Monday, February 10, 2020

Heirloom and Open-pollinated Seeds in Japan

Smoke Signals, an heirloom popcorn, whose seeds I save and replant.

Since moving to Japan eleven 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 F1 varieties.

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 golden paste tomato, the resulting generation of fruit is F1.

In order to get that tomato of my culinary dreams, I will choose members of that first generation after the cross that are headed in a direction I like, such as early ripening, medium-sized fruit, and good taste, and save their seeds. The next spring, I will plant them and repeat the process of choosing, saving, and planting again and again until I get the tomato I want. (It is nice to note here that home gardeners eat their mistakes. Mistakes at large companies get tossed.)  The whole process can take anywhere from seven to ten years, but 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 perhaps daydreamed about a golden paste tomato.

So, what does it mean that the seed package says F1? Well, it means that the seeds in that envelope are the first generation result of a cross of two parental lines. It means that you will get whatever the package claims: a striped cherry tomato, an easy-to-slice cucumber, a seedless watermelon. It also often means that the plant will perform well. This is a nice side benefit is called hybrid vigor, the tendency to show results superior to either parent, and it can result in higher yields and faster growth.

However, seeds saved from these F1 hybrids will not grow true. Seed can be saved and the results eaten, but it won't be the same as that first one. It is in the second generation that other traits can emerge. For example, the cherry tomato will not have stripes or the cucumber will have a tough skin or some other trait that may not be awful, but won't be what you expected. 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 Varieties
Open-pollinated varieties are those that are pollinated by human, insect, wind, or some other force of nature. Because of this lack of control of who they cross with, open pollinated varieties have more genetic diversity. This means that plants will vary somewhat from year to year as they mix and mingle over time. The advantage is that if you save the seed from these plants over time the variety becomes adjusted to your micro-climate, your soils, and your farming and gardening habits.

Seeds saved from these plants will grow true unless they cross with different varieties in the same plant family. Then, you have F1 plants. If you don't want that to happen for some reason, then you will have to keep families separated by a certain distance. For example, my kales, norabos, and other greens freely share pollen. Since they are all essentially from the same family, I'm getting something a little different every time. It's a big patch of F1s, but I'm not particularly fussed. If I was saving the seed to sell or wanted to pass down as true a strain as possible, I would grow them a safe distance from their cousins.

Heirloom Varieties
Heirloom varieties are plants - flowers, vegetables, herbs, and fruits - that have a history in an area, region, community, or family. They are always open-pollinated varieties, although not all open-pollinated varieties are heirlooms. The seeds are saved from year to year to year and passed down from generation to generation. These varieties have survived and been passed down because they are reliable, taste good, grow well in that particular climate, and are integral to local or regional foodways and traditions. (Foodways are, according to Merriman-Weser, "the eating habits and culinary practices of a people, region, or historical period.") Like the open-pollinated varieties mentioned above, if you save the seed, heirloom varieties will grow true. (Remember the isolation distances, though!) If you plant, for example, an Amish Paste tomato, save the seeds, and plant them the next season, an Amish Paste tomato will grow.

Finding Japanese Open-pollinated and 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 many 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 or Old Tokyo vegetables varieties) that were once common and even famous in the Tokyo but are now now well-known at all.

A number of groups and individuals also save seeds, and whether these are heirlooms or just nifty open-pollinated varieties is a question to ask the person offering them. One group I would recommend is Share Seeds. They have events for learning how to save seed, swapping seed, and more.

Other sources I use are asaichi (literally translated as morning market, these are traditional farmers markets) and western-style marketsmichi-no-eki (roadside stands) and chokubaijo (vegetable stands), and many organic festivals also have seed swapping booths. Flying somewhat under the radar are groups like this one in the Shonan area quietly going about the work of preserving varieties and are most likely quite willing to share seeds with a friendly enquiry. It's worth asking!

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