The Restoration of Purple Olive-Shaped Radish. Or is it?
“The Greeks esteemed radishes above most other roots. We find that in the oblations of garden fruits which they offered to Apollo in his temple of Delphos, they dedicated turnips in lead, and beet in silver, whereas radishes were presented in beaten gold.”
British botanist Henry Phillips, History of Cultivated Vegetables (1822)
Recognizing that seed knowledge is being lost even more quickly than genetic diversity, OSA trains farmers in basic on-farm seed saving, crop improvement, and plant breeding practices via our Heirlooms of Tomorrow projects. Some projects are focused on breeding new varieties, such as ‘Abundant Bloomsdale’, and others are restoring and improving older varieties, such as John Navazio’s ‘Rhubarb Supreme Red Chard’. We recently received funding from two local sources, a grant from Natural Products Northwest and donations from the plant sale of the Port Townsend Garden Club, to work with local Port Townsend farmers on a new Heirlooms of Tomorrow project. So in 2008 we set out to restore an old and venerable radish; but along the way we found ourselves confronted by a mystery that was wrapped inside a double helix of genetics and partially concealed by an obscure 18th century text. The DaVinci Seed? Not quite, but a decent lesson in heirlooms, varietal maintenance, and storytelling.
The skin had been describe to me as imperial purple, as in the robes of a royal, with the root a compact olive shape perfect for popping into your mouth. ‘Purple Olive-Shaped Radish’. The story behind the variety was as exotic as the description. For me it started with a remnant handful of seed sent to Abundant Life Seed Foundation in 2001 from the collection of the esteemed author and seed saver, William Woys Weaver. William, who inherited the variety from his grandfather FR Weaver in 1965, had written about this radish in his book Heirloom Vegetable Gardening, tracing its origin as far back as the English garden author Thomas Mawe, who was supposed to have written about the variety way back in 1779 in the book Every Man His Own Gardener. William hoped that Abundant Life Seed Foundation (ALSF) might increase the seed and offer it in our catalog.
We agreed, and the seed was planted at the ALSF farm in the spring of 2002 - but the seed was old and germination and emergence were mixed. Perhaps a hundred and fifty mature roots took shape, the last of their kind. These roots were further endangered by the grazing of a hungry, ignorant mammal through the ALSF gardens. No not a deer or rabbit, but me. Hey, they were pretty and I was hungry and the first one tasted so good (crunchy, moist, and sweet at the start, with a good hot bite at the finish) that I had to sample another to make certain the flavor wasn’t a phenotypic anomaly. Enough roots survived (thanks to the farm manager scaring me off my feed) that we were able to offer the radish “for the first time since Franklin flew a kite,” as I wrote in the 2003 ALSF catalog – the last ALSF catalog.
In August of 2003 a fire destroyed 90% of the ALSF seed collection, with only the seed crops in fields surviving. ‘Purple Olive-Shaped Radish’ was one of those survivors. The 2003 seed crop was harvested in the month after the fire, and then sold along with the remnants of the catalog business to Tom and Julie Johns who continue to offer the variety to this day in the new Abundant Life Seed catalog.
In the last few years the variety has also made its way into the hands of more seed savers, and is offered in trade on garden-seed-related web sites. When a gardener bothers to describe the variety beyond what is written in the ALS catalog, they invariably point to what we saw that first year in producing it at the ALSF farm: the color is more lavender than purple (and there are often pure white roots as well) and the shape is more globe shaped than olive (and not so compact). What gives? Is this the same radish William Woys Weaver wrote of in his Heirloom Vegetable Gardening book? The shape? Why white and occasionally red roots? Why isn’t it called ‘Lavender Globe-Shaped Radish’?
As I have said, so often now that many of you roll your eyes when you hear it coming, “Seeds are stories and stories are seeds.” And the stories of seeds are often a confluence of family history, frontier-style tall tales, ancient myth, and less rarely, scientific fact (and these facts are often only simplistic mechanistic reductions, so they don’t really count as being much more true than the tall tales).
‘Purple Olive-Shaped Radish’, the queen of all radishes, not only in the imperial color of her robes and elevated flavor, but in her mythical and yet humble lineage. Humble in that she may be more a bastard than we seed saving aficionados would care to admit. I called William to ask him if he remembered anything else about this variety, and he pointed me to the same resource as I had previously listed, Thomas Mawe’s Every Man His Own Gardener. So I read the book, and it was pretty darn good – with a month to month detail of what a good Englishman should be doing to insure a fine harvest and beautiful blooms. Not so different from Seattle Tilth’s Maritime Northwest Garden Guide, but for a few Thees and Thous. But as much as I enjoyed the read, I could not find a single mention of ‘Purple Olive-Shaped Radish’. I read an electronic version, and even did a full document search of “radish” and “purple” in the hopes that I had inadvertently skipped it in my quick read. No such luck. Exhaustive Internet searches brought me no new references; in fact all references circled back around to the copy I had written for the 2003 ALSF catalog. So did I lie when I wrote about this variety going back to the days of kite flying Franklin? Did such a variety ever exist but for in the gardens of William and HR Weaver until offered by ALSF? Did it lose its name along the way? It certainly seemed to lose its identity in terms of color and shape.
I didn’t call William back as he was busy with a Gourmet magazine deadline when I hounded him the first time, but I did email him to ask if he could dig deeper into his archives and find the exact reference to this radish. I’ll let you know what I find out. But my guess is that, like many story tellers, William passed on information that he believed to be true. “The way I heard it was…” It may even be true. Mawe may have written of this radish in a different edition than I read, or a different book (he wrote many). I may have misheard him on the phone those years back at ALSF and then repeated him my mistake a few weeks ago, asking him to confirm my mistake and he may have done so. Or it might have been a story his grandfather told to him, and who can question that authority? And does it really matter? Regardless, the radish that today is named ‘Purple Olive-Shaped Radish’, is no longer purple, or olive shaped, and there’s a decent chance that it may never have been called that at all.
