This is the story of a vegetable facing extinction, a wise Scottish pensioner and the power of the Internet.
The vegetable in question: Sutherland kale. Now don’t switch off. Kale is massively underrated and it’s about time it had a revival. A sturdy, practical plant, it keeps on giving all through the winter and still manages to be beautiful.
Sutherland kale is an extremely rare variety and the story of how it was rescued from oblivion should give hope to all of us who worry about the tendency of global food and seed companies to reduce all our fruit and veg to just a few dominant strains.
You can get it from the excellent Real Seed Catalogue, a small company in Wales that specialises in finding the best possible seed for kitchen gardeners and only sells varieties they have trialled themselves.
The company came across Sutherland kale in 2003, when Vicky Schilling, a customer from Ullapool, sent them a few seeds with a note explaining that she had been given them by Elizabeth Woolcombe, a 93-year-old woman from Sutherland in the Scottish Highlands. Ms Woolcombe knew it as an old variety that used to be popular with crofters.
She, in her turn, had been given some seeds half a century earlier by one Angus Simmonds, when he was researching kale at Edinburgh University.
I first heard about Sutherland kale via the Incredible Edible Todmorden blog. One of the latest Todmorden initiatives is a heritage garden where volunteers will grow rare varieties of plants and ensure they are saved for future generations.
Sutherland kale was an obvious choice for wet and windswept Tod, since it has been shown to withstand 70mph sleet showers, not to mention attacks from aphids, cabbage white caterpillars and ravenous goats.
Just two weeks later, in one of those wonderful cyber-coincidences that sometimes happen, I was reading another favourite blog, the Barefoot Crofter, and spotted a second reference to this very rare variety.
I left a comment expressing my surprise, and before I knew it Jacqueline, the Barefoot Crofter herself, had contacted me via Twitter and offered to send me some seed.
It makes me ridiculously happy to think that the kale plants in our allotment will be connected to the ones on Jacqueline’s croft and, more distantly, to a small group of enlightened people who understood the value of preserving a specific variety of plant at a time when the trend is all towards fewer types that are selected more for their ease of large-scale, commercial production than anything else.
The moral of this story is: small actions count.
The Real Seed people believe Vicky Schilling’s kale plants may have been the last ones in existence until they started growing her seed for sale.
If Vicky had not sent the seeds to the Real Seed Catalogue, Sutherland kale could well be extinct and people like Jacqueline, who farm in extreme weather conditions, would be that much the poorer.
Similarly, if Elizabeth Woolcombe had not faithfully saved seed from her kale, year after year after year, maybe it would have died out all the sooner.
If, like me, you have been involved in the Incredible Edible movement, you will know that one of their mantras is ‘Believe in the power of small actions.’
A movement that began when a few volunteers started planting vegetables in unusual places – think cemetery, bus stop, doctors’ surgery – and putting up revolutionary signs saying ‘help yourself’ is now spreading across the world and making a real difference to the way that people think about land, community and food.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by news of increasingly erratic weather conditions, global economic crisis and issues like the huge decline in the UK’s endangered wildlife.
What can we as individuals do in the face of all that, we wonder. Well the stories of Sutherland kale and Incredible Edible demonstrate that the only wrong answer to that question is ‘nothing’.