Conference Paper: Acclimatisation, The Continuing Story

Australian Garden History Society Conference
Maryborough 2011

By acclimatising the strongest and best plant, cool temperate Chinese celery has acclimatised to the subtropics and developed into a suckering perennial in the process

‘Acclimatisation: the continuing story’

Jerry Coleby-Williams is a curator, horticulturist, writer, director of the Seed Saverʼs Foundation, horticultural editor of The Organic Gardener magazine, and broadcaster.

He studied with the Royal Horticultural Society, qualified in management at Brunel University, and then trained in curation, soft landscape design, and botanical sciences at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

In 1982 Kew awarded Jerry a scholarship to study the flora of Western Australia. Captivated by the people, plants and places, he decided to emigrate. For over eleven years Jerry managed the botanical estate at both the Royal Botanic Gardens and the arboretum at Government House and Domain, Sydney. His greatest gardening challenge was grooming the Gardens for hosting the 2000 Olympic Games. Managing the ‘Rare and Threatened Plants Garden’ from concept to completion (1996 – 98) was a personal high point.

During 2001, Jerry was the consultant creating the inaugural ‘Gardening Australiaʼ exposition, and he has been a presenter on the ʻGardening Australiaʼ television show for eleven years. In 2003 Jerry moved to Brisbane to create a model sustainable house and garden, an official Queensland government experiment, which in 2009 won a national Save Water Award. His garden joined Open Gardens Australia in 2007.

Acclimatisation defined

Acclimatisation, ‘the process of habituating or being habituated to a new climate’, entered the English language in the early nineteenth century when it was applied to the global movement of plants from the various remote corners of the globe — and British colonies. Acclimatisation Societies were formed: that in Victoria was established in 1861 and the Queensland Acclimatisation Society the following year. In general acclimatisation societies sought to trial and assess the economic potential of plants whereas botanical gardens were more interested in collecting a diversity of species. Those that survived and reproduced in the wild or in cultivation in their new homes were deemed to be acclimatised1.

British born Coleby-Williams has himself had to acclimatise to Australian conditions in in such different locations and Perth, Sydney and Brisbane and then adapt to the gardening practices, soils and climates. In this talk he will elaborate on his own experiences and examples, on how he applies the Seed Savers’ Foundation ethic of ‘acclimatisation through localisation’ in his own subtropical food garden in suburban Brisbane.

Acclimatisation: the continuing story

With the right breeding and care, food plants have, so far, fed and sustained human civilization. But how much can be grown, where and how reliably, is an emerging theme in the food security debate.

Forty years ago a non-patented gene from a quaint old grain saved the United States’ world-leading, multibillion dollar corn industry. It was fortunate for the multinational seed, fertiliser and pesticide conglomerates that someone in China had the foresight to conserve it.

Four years ago, in south east queensland, some very adaptable, particularly long-lived leeks went on sale at a church bazaar. These special, traditional food plants had not been created in a food science lab. They were the pride and joy of an archetypal amateur home food grower, a little old lady.

On the fourth of June 2011 a head gardener confirmed that, some stage later this year, another little old lady will eat some vintage lettuce in Scotland. She will be consuming a repatriated ‘convict’ lettuce, a direct descendant of the first lettuce ever grown by Europeans in the colony of NSW. Her name is Queen Elizabeth II.

Certain plant genetic resources help food production and food culture evolve and adapt readily, while others can be tricky to master. One significant obstacle is that during the 19th century these genetic resources peaked and during the 20th century 85% of this genetic diversity became extinct. Included amongst them are Sprouting Red Cabbage, and the Crown Pea. But ‘Old Women Meet And Gossip’ cabbage still grows in Queensland, and it is getting better every year.

Our challenges, motives and locations may differ greatly, but what unites seed savers is a belief that our shared future could be safer, and more fruitful, if we sustain both the remaining genetic resources and the know how our forebears knew they couldn’t live without. The Seed Savers’ Network reckons our senior citizens are on to something.


