How does one “make an heirloom?” Sounds kind of difficult, or perhaps like a farce. I remember walking through the ruins of Teotihuacan, in Mexico, and having vendors offer me honest to goodness”authentic archaeological souvenirs.” These were trinkets manufactured nearby, made to look old. But they were copies of the real thing, not authentic pieces. How does one “make” an authentic heirloom vegetable variety? It can be done.
To make an heirloom one must start out with an open pollinated (standard) variety.
A hybrid won’t reproduce true to type, therefore it would be exceedingly difficult to maintain as an heirloom. “Open pollinated” is used synonymously with the term “standard,” meaning that it produces seed which then grows into the same variety as its parent. It is stable. It has to be in order to make an heirloom variety, which will take time.
I joined the Seed Savers Exchange in 1984. That first year I was enthralled with getting seeds through their yearbook. I requested seed of Calico Willow Leaf Pole Bean (a lima) from Jack Rice of Laurinburg, NC. Its description intrigued me. I grew it first in 1985, while living in Warsaw, Indiana. That year I learned that this bean was either crossed or not yet stabilized. I got a few seedlings which did not have the “willow” type leaf and one which was a bush, not a climbing bean. I eliminated the off types and saved seed of the climbing willow leaf plants. The second thing I learned that year, was that my wife really does not like limas! Jerreth complained if I even cooked some for myself.
In 1986, upon graduating from seminary, I gave samples of all my beans to my father, in NJ. He grew this bean a number of times. Growing this bean was a labor of love, as he abhorred lima beans.
To make an heirloom one needs to grow the variety for a good while.
When Jerreth and I went to study Spanish, in Edinburg, Texas (1987), I managed to plant this bean in our apartment’s back yard. We traveled in Mexico, most of that summer, leaving it unattended for months without rain and temps up to 110 F. Yet it was alive when we returned from our travels, and I harvested seed from it!
Soon after our family left to serve as missionaries in Mexico I lost this seed. First, we lived where it would not grow. By the time we moved to where it would grow, my personal stash had expired. During these years I never saw this seed offered through the Seed Savers Exchange, but my father did grow it, at least a couple of times. After a while he had to stop growing beans. For fun of it he made a lamp, using a clear jug for the base and filling it with assorted beans from my old collection.
To make an heirloom the variety needs to develop “a story.”
In 1998 I came up from Mexico and visited my parents for a couple of days. While sitting in their living room I glanced over at a lamp… and spotted some “old friends.” It suddenly struck me that I had not seen this bean offered in the Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook since I had offered it. Looking carefully, I spotted a couple of the seeds. My folks told me I could take the lamp apart and retrieve some seed. I did. I flew back to central Mexico with six seeds of Calico Willow Pole Lima which may have been as much as 10 years old. Shortly after getting back “home,” in Hidalgo Mexico, I planted those seeds. Two came up and grew.
Just before these beans produced mature seed my family and I had to leave for a two week trip. When we returned and I checked the garden I found that these two plants were missing! Some shepherd boys, from the land adjacent to the Bible Institute, had raided my garden. In the loose soil I saw their foot prints, how they had run in, snatched what they could (my bean plants) and run out, through the cornfield, hoping not to be caught. My heart sank. Then I became angry. Why these beans? which were possibly the last of their kind in the entire world!
I decided to track them…
I followed their tracks to the other edge of the cornfield and saw where they had slipped through the fence. They were gone. I couldn’t follow them off our land. Sadly, I was about to go back to the garden, when I spotted something laying in the weeds by the fence. When they squeezed through the wire a piece of vine had broken off and fallen to the ground. I picked it up and found three or four intact, dry pods attached! I shelled out 10 seeds! In spite of the catastrophe of the shepherd boys, Calico Willow Leaf Pole Lima’s worldwide seed stock had increased five fold! All the seed we have for this bean is now descended from those ten seeds, which came from that one broken piece of vine.
This bean is still extremely rare. I have spread the seed around and am now sure that the Seed Savers Exchange has it in their seed bank. I grow it about every other year. There are a lot of memories attached to it.
I haven’t tried eating this one since 1985. Wonder if my wife would mind if I cooked some….