Plants can change the world. If you don’t believe me, then think about what was behind the slave trade that displaced millions of people across the Atlantic ocean (sugar). The Boston Tea Party was a key event in the development of the American Revolution, and our discovery of Chinchona in South America led to the production of quinine – the malaria treatment that allowed Britain to bring India into its expanding Empire.
Our agricultural habits have moved plants all across the world, leading to a few chosen ones providing most of the food we eat. Native plants have been marginalised as rice, wheat, maize and potatoes have become favourite staples, and they bear little resemblance now to their ancient ancestors. Why these few species have achieved such success is a much-discussed topic amongst academics; John Warren, a Professor at Aberystwyth University, offers a theory that it’s because they have kinky sex lives!
“Native plants have been marginalised”
We generally ignore the fact that our plants are having sex all over the garden (a throw back to Victorian delicacy, perhaps), but that’s what they’re doing when they flower and set seed. Their showy blooms and enticing aromas aren’t there to attract us, but rather the insects and other wildlife that helps them to procreate. If you suffer from hayfever your immune system is reacting to male reproductive cells flying about on the wind – pollen.
“We generally ignore the fact that our plants are having sex all over the garden”
Throughout history we have meddled in this process for our own ends, selectively breeding plants that are better for us. We have developed crops that can no longer produce seeds, and are dependent on vegetative propagation (saffron and garlic, for example), and others that rarely bother. We have bred varieties that respond to copious amounts of water and fertilizer to produce a bountiful crop, but which are utterly rubbish when left to their own devices, falling prey to every disease and pest that happens past.
“We have bred varieties…which are utterly rubbish when left to their own devices”
We’ve stopped growing some fantastic plants that were once popular foods but have been replaced by ones that are more conducive to a supermarket food chain. Skirret and mulberries are two delicacies that you really can’t get your hands on unless you know someone who grows their own.
This leaves us in a somewhat precarious position. Although breeding work on major crops continues, with a lack of diversity in agriculture and our gardens our food supply is at risk as the climate changes. Every day the media brings us stories about which of our favourite foods are at risk – including coffee and chocolate! Our standard bananas lack resistance to a devastating disease that is rapidly spreading across the planet.
“with a lack of diversity in agriculture and our gardens our food supply is at risk”
An average person may find all this alarming, but beyond their control. But gardeners have a super power – they know that working with plants can change the world. We can try new crops in our gardens, test out new varieties and see what works in our changing conditions. We can plant flowers that encourage in pollinating insects (themselves in decline) and bolster the local wildlife population. Our gardens can be productive bastions of diversity, feeding us and our neighbours, and – plant by plant – changing the world.
“gardeners have a super power – they know that working with plants can change the world”
And we can go further than that, and breed new crops for our future. Humans have been selecting and breeding plants for millennia – it’s a low tech endeavour for which every gardener is well equipped. In fact, if you’ve been saving seeds from your garden plants then you’re already involved. Just imagine what we could do if we all pulled together.
The Guild of Oca Breeders (GOB) is doing just that, recruiting gardening volunteers to help breed new varieties of oca (Oxalis tuberosa) that crop better in our temperate climates. Oca has lovely, colourful tubers that can be grown and used like potatoes – but it isn’t bothered by blight, you can eat the tubers raw if you want to, and it also has edible leaves. The only problem is that it’s used to the short days of its Andean homeland, and hasn’t quite got the hang of producing bumper crops of tubers before it gets cut down by frost – the long days of our summer put it off.
GOB’s volunteers are growing different varieties of oca, encouraging them to have sex in their gardens, so that they can save seed that is genetically different to its parents. Some of the resulting seedlings will be less sensitive to day length, and those can be selected and bred into new varieties that will do much better in our gardens.
How do we know that this is possible? Because it’s already been done with another Andean native. Selective breeding removed the potato’s daylength sensitivity, and allowed it to become one of the world’s top crops. The potato has played a role in some pivotal moments in history, and is being investigated for its potential to make a giant leap for plantkind when we plant our first gardens on Mars.
I can thoroughly recommend growing oca in your garden, it’s a fun crop. Seed tubers aren’t hard to come by these days, and you can find them in some commercial seed catalogues, as well as at seed swaps and potato days.
But if you’d like to go further and help to breed new varieties, then check out the Guild of Oca Breeders. Because although a single person might find it hard to change the world, with a little help the right plant could 🙂