Heirloom seeds give gardeners a chance to save plants from extinction

John Withee grew up knowing all about the great taste of beans - baked Maine-style in a hole in the ground. Later, when he tried to repeat the experience as an adult living in Massachusetts, he had problems. He could dig the hole, all right, and he knew full well how to line the sides with coals that were good and hot. Trouble was, he couldn't get hold of any of the yellow-eyed beans that were so much a part of his boyhood experience.

Even the folks in Maine who remembered the flavor-filled little beans couldn't give him many leads. It seems they just began to fade away after World War II, when Maine growers and gardeners started buying from the big seed companies rather than saving their own. So when Mr. Withee finally stumbled across a few of the then very rare beans, he knew he'd have to grow his own and save the seed from year to year if he wanted to know the satisfaction of eating yellow-eyed beans.

In doing so, John Withee may well have saved the Maine yellow-eye from extinction.

When gardener-author Carolyn Jabs told me that story recently, she was emphasizing a point: Home gardeners, you and I, can contribute significantly to saving the diversity of life forms on this planet. While we may feel helpless about our ability to save the endangered condors, pandas, and whooping cranes of this world, we can do significant things for the plant kingdom. We can in fact save the yellow-eyed bean, the bark-skinned beet, the early tennis ball lettuce, even the mortgage-lifter tomato, with just a little effort in the backyard.

We can do this by planting a few seeds of an heirloom variety that most seed companies no longer carry and by saving the seed. In most cases it involves only a few square feet of garden space.

Why bother? There are some compelling reasons. In an era when plant breeding has reached new heights through bio-engineering, the world is losing genes with such desirable traits as drought resistance, pest resistance, perhaps acid-rain resistance, at an alarming rate. Bio-engineering literally gives breeders the power to manufacture almost totally new plants by combining the genes of species that would never join together in nature. But while the scientists can manipulate the genes, they cannot create them. So when a species or variety dies out, its possibly unique traits are gone for good.

Unhappily, the gene pool - comprising the still wild-growing ancestors of modern-day crops and the once-great garden- and farm-grown varieties that existed before World War II - is shrinking alarmingly.

The extent of this plant extinction (and with it the loss of so many unique and valuable traits) is staggering. In the United States alone there were some 8 ,000 apple varieties at the turn of this century; in 1981, according to the US Department of Agriculture, the list had shrunk to 1,000. Overall the number of fruit and vegetable varieties has declined by some 80 percent during the same period.

For obvious reasons it pays seed companies to sell large numbers of a few varieties rather than small quantities of many varieties. Most of the larger and long-established companies are still around because they practiced that form of economy, but it is a practice that has contributed to much of the decline in varieties. Within the last decade or so some smaller companies have sprung up, founded on the premise that there are some seeds out there worth saving. The Vermont Bean Seed Company is one; Johnny's Selected Seeds is another. Johnny's, in fact, sells the yellow-eyed bean saved by Withee, which is now well out of danger.

In her recent book, ''The Heirloom Gardener'' (Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, $9.95), Carolyn Jabs tells the story of scores of individuals who grow and save these heirloom seeds. She explains how to go about growing heirlooms, where to get the seeds for some of the endangered species, and what to do with the seeds you have saved. It is a well-written, fascinating book that is sobering because of the incredible loss of plant varieties it chronicles, yet filled with hope because so many of us can become John Withees.

Next Tuesday: Finding heirloom seeds via the Seed Saver' Exchange

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