|Drying pods of heirloom Hutterite Soup Beans.|
Since moving to Japan eight years ago, one of my greatest challenges as a farmer-gardener has been to find heirloom or open-pollinated seeds. The majority of seeds available are not GMO (genetically modified organisms) as Japan, at this point, doesn't accept this material. Most seeds, though, are nearly all F1 varieties.
Heirloom and F1 Varieties
In plant breeding, F1 is the name given to the first generation of a cross between two true breeding parents. For example, if I decide to cross an Amish Paste Tomato with another heirloom variety tomato such as Emmy, in hopes of getting a gold paste tomato, the resulting generation of fruit is F1.
In order to get that tomato of my culinary dreams, I'll need to choose members of that first generation that are headed in a direction I like - early ripening, medium-sized fruit, good taste - and save their seeds. I'll plant them and repeat the process again and again over time until I get the one I want. (I will, of course, be eating my mistakes as I go, which isn't all bad.) The result is a vegetable that I like, that is tailored to my soil and climate, and that I can share with neighbors, friends, and even total strangers who also daydream about a golden paste tomato.
Today, though, F1 often stands for plants that are not the first generation of a cross between two true breeding parents, but rather somewhere further down the line from that original pair. Seeds saved from these F1 hybrids will not grow true. (Seed can be saved and eaten, but it just won't be the same as that first one. Patient gardeners can hack their way through the hybridization process to get something they might want. Those who want to try their hand at that should check out Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties by Carol Deppe.)
Open-pollinated or heirloom varieties, though, do grow true. If you plant, for example, an Amish Paste tomato, save the seeds, and plant them the next season, an Amish Paste tomato will grow. These varieties have survived and been passed down from generation to generation, literally from hand to hand, because they are reliable, taste good, store well, and are integral to local foodways.
Japanese Heirloom Seeds
Japanese heirloom seeds can be found in Japan through two main organizations. Tane no Mori specializes in organic seeds of traditional Japanese vegetables, but also European and American ones. This seed company is popular with a number of organic growers and producers. They also run a number of events and a monthly market near their home base in Saitama Prefecture.
The largest selection, though, is available from Noguchi Seeds. Also headquartered in Saitama Prefecture, Noguchi Seeds offers the widest selection of traditional varieties I have found yet. Many are Edo yasai (Edo vegetables) that were once common and even famous, but are now not well-known at all.
Other sources I use are asaichi (literally translated as morning market, these are traditional farmers markets) and western-style markets, michi-no-eki (roadside stands) and chokubaijo (vegetable stands). Many of the growers selling at these places continue to save their own seed and grow it. It's worth asking!
Joan Bailey writes about food, farming, and farmers markets with a little bit of travel thrown in for good measure. Get in touch to learn more about food in Japan or read some of her other work here.