Threatened Lunch…‘Convict’ Lettuce And Subtropical Leeks

Today I received confirmation from the head gardener at Buckingham Palace that the Royal Household will be growing ‘First Fleet’ lettuce once more in Britain. Carried from Britain by the First Fleet to be cultivated at Sydney’s First Farm in 1788, this doughty traditional vegetable has since disappeared from Britain’s market gardens.

I love this lettuce for two reasons. Firstly, generations of Australian gardeners have acclimatised this cool temperate plant to suit our various climatic regions, from warm temperate Sydney to subtropical Brisbane. Secondly, unlike most other leafy vegetables, whenever I grow ‘First Fleet’ lettuce it never gets attacked by pests like aphids and caterpillars. And that makes me a happy organic gardener.

‘First Fleet’ lettuce has been cropped and conserved for 223 years by Australian gardeners, so now it is possible that Queen Elizabeth II will be the first British monarch to be presented with this ‘lost’ heritage lettuce since King George III. This must be one of the more curious examples of the repatriation of threatened plant resources by the Seed Savers’ Network.

In an electronically networked world we sometimes forget that certain useful plants, and the genetic resources they contain, are rare or threatened. In my great grandfather’s era – the mid-1800‘s to the mid-1900‘s – the diversity of cultivated plants peaked. At that time global food production was a lot more resilient, coping better with bad fortune, nasty pests – even the rotten British weather.

Hard on the heels after this news I received this request through http://www.bellis.info

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Question

“I live near Gympie, SE Queensland. After watching your segment on TV, I would like to find out where I may be able to source what you say is the best leek for the subtropics. Seed catalogues do not mention this plant. Any information you can forward on to me on how I could purchase some plants would be greatly appreciated”.

Mrs M.

Answer

The plant is indeed a subtropical multiplier leek, Allium ampeloprasum var. porrum, and that particular self-tillering (aka perennial) cultivar grows here at ‘Bellis’. This cultivar doesn’t set seed, one reason why it is not commercially available. I maintain sufficient stock only for household use, and I do not sell them mail order.

For access to rare and localised planting stock you will first have to join the Seed Savers Network. These plants are member benefits. I am so fascinated with these rarities that I became a life member. I suggest you then make your request through Jude & Michel Fanton, Seed Saver Network co-founders.

As global food security issues deepen, it’s thanks to Seed Saver members, (not government or big business), that threatened genetic resources like these are being rescued, sustaining the future for traditional, local food culture.

Regards

Jerry Coleby-Williams
10th June 2011