- Author: Alex Russell
Aunt Molly's ground cherry. Moon and Stars watermelon. Country Gentleman corn. Each of these varieties began with landrace seeds, which were genetically diverse and much more adaptable than any of their inbred heirloom progeny.
We can plant our heirloom seeds, but these days we can also start over from scratch. Landrace seeds are widely available. With a little effort and tolerance for unpredictability, we can make new varieties adapted both to our gardens and our tastes—and it doesn't take a lifetime.
What is a Landrace Cultivar?
To put a landrace in context, let's quickly look at the alternatives. Heirloom seeds have been selected over time to reliably produce fruit with specific characteristics like red, green, or black skin on a tomato, and these characteristics have been stabilized for a period of time. They are open-pollinated, so the seeds will produce plants that look more or less just like the two-parent lines.
Hybrid seeds result from crosses between different varieties for specific purposes. Tomatoes hybrids are bred for disease resistance. Corn is hybridized in particular for sweetness and size. These crosses produce uniform plants and seeds in the first generation, but the second generation of seeds breaks down unpredictably into those two-parent lines again.
A landrace comes from a process that moves in the opposite direction in terms of selection. Researchers have defined a landrace in a number of specific ways, but at the center of each of them is the idea of high genetic diversity and a connection to the specific soils and conditions where it was developed over time.
Growing for Local Conditions
A landrace population hasn't been selected for stable, uniform characteristics like an heirloom. Instead, a landrace has promiscuously incorporated genetic material from plants with different characteristics, evolving over time to thrive in specific growing conditions. In the garden, that means you don't know if your landrace tomatoes will be red but you do know that they will probably grow well.
Genetic diversity provides some real benefits when the alternatives are hyper-selected varieties like hybrids that might have lost their flavor or hyper-stable heirlooms that might be vulnerable to every bug and disease that shows up. A landrace is an opportunity to adapt a cultivar to your own garden and conditions, choosing the best tasting and best-growing plants to literally make them your own.
Geneticist Jaime Prohens writes, “Given that adaptability to particular environments, general resilience, cultural value, tolerance to local stresses, sensorial value, etc. are traits often controlled by multiple genes, the most reasonable material for the initial development of new generations of local cultivars consists of historical landraces, found in seed banks or under local cultivation.”
Landraces in the Home Garden
It's possible today to find landrace seed for a number of different crops. It's also possible to make your own landrace by simply planting multiple varieties of the same species in close proximity so they can cross-pollinate. Joseph Lofthouse, an independent plant breeder based in Colorado, cultivates landrace varieties by continuously adding new varieties to his crops.
This year I planted two landrace varieties. One of them is a Lofthouse variety of corn that's just starting to tassel. The second is Nanticoke squash (Curcurbita maxima), a landrace winter squash that the Nanticoke people of today's Nanticoke Lenni Lenape Nation in the mid-Atlantic U.S. have been cultivating since as early as the year 1500.
When I opened the packet of Nanticoke seeds, which can easily be found online, I was surprised that every seed was different—but that's the point. I planted them in April and culled down to one plant that grew incredibly well in my garden in Vacaville. The fruit I got was white and warty. Roasted, it was almost like eating a sweet potato. Incredible.
The plant has been both productive and healthy with a minimum of care. I've harvested two squash so far, leaving two on the vine. Even now, through the heat of July, the vine has sent outside shoots that are already producing two more fruits. This is in Altamont clay, which is poor. I haven't added any fertilizer.
The Limits of the Home Garden
I've saved the seeds from this squash, and this is where I meet the limitations of a home garden. By saving seeds from this one plant alone, I have excluded some of this genetic material that makes this population of squash a landrace. By planting from this one handful of saved seeds and probably further selecting just one plant because that's all the room I have, pretty soon it won't really be a landrace anymore.
This is just a fact of home gardening. We are not farmers. We don't have space to truly maintain or expand on a landrace cultivar. But also, we don't have to. We are in the debt of the generations of growers who have maintained these cultivars, sometimes over hundreds of years. Today, more and more growers out there are actively maintaining these landraces and making them available.
I'll be planting more Nanticoke squash next year, though I'll probably grow at least three vines instead of just one. The fruit this year was just too good. Growing it was far too easy, especially when I look at the hybrid summer squash I planted thirty feet away that never thrived and gave me only three edible fruits. These two squash varieties were two extremes of seed.
I'll probably never plant all landraces, but I'll probably always plant at least one, even with the risk of not knowing exactly how the fruit will be.