In late summer and early fall when the harvests come in, scientists from the Vavilof Institute in Russia mount seed-finding expeditions throughout the former Soviet bloc. They reckon they have five, maybe 10 years, before the vast treasure trove of genetic diversity disappears from the region under the onslaught of modern Western agriculture.
What they are finding will eventually make its way into plant breeding programs around the world and, into the backyards of home gardeners as well.
Stopping at individual farms and markets in every town and village along the route, they search, not only for unique and vigorous varieties, but also for the stories and history behind them.
"These people," says Kent Whealy of the Seed Savers Exchange based in Decorah, Iowa, "are some of the best collectors in the world." During the siege of Leningrad in World War II, scientists at the Vavilof Institute "starved at their desks rather than eat their collection of seeds." Today they generally depend on Western aid to mount these searches.
For the past three years the Seed Savers Exchange has financed seed-saving expeditions. Last year, they went to the mountainous region of Kazakstan. They returned with some 300 varieties of grains and fruits, new to the Western world.
But not all impressive finds have come from remote regions. As is still the case in the United States, many East bloc gardeners maintained family favorites in the face of the communist uniformity all around them. Seed Savers staff are now growing some 30 varieties of "black" tomatoes that came from East Europe and Russia. They are a mahogany brown, so deep in color that from just a few feet away they look jet black.
Another find is a red tomato with carrot-like foliage. "Silver Fir Tree" is the English translation of the Russian.
These discoveries and other ongoing searches elsewhere in the world, mounted originally with seed banks and breeding programs in mind, are coming at a time when home gardening, and even farming interest in heirloom varieties has never been so high.
What began as a temporary fad in the view of some observers, nearly two decades ago, has now established itself as a permanent part of the home gardening scene. The reasons are many. When it comes to fruits and vegetables, taste is foremost - but nostalgia, a sense of history, and the story behind a variety are other reasons. Many people grow the beefsteak tomato variety Polish, says Linda Sapp of the Tomato Growers Supply Company, because the original seeds were smuggled out of Poland under a postage stamp in the old days when such exports were illegal.
Then, unlike modern hybrids, the seeds of heirlooms can be saved and will breed true. Moreover they are reliable producers, often doing well on far less fertilizer than is required by modern varieties.
In some instances, heirlooms may be slightly less productive than hybrids "but they are not more disease prone," says Rob Johnston whose Johnnys Selected Seeds catalog features many heirloom varieties.
An exception may be in regions where commercial monocrop production of the same vegetable is going on. "For instance 'yellows' is not generally a [cabbage] problem in home gardens except in major cabbage-growing regions," Johnston notes.
But what exactly is an heirloom? To George Ball whose Burpee Seeds company has just put out a special all-heirloom catalog, an heirloom must be open pollinated so that saved seeds will have the traits of the parents and have been around at least 50 years. Many offerings are old and proven standbys from Burpee catalogs preceding 1947, like the French Breakfast radish brought back from France by Atlee Burpee in the 1880s.
In contrast, to be listed in the Johnnys Selected Seeds catalog, an heirloom must have been maintained by amateur gardeners outside the seed industry for many decades before being offered to a commercial company.
Johnston cites the Garden of Eden pole bean, now being offered in the Johnnys catalog, as a classic example. "It was a totally unsolicited offering that came to us from a family in New Jersey," he notes. They had maintained it for 30 years from a seed sent to them by relatives in Italy. It "had never been previously in commercial production," says Johnston who researched as far back as he could go through old Italian seed catalogs.
More important, however, was the eating quality of the bean. Normally the company tests a new variety for four years before accepting it. "But these beans were so dramatic," says Johnston, "we knew we had a winner after two years." So did Rutgers University which also tested the bean.
It's not the most highly productive bean but "its eating quality, its sweet taste is superb," says Mr. Johnston.
Meanwhile it is expected that the increased popularity and publicity surrounding heirlooms will prompt more gardeners who have maintained a family favorite over the generations to come forward and have them evaluated.
According to John Jeavons of Ecology Action and author of the bestselling "How to Grow More Vegetables," individual gardeners are a key to preserving biodiversity in food crops. "People don't realize how important we are as individuals," says Jeavons. "If each gardener grew just a few heirlooms and saved the seeds, the contribution would be tremendous." he says.