a (botanical) mystery

I’m puzzled. Last year I grew three varieties of Italian pole beans. (Some years I find myself on Commercial Drive in late winter and the Home Hardware there has an amazing selection of Italian seeds. Not the McKenzie Gusto ones — though maybe they have those too — but Larosa Emanuele, from Bari. It’s hard to resist the beautiful packages which contain more seeds by far than their North American counterparts and are cheap to boot.) I planted a romano type, “Smeraldo”, a long green one called “Nano Fin de Bagnols” which is sort of like a French filet, and “Trionfo Violetta”. I’ve grown these before but last year’s crop was astonishing and as well as pickling and freezing many pounds of beans, I left some on the vines to mature so I could dry them for seed. I didn’t keep them separate because quite honestly I love them all and didn’t mind them climbing the poles together and providing many pickings of all three varieties. The seeds were different, though — some of them brown, some of them white. (And true to my careless nature, I didn’t keep track of which was which. More on this in a moment.)

When I planted my beans, I put a selection under each pole of the teepees I’d erected in the bed I call “Wave”. Nice deep soil, well-nourished with compost, mushroom manure, alfalfa pellets, a handful of kelp meal, and a handful of lime. The slugs were around as the seeds were germinating so I had to keep poking in more seeds to compensate for the sad little sprouts with the tell-tale silver trail leading away from them. And then it got warm and the plants went crazy. For the past two weeks, I’ve been picking colanders most days. And they’re delicious. But here’s the puzzle:

beansToday’s picking is unnusual in that there’s actually a green romano bean in the lot. Every other picking has been exclusively purple. I’d say that the mix I saved was about equal parts two greens — the long filets and the romano-type — and one part “Trionfo Violetta”. I am no botanist but I believe (and please please someone tell me if I’m wrong) that beans are almost entirely self-pollinating, that by the time the beautiful flowers open, they have pollinated themselves (the anthers are pushed up against the stigma inside the unopened flower), and that cross-pollination is very rare.

So why are my beans all purple? All of three kinds were vigorous last year. I saved seed from good strong pods and all the beans were dried on newspaper on my kitchen floor in exactly the same way. I don’t actually mind. These beans are fabulous. (Favourite way to eat them is steamed briefly, cooled, tossed with hazelnut oil and lemon juice, some clipped tarragon and chives, and then some toasted chopped hazelnuts over top.)

A few years ago I visited Mendel’s monastery in Brno and should have paid more attention to the details of his genetic experiments. Instead, I pushed my face against the case of his pruning tools — so elegant and so well-cared for — and looked for ages at the detailed notes he kept about weather. Walking through the garden, I kept imagining him with his magnificent patience and attentive mind, I kept wondering about his life, and, well, let’s just say it was an opportunity lost. I found out just how little I’d paid attention when I was trying to write about genetics in my “Euclid’s Orchard” essay this past year.

 

hybridity in the green world

I’ve been working hard on a new extended essay and part of it is about genetics. Not in a scientific way — I barely passed Biology 12 — but more as a meditation on what we inherit and what we don’t. I’ve been growing peas I first obtained in the Mendel Museum giftshop in Brno in the winter of 2012 and keeping (very casual) notes on their progress. I’ve saved the seed each year since 2012. In 2012, 2013, and 2014, the seeds were smooth and yellow and produced vines with white flowers. Last fall, because I was busy, I simply dried some peas in their pods and saved them in an envelope, unshelled. When I opened them a few weeks ago to plant them, I was amazed to see what the 2014 peas produced as seed:

P1110847I grow another variety, Mammoth Melting Sugar, in the garden too and so I guess the bees have done their work. But the thing is, the Mammoth pea seeds are also smooth and yellow.

As I eagerly wait for each new photograph of my grand-daughter, and also anticipate the birth of her cousin in the fall, this extended project of saving seed and watching a cultivar gradually change and adapt over the years becomes all the more intriguing. So much can be predicted and so much is mysterious.