Horticulture students working to safeguard survival of UK seed varieties

Ensuring the long-term survival of the country’s original bean varieties is part of a key project involving Nottingham Trent University.
Heritage seed packet

Horticulture students at the university’s Brackenhurst Campus are preparing to sow a new batch of seeds as part of a scheme which aims to safeguard the original genetic make-up of a variety of species.

Programmes of in-breeding and hybridisation amongst certain species have meant that over time their genetic diversity has decreased and the original genetic make-up of some varieties is lost.

The loss of these varieties is of concern, not only because it means we are gradually losing elements of our cultural heritage, but also because the new genetic make-up may make them more susceptible to disease.

The university carries out the work as a ‘Seed Guardian’ volunteer for Garden Organic’s Heritage Seed Library. Volunteers are sent samples of original varieties to grow for the purpose of saving all of the seeds produced and returning them to the Heritage Seed Library for safekeeping.

The heirloom varieties are selectively chosen for flavour, suitability for climate, continuity of harvest and suitability for a particular culinary purpose.

“If these old varieties are not grown they will become extinct,” said Caroline Wright, a horticulture lecturer in Nottingham Trent University’s School of Animal, Rural and Environmental Sciences.

She said: “The students are involved at all stages, sowing the new batch of varieties and planting them out, as well as recording germination data. Then in the autumn we will harvest the crop of beans and prepare them for drying.

“Seeds – and particularly large seeds such as beans – will not last forever even if they are stored in perfect conditions. This work is really important because old varieties hold a lot of genetic diversity important for the success of the species. Many of these heirloom varieties have been grown and passed down from generation to generation for more than 100 years.

“They are often very local to a particular country or region, and a lot are just varieties that used to be popular before large-scale commercial growing dominated the market.”

Nottingham Trent University was selected to act as a Seed Guardian for the Heritage Seed Library following its use of a number of important species in an award winning garden exhibited at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in 2008.