Scotland’s beautiful landscape is in part thanks to the huge amount of wind and rainfall we receive compared to the rest of the UK. At the time of writing there are no Scottish vegetable seed producers. This has the knock-on effect seeds that Scottish growers are forced to buy from elsewhere are unlikely to do well in our wet and windy climate. It hasn’t always been this way of course. Scotland has a rich history of producing seed and indeed breeding vegetable cultivars which would not only survive, but thrive in our unique climate.
In the autumn 2020 issue of The Organic Grower magazine I wrote an article about heritage Scottish vegetable cultivars. Missing from that article were a number of Scottish bred beans and peas which I wasn’t aware of at the time.
Beans and peas belong to the plant family Fabaceae. Members of this family are fantastic crops to grow for a host of different reasons. They “fix” nitrogen from the atmosphere through a symbiotic relationship with species of soil bacteria into their roots. This nitrogen is then used as food by not only the Fabaceae crop, but if tilled into the ground after cropping, there will be plenty of nitrogen available for the following year. This allows the grower to add less fertiliser and to improve their soil naturally. Beans and peas are also a great source of vegetable protein: they contain a lot of fibre, antioxidants and vitamins. With many people reducing or removing meat and dairy from their diets these days, beans and peas are the perfect low-cost, healthy alternative to animal-derived proteins.
From a seed saving perspective many types of beans and peas are the perfect beginner crop. This is because their flowers are what’s known as a “perfect flower”, that is to say they have both male and female organs, and they pollinate themselves as they open. For French beans and peas this means that you can grow a successful seed crop without risk of crossing with other French beans or peas, even if you grow on an allotment with many neighbours. Runner bean and broad bean flowers unfortunately remain open to pollination after they have opened and set some pollen, so to successfully save seed from these “promiscuous” beans you need to either only grow one cultivar and not have neighbours growing other cultivars, or isolate your crop with fleece or netting and introduce pollinators at the right time. It is because of this that I always try to encourage beginner seed savers to try a French bean or pea as their first seed crop before moving onto more difficult vegetables in the future.
Many Scottish growers say that “you can’t grow dwarf French beans in Scotland”, or that at least they don’t yield well. This is in part true because the cold winds we experience interfere with the growth of the dwarf bean, though some Scottish growers with established wind breaks have better luck. This was the thinking of the late great Scottish plant breeder Gretta Priestley in the 1950s, when she decided to breed a dwarf French bean hardy enough for the Scottish climate. She crossed ‘Fullcrop’ with the Scandinavian cultivar ‘Record’. The new cultivar which could withstand the cool temperatures and high winds of Scotland was named ‘Glamis’. ‘Glamis’ remained a popular hardy dwarf French bean in UK seed catalogues until the 1980s, but unfortunately became extinct in the UK around that time. Luckily a gene bank in the Czech Republic had kept this cultivar in their collection and they were happy to share a small amount of ‘Glamis’ seed with The Seed Sovereignty Programme last year. We grew those seeds and will be bulking them up further as well as trialling them against other hardy cultivars in the years to come.
When researching Scottish beans online an unusual hit comes up. A broad bean called ‘Scottish’ available from a few seed suppliers in New Zealand, but not available from UK, or even European catalogues. These broad beans were brought to New Zealand in the 1860s by Scottish settlers and have been kept alive by keen farmers and gardeners since. The Seed Sovereignty Programme are working with a New Zealand seed company to repatriate ‘Scottish’ broad bean back to Scotland.
The Transition Black Isle community north of Inverness have been growing a ‘Charcoal Flowered’ broad bean since 2012. Growers on the Black Isle found a chance seedling which probably came from an unintended cross between ‘Witkiem Manita’ and a crimson flowered cultivar. The stunning black flowers are followed by pods which turn a glorious chocolate brown when ripe.
Peas are a great crop for Scotland as our cool summers allow us to keep cropping peas for a few more weeks than our neighbours down south. The pea midge, the scourge of organic pea growers in England is also hardly present in Scotland. Peas are so engrained in Scottish culture that there are even folk songs about “peaing in Dundee”. Considering this, it is surprising that there are very few Scottish pea cultivars still around.
The ‘Robinson’ pea, also known as ‘Show Perfection’, is a second early cultivar, producing 11 peas per pod; it can grow over 2m tall. It is not only a great show bench pea, but also one of the sweetest and tastiest peas available. Grown since the 1950s on a farm in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, the seed came there originally from Scotland.
Our friends at The Heritage Seed Library keep not only ‘Robinson’, but also ‘Purple Mangetout’ originally from Clydebank.
This was a short run through the Scottish heritage beans and peas that I’m currently aware of. There are a few more, like the pea ‘Alex’ from Ayrshire that I can only find written accounts of, but the seed is not available. There is also a dwarf broad bean, ‘Bonnie Lad’, which seems to have been popular until the early 2000s and has since disappeared. I don’t know if ‘Bonnie Lad’ is Scottish, but it certainly sounds like it may be. Dwarf cultivars are great for standing their ground against our harsh Scottish winds. If you grow ‘Alex’, ‘Bonnie Lad’ or any other heritage Scottish beans or peas I would love to hear from you. If are growing beans or peas for seed in Scotland, even if the cultivars aren’t originally from Scotland, but you have found some that brave the elements and perform well, I’d similarly like to hear from you. Lastly if you are new to seed saving, or the events of Seed Week have inspired you grow your own seed crop, I implore you to give some beans or peas a try. They are very rewarding and if you keep to peas or French beans, they can be a very easy crop!
Richie Walsh is the Seed Sovereignty Programme coordinator for Scotland and can be contacted at Richie@gaianet.org