Thursday, February 07, 2008

“Heirloom by Descent”

By Tom Wagner

February 07, 2008

As a plant breeder, I live in a microcosm of the greater macrocosm of the world of seed savers. My insular habits are largely self-imposed as a plant breeder; thereby I rarely look up to see the larger picture. What I see, ever so vaguely, is that my tiny private world has impacted folks who see the big picture. Perhaps by sharing an element of my private work and my obscure philosophy, the reader can place a piece of the seed puzzle together to gain a better image of the entire seed saving movement.

Prior to 1996 I was bringing along strains that were segregating for Pink Brandywine traits, Elberta Girl types, etc., with the idea of finding an idealized prototype perfection of several varieties into one or more unique cultivars or “would be” varieties.

My selection of Pink Brandywine was directly from the Stokes seed catalog of the late 80's. It would be nice to know what "strain" Stokes had during that time. It was a classic potato leaf, large beefsteak, and pink-fruited tomato with many locules. All of the crossing work was done by 1990. All of the filial generations since have been inventoried and I have a myriad of selections that I am still going through.

As it is with anyone doing breeding work, the recoms (short for recombinations) is where the real work, the real numbers, the real art, the reality of expectations occur.

Q. Why (Pink) Brandywine?

A. The Premise for Use.

Classic name



Potato Leaf

Large fruited

Perceived flavor


Q. But Tom, how many of those traits can be kept in a new variety?

A. All, or most, of those traits can be part of a new variety, and that is where hard work, science, and art prevail. I want all or none. Is it possible?

Q. OK, Let’s start with the name Brandywine. How do you keep that name and still have a distinct variety?

A. I did that by dropping the wine part off and calling a strain Brandy Stripe. A person could also drop the Brandy and use the wine part of a new name as well.

Q. But isn’t Brandywine an Heirloom? How can you claim any credibility by naming one of your varieties an Heirloom? Haven’t you been marginalized by “Heirloom Purists” who demand that your varieties not be called “Heirloom” but “Created Heirlooms?”

A. Of course, those are valid concerns. I did not intend on the onset of my breeding work to demand that my many created varieties be called Heirloom, Heritage, Treasured, or any other esoteric term. I preferred the term specialties, or just “New Varieties” or until a better nomenclature could evolve. I don’t mean to sound like I’ve been maligned, but the reality is malicious by default through good intentions; whereas folks make statements that undervalue my reputation as a plant breeder by strongly suggesting that none of my varieties are “Heirlooms.” Varieties of my creation, such as Green Zebra, are so ubiquitous with heirlooms that to make published statements otherwise is akin to being quasi-slanderous, (for want of a better Latin term). Why would the Seed Savers Exchange carry many of my varieties and/or varieties developed through accidental crosses of my lines, among their heirloom collections and offered in their catalog if they weren’t heirlooms, so to speak?

Q. Do you have a better word than “Heirloom” for your creations?

A. Yeah! I am for the first time ever, proposing the term, “Heirloom by Descent” to alleviate the mincing of words. Many rather heated arguments are generated trying to define heirloom. I want to trademark the new phrase. Help me if you know how. Go Google it!

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There, I’ve said it! If people want to single me out for being disingenuous with the pride of being an heirloom breeder; then at least honor me with my term for some accuracy within the media. I have very accurately controlled pedigree crosses and filial descent progenies. I am not a proponent of listing “Newly Found Heirlooms” through some measure of illegitimate pollen flow. That shows little or no concern for conscientious breeders like myself who attempt to introduce new “Heirloom” quality varieties. If I wanted to be a tad more facetious I would use terms like, “Filially Descendant Heritable Heirloom.”

Q. You digress like this often?

A. You think this is digression? This is more focused than I usually write. I am the guy who comes to the fork in the road and calls Yogi Berra for more directions. You know the quote, “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Q. But back to the traits of Brandywine. Why keep the potato leaf of this variety in your new creation?

