Prof Leakey spent years of research abroad, improving crop varieties in Africa (teaching in Uganda and consulting in Egypt, Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Chad and Nigeria), plant breeding in France and visiting Spain. He set up his own breeding program in Madeira and returned home to breed beans for UK Diets, sharing his beans and vision with many. He collected beans with a wide range of traits, digestible beans from the markets in Kenya, Manteca beans from Colombia and Garnett beans from Brazil. Listening to Tamsin talk about the specifics of the traits that were bred into each cultivar and how Colin found and chose to work with each of the breeding lines he chose is fascinating.
Rich tapestry of stories
Tamsin tells many-layered stories about the numerous lines Colin crossed to breed cultivars suitable for UK climates, suitable for UK diets and our digestive systems. He really was a remarkable man and another element of this story that is so heart-warming is the determination and persistence with which Tamsin has taken on the mantle to ensure the beans continue their journeys to find their relevant niches. They were, after all bred for specific niches, in both our landscapes and in our diets and owe a deep gratitude to the niches where he found them and the people who lived with them.
Tamsin on a mission to find rightful homes for the beans
To Tamsin these beans mean so much; she has co-evolved with them. Not only were they part of her childhood, but they were also like siblings, sharing family holidays.
They have names, key characteristics and are related to her father, and her, in different ways. The family used and cooked with all the beans, and it feels that they have nourished and transformed their relationships and outlook on the world. The youngest of 3 daughters, alongside her mother, who cooked for the family, Tamsin took on the role of fieldwork assistant and knows the beans intimately. She is custodian of her father’s work and legacy both in terms of the genetic materials he bred for specific niches and the stories of how each bean evolved and why.
Heritage Seed Library and other allies
To ensure the crops still find their rightful place in our fields, kitchens and on our plates, Tamsin has a lot to chew on! Allies along the way are key to this vision, to furrow a way for her father’s beans to make significant contributions to digestible plant protein in UK diets and to inspire a new generation of plant breeders. Hodmedod’s worked with a farmer in Cambridge who grew Prof Leakey’s small round, bright red, garnet bean ‘stop’ which they tinned and took to market.
I spoke with Roger Vickers from PGRO, who was instrumental in helping to keep the beans growing, maintained, and supporting them to find their niche. It was when Roger mentioned the seeds had been passed to Heritage Seed Library that I sighed a sigh of relief, previously wondering where they were and whether someone was growing them each year.
HSL as a conservation org
The Heritage Seed Library is a unique organisation and key for conservation of genetic seed diversity in the UK. Their charitable purpose is to safeguard seeds of heritage, heirloom, and ex-agricultural production for future generations. They do this with the help of a large army of amateur seed savers and seed custodians, who each take on the maintenance of a particular cultivar, some people keenly conserving the save seed each year, growing it on and giving seed back to the HSL.
HSL accession processes
Tamsin and I visited HSL meeting with Catrina, head of the service, in August 2021 to see her dad’s beans, the Leakey bean collection. Catrina showed us around the site; we visited the small crop of ‘Stop’ beans grown that year, in strict growing conditions, labelled, controlled, and documented. The amounts of seed sown and saved each year is small with various safeguards to enable HSL to perform their function of conserving specific cultivars.
When HSL are given seeds, anything from a few seeds in an envelope with a letter, they research the variety given. In the case of Colin’s seeds, 12 packets of seeds were handed over. His varieties came with significant information, including background research and breeding that went into each of the cultivars. Some of the beans were known to communities of bean breeders, but lots of detail wasn’t. The information is important for understanding the provenance of the beans and genetics they carry.
Sharing the load
Of Colin’s 12 cultivars the Heritage Seed Library hold, 8 are ripe for including in a programme to assess their status, whilst others have less heritage status or background information, and less than 1/5th of accessions HSL receive generally being taken further, the Leakey bean collection is significant.
The HSL looks at each cultivars’ heritage provenance; the older the better, whether they are ex-commercial, heirloom or historic varieties, mostly pre-dating the 1970s.
Over the next few years, the Leakey bean collection will be assessed. Meanwhile, Tamsin is growing some of her beans at the Seed Coop. We will host a preview screening of a film about her father and her legacy at their Open Day on July 23rd. This will be followed by the official film launch and Beanfeast in September!
To share your passion for beans and join our Beanfeast please contact firstname.lastname@example.org