In September, we joined a bunch of others at the launch of Being Human, the next permanent gallery at the Wellcome Collection. Divided into sections on genetics, minds and bodies, infection and environmental breakdown, the exhibition explores what it means to be human in the 21st century. It displays around 50 artworks and objects exploring our changing relationships to ourselves, each other and the world around us.
In the section on environmental breakdown, lodged between some seed packets from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and a banner from the Standing Rock, the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, were some of our London Freedom Seed Bank seeds.
Curator Clare Barlow said, “It’s hard to think of a bigger challenge to human health than environmental breakdown. In ‘Being Human’, we wanted to present the scale of the problem and highlight some of the many ways that individuals and groups are responding to what is being lost. We included seeds from London Freedom Seedbank alongside large-scale initiatives like Svalbard Global Seed Vault to make the point that all of us can think about our personal impact, and consider what we can do in the face of this global threat.”
It is refreshing to see a large institution like the Wellcome Trust take environmental breakdown seriously and present seed conservation, whether large-scale or smaller, as a serious and hopeful response.
We chose to exhibit three varieties which we felt together represented the London bank well and our diverse network of seed savers. They will be displayed at the Wellcome Collection for the next 10 years.
Calaloo is from a group of plants called Amaranths, all of which have edible seeds and leaves. They have been cultivated in many parts of the world and have developed a huge variety of leaf colours, shapes and sizes. Amaranths go under many names including Calaloo, Laf Sag, Lalshank and Tangerio.
For leaf production, pick off shoots or young leaves as soon as they are large enough to handle. Young leaves can be eaten raw and larger leaves cooked. If growing for seed, then harvesting of leaves should be kept to a minimum to encourage good yields. The seeds are high in protein and gluten-free, which has led to Amaranths being known in the West as a ‘superfood’.
OrganicLea, a workers’ co-operative growing food in Chingford, donated Calaloo Latte to the Seed Bank. They acquired the variety from a Pakistani woman in Leyton.
Fiesta corn (Zea mays everta) is a beautiful type of popping corn. Popping corn will ripen slightly quicker than sweetcorn, making it more suited to the London climate. can be milled into flour or used to make tasty popcorn. These seeds are the second London- saved generation, grown and saved by Julie Smith at Regent’s Park Allotment Garden.
It produces somewhat shorter plants than sweetcorn (up to 1.5m), with some variations in the colour of the stem and silk (everything from light green to purple stems and silks). The ears can grow fairly big and the plant produces cobs with mixed kernels of yellow, red, black, purple, pink, as well as marbled kernels. Some cobs came almost fully black.
Bloody Marvel Lettuce
Bred by Richard Galpin in Walworth, South London, it is inspired by research Bloody Cos variety, also known as Spotted Aleppo which originated in Syria in the 18th Century. The parent plants for Bloody Marvel were Marvel of Four Seasons and Majan Jaguar, selected through the 2017 Walworth Lettuce Trials for their suitability for London growing conditions. They were then manually cross-pollinated and the resulting cross selected for desirable characteristics – resilience, red flecks of colour, vigour and taste. This is only the third generation and so plants will vary considerably.
The exhibition is now open to the public and well worth a visit.