Saturday, March 01, 2008

Thomas Etty Esq, Heritage Seedsman

The small family firm of Thomas Etty, in Horton, Somerset, is the only heritage seedsman in the UK, quite possibly the only real heritage seedsman in the world. That’s quite a claim, but one that Ray Warner and his family (Mr Etty's representatives on earth) feel passionately about. Whilst other seed merchants number some heritage seeds in their catalogues, Thomas Etty sells only heritage seeds, 450 varieties at the last count. Everything listed in the catalogue has a history and a provenance, many going back to the originals listed by Philippe-Andre de Vilmorin in the 1880s. So if you want to make an fifteenth century flower garden you need to talk to Thomas Etty Esq.

The catalogue lists flowers and bulbs, but my main interest at the moment is the vegetables. The seed bank in this country has narrowed over the last few decades, firstly because large producers wanted a uniform product that all ripened at the same time, and secondly because the EU insisted that seed varieties should be tested and approved for our safety. Testing costs money and without it seeds cannot be listed. In the last 100 years, 90% of UK vegetable varieties have been lost from our soils and, as we know, large corporations now control a quarter of the world’s seed markets, raising issues of genetic modification and disease resistant F1 hybrids that do not breed true.

Many of the old varieties do have built in disease resistance but are a funny shape, and they ripen unevenly. But as a gardener, I’m concerned with flavour and the last thing I want is all my tomatoes to ripen on the same day! And I don’t mind if they are not a uniform size because I don’t have packaging issues. What I want is a wonderful taste, and perhaps some old fashioned beauty. It never really occurred to me before, but for a long time green was not necessarily the only colour for a French bean – it could be yellow, or purple, or maroon splashed with cream.

Ray and Jane Warner, and their son Dan, have their business in a small village near Ilminster, Somerset. They buy in from a small number of wholesalers and package the seeds in smaller quantities for sale mainly on the internet. This low cost high volume business was made for the web and they have as much business as they want at the moment, selling everything with no need to advertise. Last year they sold 32,000 packets of seeds from their cottage, to customers all over the world, although getting past the US regulations requires some skills.

I love the names of some of these old varieties – how did a lettuce called Fat Lazy Blonde get its name I wonder? Or the one called Drunken Woman? And what will my beans look like if they are called Coco Rouge de Prague? Can’t wait to find out!

The other source of heritage seeds is what used to be called the Henry Doubleday Research Association and has now become Garden Organic. Gardeners pay to become members of the seed library, and each year they are given a selection of six of the hundreds of varieties to grow.


Susan in Italy said...

Heritage seeds - I'm fascinated and I wonder if that term is the same as "Heirloom seeds" i.e. just a british/American difference, or if the terms are different. I pre-order many seeds each year from the Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa, US where they keep many many species alive for us. Great post!

June said...

Hi Susan

I know that the US restrictions are such that many of the older European seeds never make it to their shores. But it's excellent that people all over the world are making the effort to save this very important aspect of biodiversity. Italy seems to have some terrific old varieties - that's where Fat Lazy Blonde comes from!

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