Sunday, December 5, 2010

From Russia With Love

From Russia with complications came the first tomato to reach ripeness during the year just past in Plot 34a (my back garden and greenhouse) – an heirloom by the name of Silver Tree Fern.
Tomatoes may seem odd coming from Russia given our natural tomato association with the sunny Med rather then the land of borscht, ushanka fur hats and permafrosted wooly mammoths.  In fact tomatoes originate in Peru and only reached Europe in the 16th century. The English got them just fifty years after the Italians. I don’t know when the Russians started but they’ve since produced hundreds of the most interesting and unusual varieties. (squashed writing because microsoft fights with google - i trust you'll persist reading despite their silliness?)
Silver Tree Fern Russian tomatoes
The Silver Tree fern was one of a number of endangered heirlooms which, like my Lumper potatoes, I acquired from Irish Seedsavers.  As a bush variety it’s low slung (about two foot high)  and the odd fernlike leaves and are supposed to go silver grey, although thus far on the steppes of Kimmage they remain verdant green.
I divided them between patio containers outside and the greenhouse. The latter bunch went mental altogether, sprouting and bushing in all directions before collapsing under their own weight.  Given the sheer amount of foliage, I left the secateurs inside and the mad Russians to sort it out by themselves. Most caught a mould and died but the remainders, appeared to revamp and thrived along the ground without support. Back on the patio in the open air, the foliage was less pronounced but they also collapsed again and again. But once again, just when they seemed set for the compost mausoleum, they miraculously resurrected.
With snow in March and then again in October, the Russian growing season is short, so they were the first of my six varieties this year to ripen. The fruits look like little pumpkins: flat squat, orangey and very big (about four inches across). They’re heavily ridged and feature some sort of bizarre naturally occurring holes in the bottom amidst a brown callused under carriage . When the first one ripened about four weeks ago I cut it up, detached the gnarly bottom and ate the rest.
Allotment in Russia
This tomato divides growers because it’s tart and acid for a beefy and despite the many moans from chatty bloggers and posters about it being too bitter, I love it to bits, far preferring its lively zap to the blander soap of most other big tomatoes. Reading up the little material I could find, I discovered the hot periods we’d been having may have meddled with its cooler early cycle preferences. A tomato which needs protection from the heat? Stranger again.
What makes the entire duma of Russian heritage tomatoes useful in Ireland is exactly this preference. They like containers, and thus apartment balconies and will tolerate coastal locations. And saved heritage/heirloom seeds certainly make growing far more interesting.
Today Russia leads the world in seed saving for now– boasting the world’s largest seedbank at the Vavilov Centre in St Petersburg.
Nikolai Vavilov who is perhaps the first eco martyr,  was born in 1887 in Moscow and studied botany before travelling Europe in the early 20th century collecting plants with William Bateson, founder of the science of genetics. Later he would scour the entire planet in search of rarities to bring home and develop in a bank deemed so valuable that Hitler’s SS was instructed to steal it.
Vavilov discovered that almost all the food plants we feed ourselves with today originate in those small pockets of the world where their wild relatives still grow today. He determined that most food crop varieties, having had their genes narrowed by hundreds or thousands of years of use outside these pockets, could be revitalised by being crossed with wild relatives from their centres of origin to strengthen them against pests and disease.
There are eight Vavilov Centres and it’s the one in Central America where tomatoes and potatoes still grow wild. Today’s work to develop potato strains capable of dealing with new strains of blight, would not be possible without spuds from a single valley in Peru at the heart of the spud’s Vavilov centre. While these centres require protection for obvious reasons, unfortunately many wild gene pools today risk contamination by GM foods grown in them or in proximity to the Vavilov centres.
When the War broke out, Vavilov’s Leningrad Botany institute (in St Petersburg today) had more than 200,000 varieties of threatened strains housed there, many of them available nowhere else. When the city was besieged by the Nazis and food shortages set in, Vavilov and his scientists vowed not to eat the grain and seed potatoes they had worked so hard to save from extinction.
Nazi gardening?
In the months that followed twelve starved to death alongside sacks of food, rather than eat what they were guarding for the rest of the world.
But Stalin had been listening to some politically expedient flat earth scientists, notably a rival of Vavilov’s named Trofim Lysenko. Lysenko’s dislike of Vavilov lead to Stalin imprisoning Vavilov - seventy years ago this month.  After two years he was starved to death – a cynical end no doubt choreographed by his former master.  You might have read the fictionalised account of his life contained in Elise Blackwell’s acclaimed 2003 novel, “Hunger.”
Stalin's Vavilov
Earlier this month, a new extinction was hailed – a court case ruling which spelled the end of the Vavilov Centre and the thousands of varieties that only exist there. Having survived Hitler, Stalin and starvation and maintained its operations since before this state was born, the world’s largest seed bank is about to be destroyed by the equivalent of the local council with a compulsory purchase order.  The centre has just lost its case against the old house, its seed bank and the surrounding crop fields from being razed for apartment development by the Federal Government whose bulldozers will cause the single biggest mass food plant extinction of our lifetimes.
Vladamir Putin, who has power of repeal over the Federal Government has not replied to any letters sent to him by the Vavilov Centre. It was reported some time ago that he wanted to convert the big old house into his new summer residence.
As I write, scientists from all over the world are desperately trying to bring out those varieties which can be saved. “There’s no backup for this collection, and that’s the real tragedy of it all,” said Rome based Cary Fowler,  the executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust.”This is extinction on a scale that I’ve not seen in my professional lifetime, and it can’t be replaced.”
(thanks to the Guardian) seed samples
And it might have been Nikolai Vavilov himself who originally saved the little Silver Tree Ferns that I’m now growing. But unlike my red Rasputins which keep reviving to produce more and more strange and glorious fruit, the Vavilov Centre and the crops a dozen scientists starved for may not outlast them. The Vavilov Centre and the tens of thousands of unique crop varieties kept alive there 1921 – 2010. Write to our environment minister and ask him to make Ireland’s view known. If you're from elsewhere, find out the Russian ambassador's email address and send a personal message.


  1. Would you mind posting here any links you have to Vavilov collecting with Bateson? I'd really like to know more.

  2. Hi Jeremy, here's a link which I think is from Queen's University California. It shows a picture of Vavilov posing with Bateson. Hope this is of some help.

    Otherwise, all I have is pretty much what's out there in Googleland.

    Mark K

  3. The site also contains some info about their meetings