A Good Portion of What You Eat is Cloned
In 1868, Maria Ann Smith noticed an interesting apple seedling growing by a creek on her property. She grew the plant out and it eventually produced apples with green skin and sweet, tart flesh. She liked the apple so much that she took cuttings – a propagation technique that involves starting new plants using pieces of root, stem, or leave from the parent plant. Others liked the fruit as well and they too took cuttings. Almost 150 years later, Maria Smith’s Apple has been propagated thousands of times and is one of the most popular apple varieties on the planet – you know it as the Granny Smith.
Notice that I said the Granny Smith and not a Granny Smith. The difference is small but important because every Granny Smith apple you have ever eaten is an exact copy – a genetic clone – of the seedling Maria identified in 1868. Ever time you bite into a Granny Smith – regardless of where it was grown – you are biting into the same apple.
Why clone a plant anyway? For starters, it’s easy – a few hours and a good pair of pruners can yield hundreds of new plants. More importantly, you know exactly what you’re getting – growth habit, disease tolerance, fruit – it’s all going to be exactly the same as the original plant. It’s why every navel orange you’ve ever eaten tastes the same – clones from one original tree.
An extreme example of cloning is the Cavendish bananas – a single plant grown in a British greenhouse that has completely dominated the market. Odds are good that unless you’ve sought out different varieties in speciality stores that you’ve only ever tasted the fruit from a single banana plant. Despite the fact that there are almost a thousand known banana cultivated varieties (cultivars) in the world. How is it that most of us have only ever tasted one? Think of the flavours you’re missing but also think about a rich history of plant propagation that’s been narrowed down to one supermarket variety.
Cultivars As Culture
Cloning isn’t new – it’s what’s keeping thousands of culturally important plant varieties alive. Globally, there are over seven-thousand apple varieties representing almost every place on the planet. Some of these varieties may only exist as single plants in someone’s backyard or are culturally important to a region or community. And yet, most of us are only familiar with a few varieties – red and golden delicious, spartan, gala, fuji, granny smith, etc. Sadly, this small handful of apples has become so successful that they’ve elbowed out the competition. To find a home on the supermarket shelf, appearance and shelf life, not flavour, are the deciding factors. What’s worse is that ubiquitous supermarket varieties (especially varieties unsuitable to local growing conditions) gradually replace tastier, hardier, and more interesting local cultivars.
Cloned cultivars can represent hundreds or thousands of years meticulous selection, continuous propagation, and patience – they represent the collective wisdom of a culture and place. And because they’re clones, if we stop propagating them, they’ll disappear within a generation.
Seeds To Create New Varieties, Clones To Preserve Them
Seeds, in contrast, are a combination of their parents (the plant it grew on and the plant that pollinated it). Seeds are less predictable – if you plant a thousand seedlings you’ll get a thousand distinct plants – a thousand new varieties. To create new varieties, plant breeders cross-pollinate plants with desirable traits, grow the seeds, and look for new individuals.
Once a breeder finds a plant they like, the only way to preserve it is to make copies – clones of the original. But since plants have finite lifespans this process has to be repeated to keep the variety going.
Use It Or Lose It
Unlike seeds, cultivars can’t be stored – they’re either growing or gone. They’re like languages – you need to use them to keep them alive. Here are four ways to protect cultivars:
- Support small fruit and vegetable producers who are cultivating interesting cultivars and heirlooms.
- Plant local or endangered cultivars. Most retail nursery plants are grown by large wholesalers growing the most profitable plants. Look for small-scale nurseries selling interesting and lesser-known cultivars. Look online as many nurseries will ship plants to your front door. To find locally and endangered varieties of food, visit Slow Food’s Ark of Taste project.
- Find a gardening or fruit growers group. Locally, I like the Hardy Fruit and Nut Trees of Alberta or the Fruit Grower’s Group. Ask people what they’re growing, what’s working, and where they’re finding their plants.
- Keep an eye out for interesting plants. New varieties are out there waiting to be discovered – an apricot seedling in a boulevard, wild goji in the river valley (both actual Edmonton examples – more on them in later posts). A seedling on the edge of a creek or in your back alley might be the next Granny Smith.