O.K., let’s not get too confused. I can explain everything, well, almost everything. The thing with the socks? I have no idea about that.
It all began long ago, no, recently but long ago is a better start, anyway, I was walking home from work, chomping on a nice juicy apple as I had missed my afternoon/second break at work and was finishing my snack on my way home. I like a nice juicy crisp apple, not too fluffy and not too dry. I like a lot of fruit but this story doesn’t work with bananas for reasons I won’t explore right now.
Just ask me later.
Anyway, apples. I noticed the core of said delicious fruit, (I don’t think it was a Delicious variety, just tasty), contained what appeared at first to be small specks of dust, rather than pips. Now, my reaction was initially that there had been a fault in the germination or growth of this particular specimen but then I thought again. A lack of viable seed means absolutely nothing for an apple grower. Had I wanted to save a seed from this wonderfully, enticing, (o.k. I’ll stop) this apple,to sow and possibly grow my own from, I would have been wasting my time.
Not because of the size of this seed, nor the quality but simply this.
Apples do not grow true from seed.
Let me explain. Plants grown from seed carry the genetic make up from their parents. As with anything grown via the process of parental crossing. Fertilization. The mixing of genes to produce an offspring.
When this happens, in food growing, we look for plants that will produce what the parent gave us. Size, flavour, colour, vigour and many other positive attributes.
It is the sharing of these attributes and the passing on from generation to generation that allows us to reliably produce useful crops, whether on a small scale at an allotment or in a window box to the vast plains of the american landscape.
I found out about this when I was a single man but on the very cusp of becoming a married one. I had been given two budgies as pets to keep me company while living in my flat until my soon to be wife could join me. Sentimental but fun. These two, originally named Jake and Earl, soon became Jake and Pearl after I decided to research a little about the birds and I discovered there is a subtle way of sexing the birds.
The fleshy bit above the beak, containing the holes for the nostrils, is called the Cere. This will differ in colour and flatness according to the sex and age of the bird.
There you go. You’ve learnt something.
However, I was not eating a budgie, but an apple. Budgie eating is frowned upon even after a hard day. Besides which, they aren’t anywhere near as juicy.
All this was discovered or at least expanded on to a greater degree by an Augustinian Monk, Johann Gregor Mendel. He crossed a few different pea plants, wrinkled seeded and round , yellow and green. He discovered that the ensuing plants gave varying results, differing in traits from their parents, even when like featured plants were bred. This tied in with my discovery of colours in budgies. Two blue feathered parents wouldn’t necessarily produce blue offspring. This is due to dominant and recessive genes. The same occurs in humans with things such as eye colour. A blue eyed person may have a dominant blue eye gene but a recessive green gene. If they breed with another blue dominant green recessive, they could find the green gene becomes more dominant. A blue dominant/brown recessive and a green dominant/brown recessive will probably have brown eyed children, because the brown gene is present in both parents.
Back to Peas. Mendel found that by careful selective crossing of plants, he could ‘fix’ a trait, such as wrinkled seed. This meant that this plant would always produce a particular feature from that batch of seed. A predictability of sorts. This is known as F1 seed. These seeds generally produce a uniform result, but without the guarantee of doing the same in the next generation. Plant A crossed with Plant B would always produce C, but Plant C would produce different offspring. Prolonged breeding fixed a reliable result for plants though and this led to the seeds we buy now.
If you purchase a Parsnip variety described as Long and Tender, for example, it will produce, under ideal conditions, long and tender roots. You shouldn’t get tough or stumpy roots. Seed suppliers can reliably produce many more years of the same seeds with this type of seed, but an F1 seed must be produced by carefully crossing the right parents each time, thus making them an expensive option.
So, why not the same with apples?
Apples are a little bit..well.. sexy.
Yes, sexy. Rampant for want of a better word. Most need at least two partners to pollinate them. Many small gardens contain crab apples, which may not themselves seem appetising but are very good pollinators for other varieties. Due to the vagaries of plant flowering times, sometimes the males and females of the same plant will miss each other and the third wheel acts as a go between. Regardless, this mix means it is rare if not impossible for a seed from an apple to contain much of the same D.N.A. as the fruit it came from. The amount of genes in an apple (about 57,000, thought to be the highest number in the plant world) means its difficult to get that mix right. Also, being a triploid, (3 parents) carries a few problems, not the least that some chromosome simply won’t divide.
Yes, breeders do cross plants and discover new varieties, but they then reproduce them by cloning, or grafting. Taking a slip of the original tree and joining it to a new root. This can then produce more material to be taken and added to more rootstocks. Grafting means that some part of every tree is from the first parent. Every Granny Smith is a part of the first ever Granny Smith tree.
Each Bramley Apple has a thin slice of the original dessert apple in it.
For a baker, it is the equivalent of sour dough starter. You take a portion, use it but feed the original so you can keep it alive to use again and again.
So, if you do try to grow that seed, that shiny pip from you lunch box fruit tomorrow, remember, if it grows into a nice big tree and you like the fruit (which will be entirely different), the only way to share it is by slicing a bit off.
But if you do want to experiment, try Sweet Peas, or grow Courgettes near other Cucurbits such as pumpkins or cucumbers. These are notoriously promiscuous but only need two parents. The results may not be edible always but they will be interesting.
Don’t forget, it is the fruits from the plants from the seeds of the first cross that will differ. If you grow Marrows and Butternut squash on the same plot, you will get Marrows and Butternut, but if you save the seeds from them and grow them, who knows?