In 2002 I presented a paper entitled ‘The Victory Garden’, at the Australian Institute of Horticulture’s Annual Conference, Homebush, NSW. I identified a range of pressing issues that are determining the quality of living and social cohesion: population growth, climate change, and food, water and energy security. These pressures are rapidly reducing biological diversity. The greatest influence is the changing chemistry and behaviour of our atmosphere and oceans: climate change. At a macroscopic level, the diversity of wild plant communities and the viability of remaining habitats where wild crop ancestors still exist are under threat by population growth.

Also at risk are the genetic resources contained within many traditional productive plants. Here the threat has come from changes to food production systems. Until the 20th century these genetic resources have generally been gradually increasing. As a result of agricultural mechanisation, sweeping global change occurred. One change was the adoption of modern or ‘farmers seeds’, which include genetically uniform hybrids. During the 20th century about 85% of the traditional crop plant cultivars became extinct through perceived redundancy as industrialisation progressed2.

My personal objective is to live according to ‘conserver’ principles detailed in that paper, attempting to address the pressing issues I had identified on a personal level. At that time I decided to establish a model sustainable house and garden to demonstrate affordable, sustainable living.

The concept was based on ‘Casita’, the property owned by my great grandfather, William Coleby. ‘Casita’ was itself a model 19th century family home and market garden in Colchester, England. I spent many holidays gardening there. William Coleby’s family grew cut flowers, fruit and vegetables which they sold in their shop. This shop embraced new technology, namely the first carbon arc lamp in Maldon Road, to successfully attract custom.

In 2003 I prepared a development brief for a sustainable house and garden. This included the aim “to display an international range of productive and ornamental plants where most aspects are within reach of an ordinary home gardener, with an average income, living in an ordinary suburb”.

A government experiment begins

This gardener, a naturalised Australian, enjoys a challenge. Having gardened in three versions of cool temperate climate (London, Paris, Edinburgh), dry temperate Perth (WA), inland warm temperate and then coastal warm temperate Sydney, I thought it would be interesting to garden in the coastal subtropics.

‘Bellis’3 is located in the parish of Tingalpa in Brisbane’s Bayside district. Located in the suburbs when, in 2003, ‘Bellis’ became an official Queensland government experiment in sustainable domestic living, this unsuspecting 97 year old, modified Queenslander on its 32 square perch4 block (810 square metres) was reclassified as a rural, unsewered property.

During 2003 – 2004 the property was retrofitted5 for sustainable living. Located one kilometre from Moreton Bay, and thirty five minutes travel by train from Brisbane city centre, I discovered ‘Bellis’ is five and a half metres above the highest level of the 2011 floods.

Initial results from one gardening cycle, 2003 – 2011

Since 2003, it has taken eight years to experience one full gardening cycle in south east Queensland, from five years of extended drought (2004 – 2009) to one summer of flooding rain (2010 – 2011).

During this period, some of the results that ‘Bellis’ has been able to demonstrate to an international gardening audience, include:

Using traditional organic gardening techniques, it is possible to:

* Convert neglected, impoverished ground into a fertile, highly productive anthroposol6 in three years, and to create optimum growing conditions in five years.

* Provide a continuous supply of fresh food, using just 1 litre of water per square metre (1 ¾ pints per square yard) per day, during the south east Queensland drought of 2004 – 2009.

* Provide a continuous supply of fresh food during the Queensland floods of 2010 – 2011.

Using appropriate crops:

* 100 square metres (just under four square perches) of fertile soil can provide 70% of the fresh vegetables, fruit, herbs and spices one adult needs each year.

* A 300 square metre (twelve perches) food garden can provide a four-course meal for 150 people without affecting its capacity to provide an all year round supply of fresh produce for its three residents.

Appropriate crops

Successful home food production involves avoiding wasteful gluts and to ensure a range of crops available for eating fresh every day of the year. I provide the fundamentals of freely draining, compost rich, nourishing soil. Crop rotation, the practice of reducing the build up of pests and diseases, helps underpin success.

