Rooting out the historical cultivation of plants
A new type of “frankenplant” named as the “egg and chips” plant, a grafted cross between an aubergine and a potato is now available to buy as seed. This extraordinary plant is dual cropping, aubergines from the stem and potatoes from its roots and according to a spokesperson from the seed company Thompson and Morgan, it will allow people to grow more vegetables in small gardens and balconies. Certainly, this is not the first “frankenplant” to be grown. Back in 2013, another was developed by the same seed company, the ‘TomTato” which grows cherry tomatoes and potatoes.
Neither of the plants are genetically engineered but are produced through a series of trials using grafting techniques. Tomatoes, potatoes and aubergines are all part of the nightshade family (Solanaceae), therefore closely related and can be successfully grafted. With today’s concerns over food security and where space in many urban areas being highly restricted in terms of space, this may be the start of something, particularly where the trend in this country for growing your own is now favoured by many.
I cannot comment on the flavour of the vegetable from either plant having not tasted the harvest but I am just not sure whether these “frankenplants” will really take off. By no means am I saying we shouldn’t be up for trying new varieties but what about some of our forgotten treasures which are being lost over the decades as our palette of cultivated varieties becomes more and more restricted?
Over the millennia, humans have selected plants for cultivation. Genetic diversity started to be lost as soon as humans began to domesticate plants (although genetic variability would have been introduced through seed selection and exchange). The key is genetic diversity. This enables plants to resist diseases, cope with climatic variability, provides differences in culinary properties and the ability to grow in difficult conditions. The race is on though. One fifth of the world’s plant species are under threat of extinction. The human population has lost so many wild edible plants, heirloom and old varieties in our search for high yield and taste. Globally we are losing seed to climate change, urbanisation, deforestation and intensification of farming. One such sad example is that of a wild relative of the aubergine. Solanum ruvu was collected in 2000 from the Ruvu forest of Tanzania but by the time it was identified in 2010, the native forest had been destroyed and it is now thought to be extinct despite a expedition that same year in order to try and find it .
Scientists have long since recognised that it is important to discover where the wild types of many of our crops come from in order to create future sustainable plant breeding and tackle food security issues. Often plant breeders turn back to wild species to better improve a cultivated crop. We currently rely on just three of the world’s 50,000 edible plants, rice, maize and wheat to provide a high percentage of our food . That’s why projects like the Crop Wild Relatives (CWP), is a massively important initiative. Jointly led by the Global Crop Diversity Trust and the Millennium Seed Bank of Kew and currently implemented by many different worldwide partners, the aims of this 10-year project are simple. Collect, conserve and facilitate the use of crop wild relatives. The first phase of the project involved the establishment of gaps within the global CWR inventory thus enabling the identification of CWRs which should be collected and where. Following this, CWRs are being collected worldwide with the conservation of ex situ and in situ collections. Ex situ collections of CWR include the Millennium Seed Bank, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and international gene banks such as those of the CGIAR (Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research). In situ collections are those that are grown and conserved in their natural surroundings. An example is CWRs in the Sierra de Manantlán Biosphere Reserve, Mexico, which preserves an endemic maize relative. Pre breeding programmes of many CWRs are then carried out to isolate desired traits and introduce them into breeding lines.
Elsewhere, many scientists are researching heirloom varieties and readily scour the countryside for distinctive varieties of certain plants in order to preserve them. Certainly many local varieties are passed down through generations within families and are highly specific to certain geographical areas. Mark Farnham, a plant geneticist from the US Department of Agriculture, was interested in the different landraces of collards, a green leafy vegetable much like our greens vegetable in this country. For 3 years, Farnham and his colleagues collected heirloom seed from across North and South Carolina, obtaining seed from local people. In total he and his colleagues collected about 90 unique varieties, which could have been lost over time . Further research by the team identified that the collard landraces contained substantial genetic variation compared to collard cultivars . This information will prove invaluable in future crop improvement for commercial growers and ensure that these landraces are preserved as in situ and ex situ collections.
Scientists have not only found that wild varieties of our cultivated forms of vegetable have better natural resistance to various plant stresses but also often have better nutritional properties. In 2014, researchers from the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics at Izmir Institute of Technology in Turkey, found that certain wild varieties of tomatoes contained significantly higher amounts of antioxidants than cultivated varieties .
There is a move towards trying to rescue many of our forgotten fruit and vegetable heirloom varieties in this country at a local level too. This is the case here in Somerset. I am planning on going to a Potato Day in Frome. This day is one of many during the winter and spring months run by heirloom vegetable experts Chris Smith and Mike Milligan from Pennard Plants in East Pennard, now in its 11th year of running in conjunction with Garden Clubs and societies. A range of some 80 plus different potato varieties is available along with other edible plants and heritage seeds. For me there has always been a fascination with some of the old names of heirloom plants that make me want to grow and eat them. Why were they given such fantastic names and by whom? Apple varieties called Slack-me-girdle, Foxwhelp and Port’s Perfection; potato varieties named British Queen, Sharp’s Express and Shetland Black; kale varieties with names like Daubentons and Pentland Brigg and onions called Bamberger Long and White Ebenezer. The names themselves have a story to tell in their own right that is rich in the history of plant cultivation.
Further resources about CWRs, heirloom plants and seed swaps:
 Willis, K. & Fry, C (2014). Plants from Roots to Riches. John Murray, London.
 Farnham, M.W., Davis, E.H., Morgan, J.T., Smith, J.P (2008). Neglected Landraces of Collard (Brassica oleracea L.) from the Carolinas (USA). Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution. 55:797-801.
 Branham, S., Couillard, D.M., Stansell, Z.J., Farnham, M.W (2015). Genetic diversity and population structure of collard landraces and their relationship to other Brassica oleracea crops. The Plant Genome. 8(3):1-11.
 Top O., Bar C., Ökmen B., Özer D Y., Rusçuklu D., Tamer N., Frary A. and Doğanlar S (August 2014). Exploration of Three Solanum Species for Improvement of Antioxidant Traits in Tomato. HortScience. 49(8):1003-1009.