There are really two, or maybe three mysteries: 1) what are the varieties true origins and name; 2) was it ever purple olive shaped, 3) and if so, what happened?
The name questions we may have answered if William gets back to us with a more exact reference. The color/shape issue is really a multitude of different mysteries. Radish is extreme an outcrosser, sharing pollen, and therefore genetics, with many plants within a field population. As such its traits, such as color or form, can quickly drift into a spectrum of genetic combinations and expressions if the roots are not regularly selected for the ideal type (or ideotype). Radishes, like other outcrossers, revert to a wide range of ancestral forms if maintenance (selection for ideotype) does not occur with regularity. A second alternative (or even complementary) explanation for the ranging color and form of ‘Purple Olive-Shaped Radish’ could be found in the size of the radish population that seed was saved from over the years. It is quite common for home gardeners to save seed from a limited number of plants due to limited space in their garden, many plants fewer than the 100-root minimum we suggest for a good outcrossing population like radish. This can result in inbreeding depression, or an unhealthy narrowing of the overall germplasm which brings about the expression of deleterious genes. In plants, as in humans, inbreeding results in lower reproductive rate, physical abnormalities, and so on. While we might imagine that inbreeding would also lead to highly uniformity within a variety, it often does the opposite in outcrossers. “It lets the genie out of the bottle,” as John Navazio described it to me, allowing us to see a “storehouse of genetic variation that was hidden within the larger germpool.” And of course, a third aspect of this may be that over the years the variety may have crossed (many times) with another distinct variety - a neighbor’s bolted white radish for example - and that the off-types from this inadvertent cross were not bred out in subsequent generations. We’ll never know. But the truth is likely one or all of the above.
So what to do when you inherit a patchwork story and a poorly maintained variety?
When all else fails, choose the truths you like and make your own story.
My mother will scold me if she reads this as a taking a slippery slope to truth (and I’ll no doubt have a contract put on me by a few seed conservationists for giving this advice about heirlooms) but I believe that it’s the most honest approach one can take when faced with seed mysteries that have a paucity of those pesky things called facts and a serious lack of genetic uniformity. Perpetuate new truths. Breed new stories. Believe that grander and more glorious forms, tales, and tastes are yet to be created. Choose the traits you like and craft your own variety (with a lot of help and hints from the plant and the field). That is what we’re going to do with ‘Purple Olive-Shaped Radish’ as a project of Heirlooms of Tomorrow.
Initially we asked Hanako Myers and Marko Colby of Midori Farm in Port Townsend, Washington to plant ‘Purple Olive-Shaped Radish’ so that we could restore it to the description we had inherited, hoping that the descriptions on home garden web sites were off in their description of pale lavender spherical roots. Hanako and Marko planted the seed in April 2008, and on May 9th a crew of us went out and dug a thousand or so roots to assess the population. “What are we looking for?” Hanako asked when we had the roots laid out. I had no idea how to answer. Looking at the roots, what I read on the ground was not a traditional story cycle, repeated word for word, year in and year out, nor an accurate historical record. It was a mystery, and one that won’t end with final answers as much as with new ideas and actions. Over the last 250 years (if Mawe is eventually found to be a reliable source), and the hundreds of seasons of conscious or unconscious root selection, the genetics of ‘Purple Olive -shaped Radish’ have drifted and been inadvertently bred away from a deep imperial purple, compact olive size, and formed radish into a wide ranging pell-mell of lavender, pure white, thin and gangly, fat and round, and very rarely purple and olive-shaped radishes. There were less than half a dozen of these little olive-shaped beauties in the entire population – too few to continue with the myth of restoring an old variety. Start an original truth. We had a new and difficult tasks to select the roots we liked, replant them for seed, and eat the rest (Marko is an expert kim chee producer and his eyes glowed brightly at all the spicy little culls ready for his vats).
The population certainly isn’t uniform enough to keep calling it 'Purple Olive-Shaped Radish'. Maybe we’ll call it Little Orphan Ragtag Radish until we figure out its true pedigree, and until we have a few more seasons of selection pressure to gel it into a new ideotype. Maybe the orphan story and name will stick and people will be okay with buying radish seed that is a grab bag of beautiful and beastly traits. Or maybe the farmers that we work with at Organic Seed Alliance will breed it into a deep dark purple beauty and come up with a fairy tale story of their work on it and dub it Imperial Princess Radish, and seed catalogs will fawn over its “royal purple robes”, as I had once imagined them.
That’s a story that will be told in the coming years; I’d guess at least four or five years of field selection before we have anything resembling an ideotype. I hope that the next generation story will include the old story of 'Purple Olive-Shaped Radish', or what we know of it, but given the space allocated to seed catalog descriptions that part of the story will likely disappear as well over the years (although the Internet catalogs may change that and allow for us to have layers of hyperlinked trivia and history on each variety). In the end we will have a new variety with a new name and a new story that over the decades will likely outgrow our crafting of it. It will be handed down by farmers and gardeners, selection will be practiced either consciously or accidentally (for gains good or bad), and a few dozen generations from now someone will shake their head and wonder, “Who named this thing Imperial Princess Radish and why are there so many round dark purple roots when I heard it was pink and oblong?”
The 2008 field work on Purple Olive-Shaped Radish breeding work is funded in part from a grant from Natural Products Northwest and donations from the Port Townsend Garden Club Plant Sale. We deeply appreciate both of these generous supporters.
By Matthew Dillon, OSA Director of Advocacy
Back to June 2008 Newsletter