Friday, August 22, 2014

In search of heirloom cultivars

Types of vegetable and fruit crops grown in pioneer Florida are nothing but names now 

Close-up photo of muscadine grapes growing on grapevine
Muscadines don't seem to have changed much over the years.
(Photo by Gerri Bauer)
Every vegetable gardener knows the fun of poring over varieties and cultivars and choosing what to grow. Just about every vegetable gardener - and plenty of nongrowers - also knows how many varieties have been lost to the demands of commercialization. Hence the rise of seed savers and heirloom-tomato aficionados in search of great-tasting, complex flavors. I've grown a (usually different) heirloom-tomato variety along with a fave hybrid every year in my garden.

Those tomato varieties will be the focus of another post. Today I want to write about the vegetables and fruits that no longer sprout in the gardens and farms of Florida. I thought about them earlier this week when harvesting muscadines from the improved variety I grow. Muscadine grapes have a long history in Florida soil.

My research is a mere surface swipe - notes gleaned from the pages of an 1889 Florida Dispatch, Farmer and Fruit Grower, the 1906 DeLand Special Edition of the Florida Agriculturist newspaper, and various local histories. Here's a sampling of what I found. If anyone knows of any of the varieties being cultivated or stored in a seed bank, leave a comment. Maybe the variety can be shared with home gardeners looking to follow in the footsteps of Persimmon Hollow pioneers.

I'm assuming the following are open-pollinated rather than hybrids, being that they were being grown before and up to/including 1906:

  • Peas: Alaska, John L., Bliss Everlasting.
  • Strawberries: Hoffman, Excelsior, Lady Thompson, with the latter two being noted as best for DeLand home gardens.
  • Grapes: Duchess, Roger's No. 44, Peter Wylie, Herbemont, Ives, Goethe (aka Prince). A wine grape named Norton was said to be "marvelously adapted to our soil and climate."
  • Muscadine grapes: Flowers, James, Meisch.
  • Peaches: Peento (numerous references to that one), Bidwell's Early, Florida Crawford.
  • Oranges: Boone's Early, Enterprise Seedless.
  • Pears: LeConte (numerous references).
  • Pineapples: Enville City ("great taste, doesn't ship well"), Red Spanish ("good for home use, easy to grow"), Cayenne, Abbaka, Egyptian Queens.
What, no persimmons? Well, no, at least not in that brief survey I conducted. But DeLand did go by the name Persimmon Hollow before being settled and taking on the name of city founder Henry A. DeLand. I'm on the local persimmon trail, though, so stay tuned. In the meantime, here's a brief history of persimmon cultivation from Ty-Ty Nursery over the border in Georgia.  

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