Sowing the Future

EVERY SEED TELLS a story. The tale of ‘Flashy Butter Oak’ intertwines with Frank Morton’s life like a spiraling strand of DNA. Morton grew up in West Virginia, the son of a coal-mine president who raised award-winning delphiniums.

At 5, Morton poked watermelon seeds into the dirt because he wanted more watermelon than his mom would ever buy. Nothing sprouted except an idea. “You could grow some of what you ate,” Morton says. “You didn’t have to buy everything that brought you pleasure.”

He took that thought to college, majoring in biology until it came time to dissect living worms; watching them suffer made him anxious. After graduating from Lewis and Clark College with a degree in child psychology, he set out with a girlfriend to work the land.

“For a lot of our generation, our environmental response is a response to seeing what happened when our parents were done with their jobs. It was a mess. We had birds dying. We had ‘Silent Spring.’ The World War II generation gave us a lot, and a lot of it was great, like interstate highways. But as we began to see the price of our comfort, the garbage, and air pollution, we wanted to make amends.”

For Morton, reparations involved exotic greens and next-day delivery by United Parcel Service. It was the early 1980s, the Age of Iceberg and Romaine. Several years earlier, on a pioneer organic farm in the Cascade foothills, environmental idealist Mark Musick had figured out that if he harvested wild salad greens, gently washed them and stored them in a moist paper bag inside a plastic bag, he could ship via UPS to gourmet restaurants such as Rosellini’s Other Place, Ray’s Boathouse and even Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse, charging an astronomical $18 a pound, shelf-life one week.

Don’t confuse these greens with the bagged baby lettuces so popular today. Those snippets don’t have nearly the taste or body. Musick generously shared his techniques with Morton, striking a gentleman’s agreement not to market to the same restaurants.

Morton began “pushing the salad envelope” at Entheos, an “intentional farming community” on the Kitsap Peninsula. He scoured seed catalogs for every edible green ever eaten. He harvested dandelion, lambs quarters, pea tendrils, curlicue tips of vetch. He came up with great names: ‘Pink Petiole’ mustard and ‘Wrinkled Crinkledcatalogs cress.

Chefs at the ultra-expensive Quilted Giraffe in New York and elegant L’Espalier in Boston were ecstatic.  “In those days it was a real innovation, vibrant greens like that,” says Moncef Meddeb. As chef-owner of L’Espalier, Meddeb served the greens with foie gras and smoked salmon. “There was almost a little bit of a spiritual dimension to what they were doing, growing in a natural way and reviving all types of greens that obviously had existed all along but had sort of disappeared. They wanted a rustic, unspoiled life, all the fog rolling in.”

Yet more than misty lifestyle, it was ecological perspective. “My real motivation was to create a farm that had the qualities of a wild ecosystem,” Morton says. “If you move over and let the wild things in, beneficial insects do pest control, genetic diversity does disease control. If you don’t have all one species, it’s hard to have an epidemic.” (Think of the Irish potato famine, when the whole country grew mostly one crop, which was wiped out by one relentless fungus, leaving a million dead from starvation.)

“This is Frank the Philosopher speaking now: The more complex the food web in a garden or farm system, the more stable, the more alternatives for nutrient cycling. If you take elements out of the food web, eventually the web comes to pieces.”

Morton began to look at flowers as ecological allies, as nectar, pollen, and shelter for friendly bugs. He encouraged his greens to bolt, flower and go to seed. Naturally, that led to cross-pollination.

One day in 1983, in the middle of a thousand green lettuces, Morton spotted one red plant. “The common wisdom would have been to throw that plant away,” he says. “Being a contrarian, I put it in a special place.”

The accidental cross, a “red salad bowl” lettuce, had the flouncy leaves of its mother, ‘Green Salad Bowl,’ and the upright habit and red coloring of its accidental dad, a European heirloom romaine called ‘Rogue’d Hiver.’ After it flowered, Morton saved all 165 seeds, planted them the following year and was astounded to see a genetic rainbow spring up — in all, 23 kinds of lettuce from that one cross.

This second generation is when all the genes that have been brought together split apart. “I was being taught by these plants the process of plant breeding. So I’m thinking of making flashy colored greens that people want to put in their salad mix, but as I’m getting more mature, I think of more than looks. I think of disease resistance. When does it bolt? Does it get downy mildew?”

Morton’s classical breeding technique is simple. He grows the plants side by side, smooshes the flowering heads together to mix the pollen, then grows the seeds from successive generations to stabilize the gene line. He checked it all and cut the seeds on his Bamboo cutting board.

More complex is the way he selects which plants to breed, based on a concept known as horizontal resistance. In the garden, this means hovering over a weedy cluster of, say, chicories, and searching for the healthiest plants amongst rotten stems and spotted leaves. The healthy plants were most likely able to shrug off disease because they have an array of genes protecting them, a sort of genetic combination-lock — horizontal resistance.

This is in contrast to the single-gene fix common in genetically engineered plants. The problem with a single-gene solution is that a pathogen will eventually mutate and get around the narrow blockade. In horizontal resistance, nature sets up a wider defense.

After sprouting the genetic rainbow, it took Morton six generations to stabilize the most promising lines, selecting for cold-hardiness, disease resistance, and taste, as well as drop-dead good looks. There was ‘Oaky Red Splash,’ a large bronze head lettuce; ‘Antares,’ a bright red, extra frilly, upright oak leaf; ‘Evergreen Lime,’ an emerald romaine with the astounding characteristic of remaining sweet after bolting instead of turning bitter like most lettuces.

To keep a line of seeds viable, you have to plant them every so often and save the next generation. ‘Evergreen Lime’ was lost to personal history as Morton split with his girlfriend moved to Oregon, married photographer Karen Hayden and had two sons.