The 'Alderman' Pea- a heritage or heirloom variety

The ‘Alderman’ Pea- a heritage or heirloom variety

So, we made it to number 12. And what’s left to capture the essence of gardening? Well, I think I must put something in about legacy. So I’ve chosen an example of the humble pea, but not just any- an heirloom or heritage variety called ‘Alderman’.

In an interesting article about the heirloom or heritage varieties of pea held at the John Innes Centre in nearby Norwich, Mike Ambrose describes how the number of varieties of pea mentioned in seed catalogues increased over the 19th century, though in truth probably many were not ‘new’ varieties but thought to be such by their discoverers.

‘Peas were one of the most highly prized vegetables not just because of their nutritional qualities but also for their ease of cultivation and the range of varieties that ensured a succession of fresh produce over an extended season from May to October. Seed catalogues from the 1800’s contained many pages of descriptions of the varieties and in many, peas were placed at the front of the list. The Suttons catalogue of Vegetable seeds lists 53 varieties of peas compared to 14 broad beans whereas EW King & Co catalogue lists 49 peas to only 8 broad beans. Arthur Sutton in his paper on the progress of vegetable cultivation during Queen Victoria’s reign, interestingly also starts with peas which he refers to as the ‘Prince of Vegetables’.

The highly inbreeding nature of peas means that once fixed, particular variants or lines were particularly easy to maintain and it is clear from descriptions and illustrations as far back as the late 1500’s that peas such as parchmentless and fascinated types merited their own description and attributes (Gerard’s Herbal 1597). Prior to the rediscovery of Mendel’s work on the basis of inheritance in the early years of the 1900’s, there are clear references in the literature to selections being made from existing varieties as well as crossings between lines from which multiple forms were derived. In the absence of an understanding as to the underlying mechanism, the work was largely very largely empirical and selections in segregating populations resulting from crosses would have been only fixed for major characters leaving plenty of scope for further selection in subsequent generations.

Such was the clamour for improved varieties from growers in a market where there was no restriction in seed marketing and references can be found that openly refer to the prolific development of synonyms. Sherwood in 1898 noted the anomaly that, “while the number of listed varieties in catalogues was falling, the number of names of peas were ever increasing as more and more new varieties were being announced or shall I say old friends with new names”.

This was a brave statement of what was a widespread practise and he goes on to say “I need hardly say that they may easily be reduced to one fourth that number (150) as so many are only synonyms well known to those who test them each year: but it is not my intention to apply the pruning-knife, as I should most likely bring about my head a hornet’s nest of protests from those who do not agree with me.” This from someone who was involved with the growing of nearly 700 rows of different marketed peas for comparison in 1898 in his trial grounds in Essex…’

So my last object captures the way gardeners and breeders have taken natural processes of hybridisation among plants and developed varieties with new chracteristics- whether in foliage, flower, fruit or other ways. This legacy has added to nature’s own bounty and given us as gardeners ever more choice. But of course nature (and the growth in plant breeder’s rights) can also destroy or limit this variety. So it’s great to see initiatives like the conservation work of the NCCPG, Garden Organic’s Heritage Seed Library and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault- which both attempt to collect, and in Garden Organic’s case, promote the growing of, varieties that are in danger of being lost

…I leave to another place the debate over whether ever-increasing new varieties and the growing control of the varieties available commercially are ultimately ‘good’ things and of course the even more controversial topic of how genetic modification can even further extend our control of nature…

For us more modest gardeners, legacy may not be about breeding or discovering new varieties of plant and then finding a name for them (often of a cherished loved one, or for the more narcissistic, choosing one’s own name). Rather, it will be in leaving what we have created in our gardens and quite possibly what we pass on to sons, daughters and others (e.g. in school or community growing projects) by way of our skills and knowledge gained over many seasons.

I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading this and the previous posts in the series. You can access all of them via  ‘The Essence of Gardening in 12 Objects’ in the ‘My articles classified’ list on the right- but as a ready reference I’ll list out all 12 below:

1: Compost Heap– looking after our soil and feeding plants

2: Plant Label– propagation by seed and nurturing plants

3: Wardian Case– the expansion of plant choice through importation and creation of micro climates

4: Hand fork– weeding and soil care

5: Topiary– cutting plant stems to control shape and propagate

6: NGS Booklet– sharing our gardens and learning from them

7: Compass and compasses– positioning plants and design

8: Half Moon– constructing and shaping the garden and lunar phase gardening

9: Weather Satellite– watching and responding to the weather and further technological developments to aid the gardener

10: Trug– growing plants to eat

11: Garden Bench– sitting and enjoying the garden

12: Heirloom Pea – legacy through hybridisation and passing on our skills and knowledge to the next generation

Further information:

Garden Organic’s Heritage Seed Library

‘Seed Sense’- The Guardian

Svalbard Global Seed Vault

NCCPG Plant Heritage

EU Seed Law update and why grow Heritage seeds- Permaculture Magazine

 Old School Gardener

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