The Other Side of Seed Saving: Preserving Genetic Diversity

Adapt your favorite cultivars to our ever-changing world by widening the genetic pool to ensure their survival.

Courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange

When we think of saving heirloom seeds, we tend to do what humans often do: We think of our own needs and desires first. We save heirloom cultivars because of their taste, form, and connection to our family or culture. And I’m not one to stand between someone and their favorite tomato; I have a few hundred favorites of my own. But beyond a personal connection, or an affinity for a cultivar’s taste or fragrance, we also keep heirloom cultivars because they’re comprised of genes that allow a species and, more specifically, a cultivar, to adapt to changing conditions in the world around us, ensuring that they have a chance of being in our gardens for generations to come.

The Nerve to Preserve

As seed savers and lovers of open-pollinated plants, we should do our share to help preserve the genes of time-honored cultivars. In the last issue of Heirloom Gardener (“Bountiful Blossom Bagging,” Summer 2019), we talked about manipulating a cultivar’s pollination to maintain its beloved traits, such as the form and taste of ‘Dr. Wyche’s Yellow’ tomato or the shape and color of ‘Black Barlow’ columbine. By ensuring that an heirloom cultivar was cross-pollinated by the same cultivar — and in the case of blossom bagging, by the same flower itself — we keep these cherished traits stable.

Corn is prone to inbreeding depression, so collect seeds from a large number of plants to maintain the health of the cultivar.
Photo by Getty Images/ryasick

But there’s a second aspect to maintaining an heirloom variety, and that’s maintaining its vigor and adaptability by safeguarding and managing its genetic health. While there are many visible crop characteristics, there are other genes within each cultivar for traits that are latent, and that vary from seed to seed within the cultivar, such as disease resistance and drought tolerance. These traits allow the cultivar to adapt to changing conditions over time and are just as essential — or perhaps even more so — for keeping a cultivar in the world for the long run. Prioritizing genes that protect a cultivar over ones that enhance taste, for example, doesn’t discount our own passion for that taste inasmuch as it ensures that this particular great tasting cultivar will remain with us.

Vigorous Vines

Managing a cultivar’s genetic breadth is relatively simple, and requires a method that isn’t unfamiliar to dog breeders: Work with a large enough population size to ensure that inbreeding doesn’t damage the species with which you’re working. Unlike hybrids, which are strictly produced to have very little genetic variation, heirloom cultivars evolve­, like humans, over time and from generation to generation. By using a larger population of a particular cultivar from which to collect seeds, we help to ensure its long-term health.



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