The Australian Institute of Horticulture recommends ‘growing the right plant in the right place’. But when we buy packet seed we have two choices: to select either modern ‘farmers seed’ or traditional seed. Modern farmers seed is the commonest since the vast majority of seed sold globally is owned or patented by fewer than ten companies. Farmers seed is everywhere, including most of the ‘ready to plant’ seedlings people buy from nurseries.

The genetic uniformity of modern hybrids makes them vulnerable to evolving pests and diseases. Breeders still draw from the diverse gene pool of surviving open-pollinated cultivars to breed in disease resistance. For example, in 1970, genes from traditional Chinese wax corn (also known as maize, Zea mays subsp. mays) introduced resistance to southern corn leaf blight (a fungus, Cochliobolus heterostrophus) to hybrid corn. Thirty years ago genes from this heritage corn saved the USA, the world’s biggest corn producer, from suffering crop losses exceeding US$1 billion.

Selective breeding of traditional cultivars occurred hundreds of years before pesticides were invented, hence favoured cultivars tended to include genes for disease resistance. Traditional cultivars also tend to be more robust, better surviving pest attack, and overall they require less fertiliser and water than modern hybrids.

Traditional cultivars have also been selectively bred to be ‘indeterminate’ with regard to sowing and flowering. Indeterminacy in a crop plant means it has a wide sowing ‘window’ and an extended harvest, ideal for sowing and harvesting by hand. Since their saved seed comes true to type (eg, they resemble their parents), and they have have wider windows, these traditional farmers crops remain ideal for the amateur home food grower where an economical, reliable food supply is required daily, all year round, and whatever the weather.

I use the Seed Savers’ Foundation as my preferred source of seed. I am a life member and one of its directors7. Established in 1986, the foundation is the umbrella organisation under which over seventy Local Seed Networks (LSNs) operate as the Seed Saver’s Network (SSN). To date we have distributed over half a million packets of seed of more than 9,000 different cultivars in Australia. SSN preserves traditional, open-pollinated seeds and is concerned about sustaining the genetic diversity of productive plants and also sustaining traditional food culture. SSN offers educational programmes and information about food garden management, including school food gardening and how to become a kitchen garden curator.

Each LSN actively conserves, acclimatises, improves and shares threatened rare productive plants with its membership. LSNs maintain their own seed banks and focus on acclimatising plants to suit their specific local conditions. Individual members are encouraged to become ‘guardians of seed’, our term for gardeners who become responsible of protecting certain productive plant cultivars from extinction.


If acclimatisation is ‘the process of habituating or being habituated to a new climate’, then ‘localisation’ is the process of habituating crops, ‘tailoring’ them to local soils and conditions as these conditions in turn alter under climate change.

Annual crops tend to adapt to local soils and conditions in a few years because they have a short lifespan. Perennials, with their longer lifespan, adapt more gradually. Adaptation, like climate change, is non-linear and may occur at an individual level, but each successive generation of home saved seed has the opportunity to become localised.

At ‘Bellis’ I start by growing plants that can cope with the warm, moist, humid, sub-coastal, subtropical conditions of a Brisbane summer and autumn, and the milder, drier, generally frost-free, continental conditions of winter and spring.

Forget the odd names and curious looks of traditional crops, like the subtropical ‘Old Women Meet and Gossip’ cabbage (Brassica oleracea). Good genes make its cousin, the ‘Red Russian’ kale, (Brassica oleracea Acephala Group), one of the most climate adaptable food plants I have ever grown. I’ve cropped them through freezing London winters when maximum daytime temperatures hovered between -8C and -15C for three weeks. Here in Brisbane, protected from caterpillars, an autumn sowing crops from winter through the subtropical summer.

When I grow ‘Couve Tronchuda’ cabbage, (Brassica oleracea), cabbage white butterflies (Pieris rapae) visit them, but they don’t lay eggs. Other caterpillars do eat them, but there’s something about this Portuguese cultivar that doesn’t appeal to the cabbage white. It’s probably genetic.

Modern peas are susceptible to mildew during peak production, and spraying plants with fungicide is an accepted part of modern pea production. Heritage snow peas, like ‘Oregon Sugar Pod’ (Pisum sativum) a USA-bred cultivar and ‘Dwarf Skinless’ (Australian-bred) occasionally get mildew, but only when the last pods are ready for seed saving. Their genes make spraying redundant.

