my popcorn patch to make a popcorn hybrid. Hybrids are used to combine the traits of two different varieties. Corn hybrids are made by removing the tassels from the mother plant before they release pollen. I missed detasseling it because I forgot to stake the row or the stake disappeared. Some of its seeds got pollinated by my popcorn. Some of its pollen for poor popping ability contaminated my popcorn. Because the South American corn represented less than 1% of the plants in my popcorn patch the damage will be minimal. I intend to grow the obviously hybridized seed in a separate patch for a few years until the high nutrition trait and great popping trait are combined and consistent. I also crossed this corn with my sweet corn so that I can develop a high nutrition sweet corn.

I made a hybrid cross between my popcorn and Glass Gem flint corn. Glass Gem contains beautiful blues,
greens, and pinks which do not currently exist in my popcorn, but it pops poorly. I figure that a cross will allow me to combine the traits of great popping ability and glorious colors into the same plant. I don’t know what the nutrition
al value of all those different pigments are, but plant pigments tend to be antioxidants or meet other nutritional needs so I figure the more color the better.

It doesn’t take much additional effort to incorporate beauty, resilience, and highernutrition into landrace crops. This is part of the reason why I believe that landrace gardening is a path towards food security through common sense and traditional methods.

Joseph Lofthouse grows vegetables in a cold mountain valley where he practices the art of landrace gardening in order to feed his community more effectively.