I buy my groceries from one store, a foodie emporium with quality victuals, no piped music and aisles relatively free of clutter, though it is backsliding on the last score.
For all its emphasis on seasonal produce, however, you can still buy raspberries, strawberries, blueberries and other berried fruit pretty much year-round, but generically. Selling apples and pears by variety has become standard in the produce section, but the trend has not reached most other fruits. Bananas remain nameless, no doubt because they are bound to be just one variety or a related strain, that is, the Cavendish.
The anonymous berries do have names. The growers produce a handful of proprietary varieties developed for the needs of everyone in the food chain, of which the consumer is but one link. These varieties are usually protected by a plant patent — no one else can grow them without permission. This is a reasonable legal device; breeders put a lot of their skills and their employer’s resources into developing new cultivars.
But if you want to get a sense of just how limited our consumer fruit world has become, pick up a copy of the recently published Nursery Trade Census. Its prosaic title disguises the fact it is a cornucopia of the vast if somewhat hidden richness of fruits, berries and nuts grown in the United States by specialty nurseries and their customers, which include niche farmers and home gardeners.
The census was compiled by Seed Savers Exchange, the Decorah, Iowa, nonprofit that has been working for four decades to track, preserve and trade heritage varieties of flowers, vegetables, fruits and nuts.
Heirlooms, by definition, grow true from seed and can be passed from one generation to the next. No one owns them, but a given variety, selected and improved over the years, might pertain to one family, village, Indian tribe, ethnic community or religious sect. Thus we have in general garden circulation the Brandywine tomato, the Hubbard squash and the Roxbury Russet apple, for example. Tree fruits are typically propagated not by seed but by grafted cuttings — scions — attached to rootstock to become clones of the parent plant.
The 310-page inventory is a snapshot of the heirloom fruit and nut universe in 2015, and shows that a total of 251 nurseries together offered for sale 7,945 varieties. The team that compiled it logged 256 varieties of pear and 21 varieties of rhubarb. This may not be so surprising, but to record 148 varieties of nectarine or 123 types of persimmon or more than 100 varieties of pecan must be delightfully remarkable to anyone interested in plant diversity and the gardener’s role in preserving it.
There are some gains and losses compared with previous inventories, with a net loss of 800 varieties since 2009, for example. Heirlooms inhabit a commercially precarious world, and fluctuations are not inherently dire. Just because a nursery stops selling a given variety doesn’t mean it’s not being grown privately. Generally, the heirloom preservation movement that began in the 1970s, notably with Seed Savers, has stabilized varietal extinction.
The total 7,945 varieties of 2015 is lower than the 8,750 of 2009, for example, but almost twice the number found in 1988.
Over the 2009 count, there were significant drops in the number of varieties of peaches, oranges and cranberries. But other fruits that have grown in popularity showed commensurate gains. The census counted 199 varieties of blueberry, compared with 127 in 1988. Avocados, pomegranates, mangos and mulberries all reported relatively large expansion.
The most worrying aspect of the census is that so many of the varieties are available from so few sources, said Lee Buttala, executive director of Seed Savers. As a result, availability “can fluctuate greatly,” he said.
The most glaring example of that was the retirement of orchardist Nick Botner of Spearheart Farm and Orchard in Yoncalla, Ore., who amassed one of the largest collections of heirloom apples and other fruit in the country. With the closure of the nursery, more than 3,000 varieties of apples, plums and grapes “fell out of the marketplace,” according to the report. Seed Savers and another preservation group, the Temperate Orchard Conservatory in Portland, Ore., have taken scions to preserve most of Botner’s apple stock.
Seed Savers’ updated inventory of heirloom vegetables is in the works and will be available later this winter.
There have been two compelling arguments why we should care about the preservation of these antique and local varieties. The first is genetic diversity, what plant breeders call germplasm. Hybridizers look to this vast gene pool in their efforts to breed better plants — varieties able to ward off pests and diseases, with more cold hardiness or heat tolerance or the ability to cope with drought or flood. With our environment jerked around by climate change, this crop manipulation becomes as important as ever. The vast global banana-growing trade, reliant on just one variety, is facing a serious threat from a couple of diseases.
The other reason is not scientific but cultural: These varieties are interwoven into the history of this land since Colonial times and before.
There is a third reason. In an age when large multinational biotechnology corporations control what is owned, grown and sold, we are wise to assert our common ownership of heritage varieties. We can achieve this by growing them ourselves.
In our winter moment of planning the season ahead, it might be useful to pick up a copy of the census, which lists the sources of nurseries where each variety can be obtained. You may have to delve deeper to find out whether a given variety will grow where you live. I fancied a native hawthorn named the Red Haw but discovered it’s a magnet for rust disease in this region. More promising is a hybrid between the Japanese apricot — always the first prunus of the year to flower — and a flowering plum called Bungo. I may have to order a black currant named Crandall. “Excellent for jam, syrup and juice. Five times the vitamin C of oranges.” That’s unpiped music to my ears.