The day after our Food Bloggers' day in Oxford, a few of us got together for a more detailed session on tomato and potato plant breeding with Tom Wagner (pictured left alongside Vicki of the Heritage Seed Library) of Tater Mater. Today I'm concentrating on the potato part of the workshop and the above picture shows a small selection of Tom's new varieties, which Patrick will be growing back home in Amsterdam. As you can see, there's an amazing variety, all seeking to increase the different characteristics (or genetic resources aka germplasm) available to future plant breeders.
Tom has crossed hundreds of different potatoes to produce new ones. In order to do this he has selected potatoes with a tendency to produce berries - the seed capsules sometimes seen on potato plants - in addition to their more usual tuber production. As the seed is the product of a cross pollination made by Tom, the seeds will take on characteristics from both parents - unlike the tubers which will be an exact copy of the parent plant. From these seeds, further crosses may be made or further generations of seed produced until Tom has a stable line that he is happy with. The pictured potatoes are some of these and he has made tens of thousands of crosses.
In addition to berrying, Tom is also selecting for a number of other positive characteristics in his crosses. Flavour is one, as is improved nutrition, particularly in the production of anthocyanins (often seen in red and blue/black skinned potatoes and thought to have anti-cancer properties) and higher mineral content. He's also produced varieties with shorter cooking times and longer keeping qualities. Blight resistance of course is a bit of a holy grail at the moment, particularly with the recent emergence of a new vigorous strain of late blight - Blue-13 - which has already seen some of the traditionally resistant varieties such as Cara, succumb in this country.
Tom is an independent plant breeder and has spent the last couple of months touring Europe to spread the word about his life's work. Whilst in this country he also visited the Sarvari Research Trust who are responsible for trialling and introducing the new blight resistant varieties we've seen on sale recently, such as Sarpo Axona and Sarpo Mira. It'll be interesting to see if anything comes out of his visit, particularly as some of the pictured potato varieties Tom has bred - e.g. Pam Wagner - have good blight resistance.
Tom is very keen his work has a much wider uptake and is providing materials to kick start projects. I'm happy to say that I'm the lucky recipient of some of these and so I'll be growing potatoes for Tom next year - as part of my Incredible Edibles strand - and sending him any seed the potatoes produce. In order to spread the risk over a number of plots and thus increasing the likelihood that one of us at least will get a decent crop, I'll be getting my allotment friends to help out next year. Threadspider's already volunteered without me needing to ask her :)
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