A. Why not? As I said, I am trying to keep every trait of Brandywine intact but add a few new traits to make it like an add-on rather than a take-away.

Q. How do you know that you’ve kept the large fruiting habit of Brandywine?

A. None of the other varieties used in the original breeding have big fruit. It is very easy to segregate for the different sizes. So I’ve kept that trait and whatever else is genetically linked to that.

Q. But that claim to your keeping within the parameters of perceived flavor (your words), are you sure you are selecting for the Brandywine flavor?

A. Oh, I am pretty sure I have kept a big part of the Brandywine flavor and mystique. The other clones crossed with Brandywine had flavors only a mother would like. So it was easy forgetting Mom in this case. Again, I am sorry. It was Dad who didn’t have taste! Dad married up on this occasion.

Q. Tenderness is always considered classic in Heirlooms. How do you know if you’ve kept the Brandywine tenderness?

A. Easy response again. Dad (the other varieties) was like a hard ball thrown by Nolan Ryan's 101.9 MPH fastball back in ’74. I like baseball as much as the other fella, but I sure don’t want to eat a baseball. The answer in breeding tomatoes is to throw a lot of tomatoes at the barn door. In fact, Jackson Pollock, held no candle to my barn painting impressionism.

Q. OK, Mr. Expert in “Heirloom by Descent” breeding. What kind of tomato did you come up with?

A. I called this one group of seedlings Brandy Stripe. It had the potato leaf from Brandywine; the stripes and woolly foliage from Elberta Girl, but large fruit like Brandywine; tenderness of the Brandywine, pink and yellow stripes instead of red and yellow stripes like Elberta Girl. Good flavor instead of the uber-awful of Elberta Girl; none of the small oblate fruits of yet other varieties. In other words, all Brandywine with a bunch of add-ons.

The seed I sent to Holland in 1996 was from a true breeding line that I maintained as a heterozygous woolly/non woolly line. Each year I would save only the seed on the one with the moderate woolly fuzz and not from the super woolly segregates or the smooth leaf type. However, the selection in Holland that went into seed saving for a few years was the non-woolly type. From 1998 on, that sub strain was called Vintage Wine. The company over there disregarded my moniker of Brandy Stripe and went with a new name that kept the Wine part of Brandywine but inserted the heritage sounding name “Vintage” morphing into Vintage Wine.

Actually, I have some great pride that my Brandy Stripe has seen an independent release as the same variety now known as Vintage Wine. It is testament that I am a breeder of some merit, albeit, unrecognized to many and uncompensated. That said, the next generation of crosses and recoms are underway. When I gave a talk at the SSE Convention last July 2007, I mentioned that hybrids could give straight OP heirloom varieties a run for the money. A hybrid made between the Brandywine and Vintage Wine is doing well for me here in Washington State. Either variety may and will be kept into tomato eternity by seed savers. That a hybrid could yield some extra benefits in yield, and less catfacing is reason enough for dedicated breeders as others and myself to remake this hybrid over and over for everyone to enjoy. I think there will be renewed interest in hybrids among seed savers if they know and can obtain both parents in a hybrid, and the term, “Heirloom Hybrid” will be accepted and even embraced by a large public sector.

My current breeding of Brandy Stripe (Vintage Wine) centers on keeping a true breeding woolly cultivar for filial descendancies and hybrids. The woolly gene imparts a certain classy look and even augments some insect protection. The newer varieties I am working on have Brandy Stripe as a distant ancestor in the pedigree.

“Heirloom by Descent” is my way of saying I have a great respect for the varieties of yesteryear, be it tomatoes or potatoes in my case, however I am asking for your understanding, yea, encouragement for taking our heritage to the next level of treasured living things: Seeds of descendancies!

Q. Why don’t you coin the term “Heirloom by Ascent?”

A. Because I don’t have a prayer of a chance of that happening!