Seed saved from traditional crops produce progeny that are ‘true to type’. You can save their seed and resow them each year, so you only need purchase seed once. Seed of modern hybrid supersweet corn, like ‘Honeysweet’ (USA), is expensive since it must be carefully bred every year. You have to buy fresh seed each year. Save their seed and you’ll get vastly inferior offspring. Typically, one plant of supersweet corn produces one tasty, small cob. Vigorous heritage corn, like ‘Manning Pride’ (Australia), yields two to three large cobs per plant in moist, compost rich soil. Traditional genes can boost your harvest.

Peas and beans are ideal for beginner seed savers because their flowers self-pollinate before opening, side-stepping the issue of genetic contamination by cross-pollination. Saving corn seed requires great care, because this crop is wind pollinated, and cross-pollination can occur between plantings many kilometres apart. Heritage corn grown for its seed must be grown in large quantities to prevent in-breeding, and to prevent this wind pollinated crop from being contaminated by other corn crops, requires cultivation in isolation.

Localisation and re-diversification of crops

I have included a selection of tried and trusted traditional cultivars that other gardeners may wish to grow. Many of these can also be purchased from commercial suppliers, however no commercial grower offers localised cultivars. Localisation is the role of the Seed Savers’ Local Seed Networks.

I enjoy modern stick celery (Apium graveolens var. dulce), but there are two issues with growing this plant in the subtropics. First, it is a cool temperate plant. Second it has been developed to mature simultaneously, to grow huge stalks, and mature plants don’t store well, even under refrigeration.

To avoid gluts I grow traditional Chinese celery (Apium graveolens, known as smallage in Europe). Plants are more compact, stems and leaves have a richer celery flavour, but they have an extended harvesting window. From the first sowing I enjoyed continuous picking for eight months before it succumbed to bacterial soft-rot disease (Erwinia carotovora subsp. carotovora) in summer. Plants and flowers rotted, and no viable seed was set. For the first two years I sowed and grew Chinese celery as an annual crop.

In 2007 one Chinese celery plant survived. It became infected with soft-rot disease, but it set viable seed. This cool temperate crop had begun adapting to the subtropics.

The fundamental seed saving rule is to ‘save seed from the best plants, and to eat the rest’. Starting with this one survivor, ‘Bellis’ is now growing the third successive annual crop of Chinese celery. Plants still get some soft rot, but are becoming less susceptible to disease.

Now four years old, the original Chinese celery plant is still cropping and seeding. But it had one other surprise. If you don’t rush to clear crops like a modern farmer does, and just leave crops where they are growing, sometimes certain annual crops become perennials. Termed ‘self-tillering’ or ‘perennialisation’, this celery plant is now vigorously suckering. This is an example of how acclimatisation can lead to the re-diversification of crops.

Just like celery, leeks are a temperate crop. ‘Bellis’ grows perennial leeks (also known as ‘multiplier’ leek) are incapable of seed production and have been acclimatised to the subtropics. These clumping perennials sucker from their base plated and are propagated by division. Seed Saver founders, Jude and Michel Fanton, bought parent stock from a church bazaar in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley. The originals were raised by an elderly lady gardener who had no formal training in gardening or in seed saving, nor did she have any idea of the value of her contribution to subtropical gardening.

I have now localised a Chinese vegetable, Dai Gai Choi (also known as Gai Choi, Brassica juncea). One distinctive plant producing crested foliage was selected in 2007. It’s seed produced evenly crested offspring for three generations, so in 2010 I named this ornamental edible Dai Gai Choi ‘Wynnum Imperial’.

After three years of growing mustard ‘Osaka Purple’ (Brassica nigra) from seed saved from my healthiest plants, crops became slightly more compact but less susceptible to rust disease, normally a problem during still, damp conditions in early spring.

