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Late last summer at the bottom of a garden in County Clare you would have found cabbages rearing up to five or six feet, brussels sprouts, cut-and-come kales and other selected brassicae. But this was no ordinary garden. This was the heritage garden at Capparoe, the site of the Irish Seed Savers Association.
At one time each county would have its own local varieties of Brassica, adapted to the conditions and tastes of the area. They would have their own distinctive properties, resistance to disease and adaptation to climate. [[There are still old varieties to be found in East Clare. There are certainly cut-and-come kales, a never-ending crop of nutritious, tasty greens.]] Yet many of these cabbages, the sprouts and the kales which have been grown in Ireland for centuries, special local varieties with their distinctive flavours, have been steadily disappearing.
It was in 1982 that Dr B Murphy, funded by the European Community and with this rate of disappearance in mind, set out to collect as many of the Irish Brassica species as he could find. He discovered kales and cabbages which had been grown for generations, both from his travels around Ireland and from the Irish Dept of Agriculture. Seeds of these Brassicae were sent to the European Brassica base collection, maintained by Horticulture Research International in Wellesbourne in the UK, and stored there until last year. Last summer Anita received a consignment of small foil packages, sealed for storage under special conditions, and took on the awesome prospect of becoming the protector of these wonderful old varieties. In March of this year at seed planting time she opened the packages with great trepidation. Would the seeds still be viable? Would she be able to get them to grow? It was an overwhelming responsibility. Especially when she found many of the seeds to be crumbly little bits of nothing. How would the cabbages of Ireland ever be saved from these poor old specimens?
Of course they did grow, thanks to Anita's skill and perseverance, and the mature plants have been transferred to the gardens of local members of the ISSA. The seed from these plants will be saved next year. I have a cut-and-come kale planted in my own garden. Anita arrived one day with half a dozen in the back of the car, full grown plants. We had builders in at the time, and they looked on in astonishment as these triffids were unloaded. Surely cabbages are for eating? Anyway, they were planted out and took to their new home with hardly a murmur of protest. They're odd things, looking a bit like sprouts. But the sprouts sprout, producing new shoots throughout the year. And the shoots will grow if you cut them off and stick them in the ground. And if you don't cut them off, they still spread to form new plants. I've a feeling these things could take over the garden. I'll have to keep a sharp eye on them.