There is a pretty dependable recipe for creating a new domesticated crop species. Research into the long lost origins of a wide variety of food plants has revealed a typical pattern. Usually the best starting point is a genus that contains a few wild species that have at least some utility as food. Step two is to hybridise those original species, either deliberately or by accident. Often the primary hybrid of two species is then crossed with a third species. Hybridisation opens up an order of magnitude more genetic diversity in the resulting hybrid swarm. From that point selective breeding improves the characteristics of the new crop, sometimes including back crossing to the wild species to restore vigour if inbreeding becomes an issue.
It is my contention that for every established crop species in cultivation there are dozens more that could be created by curious and committed amateur plant breeders. Often the main barrier is convenience- why go through the years of developing a new crop when an existing crop already serves that function in the agricultural ecosystem? In my system I have relatively limited options when it comes to vegetables in the Allium family. My strain of giant blue shallots are wonderful and continue to produce for a few years once established, but garlic, onions and leeks have proven to be poor performers. Garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) are a hardy perennial, but tend to only produce good quality material for a short period when summer is consistently wet and warm, and are a little bit too fiddly to harvest for my liking. Based on this I looked around for an alternative perennial allium instead.
Society garlic (Tulbalghia violacea) is a common landscaping plant in my area, thriving in difficult situations with minimal care. This isn’t surprising since it comes from the south east corner of south Africa, which has a very similar climate. It is also edible, more or less, with the leaves and flowers having a peppery/garlic flavour, perhaps a little too acrid for most tastes (somewhat stronger than garlic chives). That on its own meant it might be worth growing for the kitchen, but it also happens to be only one species in a genus of two dozen others. A few hybrids have been established in the horticulture trade, a sign of cross fertility between wild species, so I set about gathering a few other species to begin my own breeding program with a view to developing a new perennial crop.
I finally got my two strains in flower, an unidentified tall growing species that could be a hybrid of T. violacea, and a low growing, broad leaved species with fragrant flowers (T. simmleri). I have some T. cominsii x violacea plants ready to plant out as well, though they seem pretty fragile compared to the other forms. I only just planted out the common form of T. violacea, so had to steal a handful of flowers of this variety from a local carpark to hybridise the other two forms. Learning to hand pollinate a new species always takes a degree of trial and error, but I soon found I could split the tubular flowers open to expose the stigmas. The stamens remain stuck to the base of the petals, so the combined arrangement can be gently dabbed onto the stigmas of other flowers. Just today I noticed the first hand crossed seed pods forming. I should have the first hybrid seedlings mature in a couple of years.
Over coming years I will continue to gather other species to add to the project. T. alliacea looks especially promising, with widespread use as an edible in Zulu culture. Every new species means an expanding range of potential crosses to try (useful when not every combination is viable). As I produce more hybrid seedlings I will need to keep an open mind about what traits I wish to bring out. Palatability in the leaves and flowers is the obvious direction, combined with vigour, natural pollination, viable seed set and pest resistance. I will need to remain vigilant about the edibility of each hybrid and strain as they emerge as this trait can vary unpredictably between generations, but in general the genus isn’t known to be toxic, though that isn’t a black and white property. The genus also produces quite substantial thickened bases to their clumps, a kind of pseudobulb made of stacked leaf bases, which could be enhanced with selective breeding to produce something akin to a perennial onion.
Hopefully this has made you curious about the possibilities of domesticating new crop species. A great resource to research potential species that you could domesticate yourself is the Plants for a Future database (https://pfaf.org/). The nurturing instincts of humans make us uniquely suited to catalyse the creation of new species, helping them through the difficult early stages of coming into existence. Just as the symbiosis between pollinating insects and flowering plants caused an explosion in biodiversity millions of years ago, human beings have the potential to be universal pollinators of any number of plant species, sparking another transformation in the structure in the sprawling tree of life.
My first hand pollinated seed pods forming
The sweetly scented flowers of T. simmleri (formerly T. fragrans)
My robust, unidentified form with juicy leaves that are almost edible to my tastes.
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