A more recently localised red-leaved mustard (Brassica nigra), produced a selected mother plant, also with attractive green crested foliage, has been named ‘Wynnum Crested’ (2010). Currently I am trialling a localised variegated cultivar of cabbage ‘Old Women Meet and Gossip’.


Agricultural landscapes of the 19th century were a tapestry of diverse crops raised by local industry, picked by hand, and more likely to be consumed within the district or country of origin. Importantly, these improved crops were genetically diverse. One improved cultivar was the ‘Hartley’s Ironbark’ pumpkin (Cucurbita maxima). Originally created in the Darling Downs district of Queensland, this dry, yellow-fleshed cultivar is believed to be the ancestor of the Australian hard-skinned pumpkins, including the ‘Queensland Blue’ and the ‘Beaudesert Blue’ pumpkins. Now no longer cultivated commercially, ‘Hartley’s Ironbark’ pumpkin was rescued and is being conserved the Seed Saver’s Network.

Apart from attempting to localise vegetables, I have become a guardian of several, including ‘Seed Savers’ Hibiscus spinach, Abelmoschus esculentum. This short-lived perennial shrub of unknown origin with succulent leaves does not set viable seed, and therefore must be asexually propagated by cuttings. ‘First Fleet’ coffee, like most coffee species, seeds promiscuously, but like many heritage plants it is no longer grown commercially. In 2000, seed was sent to the coffee collection being established by Australian Estate Coffee, NSW.

‘First Fleet’ lettuce was originally introduced and cultivated at Sydney’s First Farm. It’s a bronze-leafed, cos-type lettuce and it is particularly easy to grow well. Believed to be extinct in Britain, where it originated, this year Seed Savers’ re-patriated this cultivar.

Currently being grown for the Royal Household at Balmoral, Scotland, later this year this lettuce will be presented to Queen Elizabeth II, possibly making her majesty the first monarch since King George III to have eaten this traditional British cultivar. And so the story of acclimatisation, the conservation of genetic resources, and the cultivation of traditional food plants continues thanks to the support of those willing to become links in the chain of food security.

Appendix 1

Fifty one ways to fill your larder, whatever the weather: a selection of robust, traditional crops offered by Australian seed catalogues…

Pest or disease resistance

Capsicum ‘Healthy’, fruit with above average resistance to blossom end rot;
Capsicum ‘Sweet Chocolate’, above average resistance to blossom end rot;
Celery ‘Tall Utah’, above average resistance to bacterial leaf-spot diseases;
Cucumber ‘Marketmore’, above average disease resistance to rots and mildew;
Lettuce ‘Freckles’, above average heat tolerance;
Lettuce ‘Oakleaf’, above average resistance to chewing pests;
Lettuce ‘First Fleet’, above average heat tolerance and resistance to chewing pests;
Pea ‘Greenfeast’, above average resistance to wilt disease;
Pea ‘Delta Matilda’, above average resistance to mildew;
Pea ‘Dwarf Skinless’, above average resistance to mildew;
Pea ‘Oregon Sugar Pod’, above average resistance to mildew;
Rockmelon ‘Amish’, above average adaptability: tolerant of warm and dry, and cool and moist conditions;
Spinach ‘Bloomsdale’, above average resistance to bolting;
Spinach ‘Monnoppa’, above average resistance to bolting;
Tomato ‘Eva Purple Ball’, above average resistance to soilborne disease;
Tomato ‘Thai Pink Egg’, above average resistence to soilborne and foliar diseases in hot, humid conditions;
Tomato ‘Tiny Tim’, above average disease tolerance in hot, humid conditions;
Tomato ‘Tropic’, above average disease tolerance in hot, humid conditions;
Watermelon ‘Allsweet’, above average resistance to wilt disease;
Watermelon ‘Crimson Sweet’, above average resistance to wilt disease;
Watermelon ‘Warpaint’, above average resistance to wilt disease;

