The seed catalogs, which used to arrive with January's snow, turned up with the Christmas mail this season, looking just as pretty and intriguing as the cards and gifts themselves.
While the cards wished us a happy new year, the catalogs promised us one. Moreover, they came loaded with "gifts" -- varieties from plant breeders whose everyday work rivals science fiction for incredibility.
Take the cauliflower that raises its arms and shades its head without any help from man; the lemon-shaped cucumber; or the new European varities that have no seeds at all. Not long ago, the elongated zucchini was induced to grow globe-shaped. Now this year the breeders have come up with a more conventional yellow zucchini, which, nevertheless, has been improved enough to be the only vegetable given an All America Selections award for 1980.
Also new this season is a new breed of supersize peanut, a cantaloupe that tastes like a pineapple, and what is being called a "brag patch" tomato that routinely produces two-pound fruits.
In recent years cauliflower breeders have concentrated on the self-blanching, or self-wrapping, types. By getting the cauliflower leaves to curl over the head in a protective dome, breeders have enabled professional growers to dispense with costly hand-tying labor. Home gardeners, benefit, because they frequently forget to do the tying job until it is too late.
One problem with early self-wrapping types was that the enclosed head was subject to rot. Newer varieties seem to have overcome that problem. A particularly good newcomer is Delira (Stokes Seeds, Buffalo, N.Y.). Its unique leaf development forms a loose-fitting dome over the head that protects it from light and rain but allows enough air movement to prevent rotting. For my part, last fall I grew Dr. Shigemi Honma's Self-Blanche (Harris Seeds, Rochester, N.Y.), with very satisfying results.
What prompted the enthusiasm of All America Selections judges for the Gold Rush Zucchini is that it stays tender and crisp even when 8 to 10 inches long and makes ideal raw finger food with dips. Moreover, the plants are smaller than conventional zucchinis (covering about 4 square feet when mature), yet they yield just as abundantly.
Another plus is the openness of the plant, which allows the fruit to be readily seen and harvested. And there's still another benefit: The sun can get through to the base of the plant, drying it out after a heavy rain, helping to reduce stork rot. Most mail-order seed houses are offering Gold Rush.
The new European seedless cucumbers (Stokes Seeds offers nine varieties) have been developed principally for greenhouse and hydroponic culture. Try them in a conventional garden, by all means, but don't count on them for the main crop.
On the other hand, the noel lemon cucumber (Harris Seeds) grows in conventional soil gardens. It matures about the size and color of a large lemon and has a sweet flavor that is distinct from other cukes. They are fully ripe when first starting to turn yellow but may be used while still green.
A few years ago the Park Seed Company of Greenwood, S.C., was given some seed of an exceptionally large peanut. Tests showed that it reproduced uniformly large goobers (the pods averaged 3 inches long) with a pleasant sweet taste. So Park now is offering the Park's Whopper Peanut.
It is believed that the ancestor of the whopper was first discovered in Brazil by a US serviceman stationed there during World War II. He brought some back with him to southern Georgia, where they became a local curiosity. Gradually they spread around until brought to the attention of Park's breeders. Each plant produces about a pound of peanuts.
Early in the 1970s, breeders in Taiwan began crossing an Oriental cataloupe that had a delightful flavor but little vigor with hardier melons. Thousands of crosses ultimately produced the desired result and seeds were sent to Park for testing. In trial fields last summer, horticulturists saw "smooth, round, five- pound melons ripen in 85 days on vigorous, prolific vines." They are being offered this spring under the name Pineapple Hybrid Cantaloupe.
New from the W. Atlee Burpee Seed Company this year is an extra-large tomato that offers taste as well as the opportunity to brag. Appropriately called Supersteak, fruits routinely reach two pounds each and the vines go on producing from roughly 80 days after setting out through to frost. One tasty slice will cover a hamburger bun and then some.
Especially good for freezing is another Burpee offering: sweet corn by the name of Candystick II. It thaws readily without any "cobby taste." Ears are extra long, usually 9 to 9 1/2 inches.