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Seeds before genetic engineering

With the re-printing of the Vilmorin Seed Company’s album of exquisite drawings, we now have a beautiful pictorial record of the huge, diverse world of vegetables.

Vilmorin's album of 46 colour plates (see samples below), produced between 1850 and 1895, gives us an outstanding record of cultivated heirloom seeds as they were prior to the beginnings of modern plant breeding.

At the time the album was in progress, Darwin was publishing On The Origin of Species (1859) and Mendel his laws of heredity (1865). Both were needed as foundation pieces to begin to understand how to manipulate plants in predictable ways, so government funded plant breeding could improve yields.

Vilmorin was already 132 years old when its first comprehensive vegetable garden guide The Vegetable Garden was translated into English in 1885. Whilst the importation by Columbus of tomatoes, potatoes and peppers began to transform the cuisines of France and Italy, in Britain the appalling cool climate prevented planting of such heat dependent vegetable crops.

The French seed company Vilmorin listed about 1,400 selections that we now call heirlooms.

Vilmorin's book The Vegetable Garden

The poverty of our English heritage

Famous English gardener William Robinson wrote in the preface to The Vegetable Garden in 1885 ...

The Vegetable Garden is the first work in any language in which are classified, described, and illustrated what are the most important of all plants to the human race. We are meat eaters because our fathers had little else to eat . . . Men killed and cooked; there was little else worth eating.

A few generations only have passed since our now commonest vegetables came from the Continent . . . The vegetable kingdom is usually represented by a mass of ill-smelling Cabbage and sodden Potato.”

So Australian cuisine suffered for about 100 years because the mother country vegetable inheritance was so poor. Britain had neither markets nor local producers to support the hot weather crops that dominate our new, modern cuisine and without refrigeration and fast transport systems, vegetable produce would deteriorate so quickly and resemble those still found in outback communities today.

Vilmorin's The Vegetable Garden is a priceless text and remains the most exclusive and authoritative published in English today. In fact, had we been a French rather than an English colony, then our vibrant and dynamic food culture may have begun well before the arrival of Mediterranean and Asian migrants after World War II.

Markets became an essential method for sharing crops with a short shelf life like tomatoes, melons and beans, while most diets of the 19th century were particularly dependent upon crops with outstanding storage capabilities. Root crops such as turnips (55 selections), potatoes (186), beets (47) carrots (26), radish (47) and onions (54) could all be stored. Vilmorin listed no less than 164 cultivars of shelling peas because of their long storage life (see table below).

Even the true sweet corn (as distinct from Indian maize) was listed by Vilmorin, but it required the understanding of genetics and the hybrid breeding process perfected in the 1980s to extend variety selections.

Vilmorin listed over 1400 vegetable varieties in 1885, which is testament to the incredible diversity the French demanded, when compared to the 423 varieties offered by The Diggers Club today.

With the granting of plant patents over life forms in 1983, the evolution of our food and seed crops changed forever. The first small step away from farmer-owned and saved seed towards large corporation controlled seed and global ownership occurred when the first hybrid corn was created in 1923 in an American university.

Up until this date, 12,000 years of plant selection had domesticated wild species of grasses (wheat, corn, rice) and vegetables so they adapted to our needs as settled urban communities.

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