Tolerance of variable Australian conditions

Dwarf bean ‘Redlands Greenleaf’, above average tolerance for cool conditions;
Dwarf bean ‘Strike’, above average heat tolerance;
Broccoli ‘Thompson’, above average heat tolerance;
Cabbage ‘Primo’, above average tolerance of soil types;
Carrot ‘Kuroda’, above average keeping qualities and tolerance of warm, humid conditions;
Carrot ‘Parisian Round’, above average keeping qualities;
Cauliflower ‘All Year Round’, above average heat tolerance;
Cauliflower ‘Snowball’, above average heat tolerance;
Chinese celery, above average heat tolerance;
Celery ‘Ventura’, above average heat tolerance;
Coriander ‘Standby’, above average resistance to bolting;
Coriander ‘Slowbolt’, above average resistance to bolting;
Cucumber ‘Lemon’, above average drought-tolerance;
Kale ‘Red Russian’, exceedingly long picking season, very tolerant of extreme cold and heat;
Kohl Rabi ‘Purple Vienna’, excellent keeping qualities, best stored in the ground;

Extended picking

Climbing bean ‘Kentucky Wonder’, very long picking season;
Beetroot ‘Boltardy’, above average keeping qualities and resistance to bolting;
Beetroot ‘Detroit Dark Red’, above average keeping qualities;
Chinese celery, plants may become perennial;
Leek, traditional cultivars left in the ground may become perennial;
Mouse melon, Melothria scabra, crops for up to eight months;
Spring onion, traditional cultivars left in the ground may become perennial;


Broccoli ‘Romanesco’, richly flavoured, with above average sulphoraphane content (anti-cancer);
Capsicum ‘Jimmy Nardello’, above average sweetness;
Eggplant ‘Diamond’, above average flavour and slow to become bitter;
Cabbage ‘Couve Tronchuda’, described as flavoursome and succulent;
Hibiscus spinach ‘Seed Savers’, leaves described as fleshy, juicy and flavoursome;

Outstanding performance

Corn ‘Manning Pride’, often produces three large cobs per plant;
Huauzontle, Chenopodium berlandieri, a spinach alternative, very tolerant of soil type, low water requirement;
Cucumber ‘Syrian’, individual fruit may exceed 2.5kg;
Leek ‘Royal’, perennial, reproducing by basal suckers;

Appendix 2

Resources for prospective Seed Savers

‘The Seed Saver’s Handbook’ has been translated into 16 languages, and covers seed saving techniques for 117 different food plants. It is available free on line, or by hard copy by on line order. By Jude & Michel Fanton, published by Seed Savers, web:

Commercial suppliers of heritage seed

Purchasers should be aware that retailers are not necessarily actively involved in curating or acclimatising the cultivars they sell.

* Diggers Club, PO Box 300, Dromana, VIC 3936, web:, ph: (03) 5984-7900;

Phoenix Seeds, PO Box 207, Snug, TAS 7054, ph: (03) 6267-9663. As far as I am aware, this is the sole supplier of huauzontle seed, and one of only two known suppliers of Chinese celery seed;

* Eden Seeds, M.S. 905, Lower Beechmont, QLD 4211, ph: (07) 5533-1107;

Green Harvest, PO Box 92, Maleny, QLD 4552, web:, ph: (07) 5435-2699;

* The Lost Seed, PO Box 321, Sheffield, TAS 7306, web:, ph: (03) 6491-1000;

References and glossary

1 The Oxford Companion to Australian Gardens, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-553644-4, 2002.

2 Chapters 4 & 7, Global Biodiversity Assessment, United Nations Environment Programme, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-56481-6, 1995.

3 The name, ‘Bellis’, was taken from the scientific name for the English lawn daisy, Bellis perennis. The property is in Daisy Street.

4 As a unit of area, a standardised square perch, equalling 16.5 feet, is equal to 25.29 square metres, or 0.00625 acres, see:

5 Retrofit: To provide (domestic sewerage system, insulation, stormwater harvesting, solar panels, for example) with parts, devices, or equipment not in existence or available at the time of original manufacture.

6 Anthroposol, a soil resulting from human activities which have caused a profound and beneficial modification, see:

7 Seed Savers’ Network, see:

8 Rodale Institute, see:

Jerry Coleby-Williams
22nd June 2011


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