This Year our heritage garden has been very successful despite this summer’s exceedingly dry weather. We have gotten a fair amount of fresh produce including lettuce, tomatoes, rhubarb, and hopefully in the near future, squash. So far the most impressive spectacle in our little garden is the corn which has grown to an impressive hight of 12 ft. From what we hear this is a fairly unusual hight for corn in our area! The corn we have growing in our garden is a species of white corn and kernels on the cob do not grow in the usual rows, instead they grow at random all over the ear. Apparently this corn is not of the sweetest variety and can be quite bitter to the taste. The variety of corn grown in the garden is known as Country Gentleman, a heritage variety of corn introduced around 1890 and widely grown well into the 1950’s. In the 1800’s and well into the 1900’s, white corn was eaten at the dinner table because it was sweet flavoured while yellow corn was starchy and used as animal feed. Extensive hybridization has changed that such that white corn is now rarely grown while the sweetest corn is now yellow corn. Country Gentleman was also known as a “shoepeg” corn because there were many kernels in the cob tightly packed but in irregular rows. Depending on the quality of soil, Country Gentleman could grow anywhere from 9 feet to 12 feet high, be multi-stemmed and bear up to 3 cobs per plant. The quality of soil was important as it was found that in certain areas the corn would grow but not be that sweet. The corn was considered good for roasting, and once the technology was available, used for canned or frozen corn kernels. It is a long season corn (takes about 3 to 4 months to mature). The cobs that we grew were quite tasty, reminding the gardener of white corn that used to be available many years ago. This corn definitely grew well for our museum garden, the hot dry summer certainly helped. If you look carefully at the picture of the corn in the garden, you will see that a few cobs have red silk – this is a sign that cobs are ready for pollination. When the cob is ripe, the silk fades to brown. Here is a picture of the cobs, note that the kernels are not in neat rows:
Not only did we grow outsized corn, we grew two other outsized plants. If you look at the picture, the plant with the huge plant that is in front of our Executive Director is Havana Tobacco; and although hard to see right behind the havana Tobacco is the Thousand Headed Kale.
Havana Tobacco was grown in home gardens in the Vancouver area for many years back to the early 1900’s. It was considered to be the best tobacco for growing in the home garden. It was used to make cigars or chewing tobacco or was grown as an ornamental plant – note the large leaves and pink flowers. Tobacco leaves when boiled in water create a very effective insecticide, and of course nicotine when extracted from tobacco leaves has been used to fumigate greenhouses for over 150 years. For our tobacco, we started the seedlings in February indoors and grew them under lights until June. For the first few months they were very tiny plants, and grew quite slowly. When we planted them outside in June, they had only 3 leaves and we openly wondered whether they would grow successfully. However, in July their growth accelerated and by September we had full grown tobacco for harvest. Because we allowed the plants to bloom, the leaves were not considered suitable for drying to make tobacco. However, if we had cut off the blooms, the leaves would have grown even larger than achieved in our garden and in late September we would hang the stalks of leaves in a dry room for several months to make cigar tobacco or in a fire heated room for several weeks to make chewing tobacco. Considering the effort needed to grow and cure the tobacco, it was probably a select few who grew tobacco – far easier to buy it ready to use.
Thousand Headed Kale is no longer available in Canada, so the museum had to search outside of Canada for the seeds. Our research showed that it was offered for sale in Vancouver up until about the 1930’s and then disappeared. This kale is a plain leafed kale that is very prolific and winter hardy; in fact frost and snow improve its flavour. Since it was winter hardy, it could be grown through our winters to provide green leaves for harvest from February through to April. It was also grown for use as animal feed – dairy and poultry farmers could use it to feed their cows in the winter months since it was ready to be harvested in the late fall to winter months. Although research shows that Kale is a very nutritious vegetable, nowadays the flavour of Kale does not excite many people to eat it, especially when fast food is so readily available. In growing this vegetable one is reminded how our food supply has changed so much from 100 years ago – we are able to get fresh food year round. But once upon a time, we could only eat what we grew and a vegetable that survived our winters would be very valuable in the garden. Here is another picture of Thousand Kale in our garden – it has grown to about 6 feet in height and shows no sign of stopping – to the right of the TH Kale, you will notice a few plants of the more familiar green curled Kale, what a difference in size: