A plant variety is carefully selected to be as uniform as possible, so that each plant you grow of that variety will resemble the others fairly closely, with allowances for growing conditions.A landrace is a different and more chaotic and vibrant thing. A landrace is expected to have a high degree of variability, with the idea that you can plant it in a variety of different conditions and at least some of the plants will grow under those conditions. One way to look at a landrace is that it’s the widely varied genetic material from which varieties can be selected. So why would you want a non uniform seed stock? Well, does your weather change from one growing season to the next? Some members of your landrace will take the changes in stride. If you move, your landrace will go with you, and you will get some plants that adapt well to your new location. Hardcore survivalist types want landraces that can adapt to the challenges of a post-catastrophe area. Those of us who think in terms of smaller catastrophes still want to know that in a bad or atypical growing year our garden food supply will come shining through, or at least some of it will.
Currently I am trying to create my own overwintering brassica landrace. Overwintering doesn’t sound like a big deal among the brassicas, because many of them will overwinter in very cold climates, but our desert climate is a little different. Our winters are very dry and windy, and we have no snow cover, and so many plants like kale that overwinter well under snow will desiccate to death in our conditions.
I started my project last year, by planting four different brassicas and leaving them in place over winter to see which ones survived. I chose to start with collards, Portuguese kale, Tuscan kale,and sprouting broccoli. Selection this spring was easy, because only one of the four survived. The Portuguese kale (also known as Tronchuda) came through the winter and put out a very nice crop of leaves during the late February and March “hunger gap.” I cooked some of the leaves to make sure that they were tasty, and they were sweet, mild, and very good.I let the plants go to flower, and found that bees mobbed the light yellow flowers. The buds were also a good addition to vegetable stir-fries, although they have to be picked small because they toughen quickly, and of course you have to leave a lot of them on the plant to get your seeds. The plants get huge as they set seed, and I trained them into the paths so as not to lose too much bed space. I let a spring planted broccoli go to flower at the same time, to try to introduce more genetic variability, and let the bees do the cross pollination. The plants set thousands of seedpods each, and I found that when the seedpods are about 2 inches long and very slender, they make a very nice stir-fry, with much the same flavor as the leaves but a different texture. Currently the seeds are ripening on the plants, and when they are dry I will plant some for fall eating and send them through the winter to see how they fare.
I hope to end up with plants with at least some variability. We do have a number of wild brassicas that grow in the area, so a little bit of outbreeding could occur even if I had not let the broccoli into the mix, and variability is what I’m after. Selection comes later; right now my interest is in having brassicas that overwinter in our difficult climate but aren’t uniform, and might even provide specimens that I want to select and stabilize for different purposes, maybe one type for hunger gap leaves and one type for masses of buds, for example. I have already spent happy hours researching the possibilities, and happy time is among the benefits that my garden provides.