Sep 16, 2021
Lost Louisiana State University plant varieties rediscovered

The Calhoun Research Station was established as the North Louisiana Research Station in 1888 in the village of Calhoun in western Ouachita Parish. It was closed in 2011 due to budget cuts. But while operational, the Calhoun Station was home base to agricultural research vitally important for Louisiana’s northernmost parishes, ranging in scope from poultry husbandry to dairy cow research to fruit variety development.

Locally, there is still fervent interest in vegetable varieties developed at the Calhoun Station. But these varieties have fallen into functional extinction. An Louisiana State University (LSU) AgCenter project is underway to relocate these and other heirloom varieties and get them back into circulation to both home and commercial growers.

The project started with a Master Gardener seminar. In January 2019, the Northeast Louisiana Master Gardeners Association hosted legendary seed saver John Coykendall as keynote speaker for their annual gardening seminar. Coykendall is the focus of a documentary produced by Louisiana Public Broadcasting (LPB) titled “Deeply Rooted: John Coykendall’s Journey to Save Our Seeds and Stories.”

Calhoun Purplehull vines like a butterbean. It was developed at the Calhoun Research Station and was released in 1967. Photo: Kerry D. Heafner

Coykendall has personally found and saved seeds of hundreds of heirloom vegetable varieties and reintroduced them to new generations of growers. Many varieties in Coykendall’s collection come from Washington Parish, where numerous farming families have shared their seeds and the stories behind them with him.

After the 2019 seminar, requests came into the Ouachita Parish Extension Office from clientele asking where they might obtain seeds of the Calhoun Purplehull field pea. A literature review revealed that LSU’s field pea breeding program was housed at the Calhoun Research Station and work resulted in other field pea releases like Louisiana Purchase, LA Green and Calhoun Crowder. Calhoun Purplehull, formerly known as Variety L-19-25, was released in 1967.

The Red-N-Sweet watermelon has dark red, sweet flesh. It was the last watermelon released from the Calhoun Research Station. Photo: Kerry D. Heafner

A search of USDA’s Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN) revealed Calhoun Purplehull to be one of hundreds of legume crops held in their seed repository in Griffin, Georgia. It is a vining pea and, according to locals who remember it, has a flavor far superior to that of the more commonly grown Pinkeye Purplehull. Pods of Calhoun Purplehull average 8 inches long and are slightly curved. Flowers are white when fully open. It seems all varieties of the Calhoun peas have become scarce for one reason or another, presumably because growers prefer top-pick varieties that are easier to harvest among various other reasons.

As word about the reintroduction of nearly lost varieties like the Calhoun Purplehull pea and the Red-N-Sweet watermelon has spread, gardeners in Winn, Union and Lincoln parishes have come forward with seeds and information on several varieties of corn, field pea, English pea and collard green that were not developed by LSU. This is significant because some sources estimate as much as 94% of food crop diversity worldwide has already been lost. Reasons for this vary from families transitioning from a rural to an urban lifestyle, to railroads and other forms of mass transit making shipping foods long distances easier, to the advent and use of hybrid varieties. Each functionally extinct variety recovered represents a reservoir of genetic diversity for that species that would otherwise be lost. And, with renewed interest in local foods, local culinary talent will potentially have a broader palette of flavors to draw from for inclusion in their gastronomic creations.

Red-N-Sweet watermelon pieces wrapped in heritage breed prosciutto, drizzled with olive oil and sea salt, and served over a bed of baby greens. Preparation and photo: Delia Simpson

Seeds of these and other heirloom varieties have been sent to locations throughout Louisiana and to other states as far away as Kentucky, Ohio and even Cornell University in New York. An heirloom collard from Union Parish has been shared with the Utopian Seed Project in Asheville, North Carolina. These varieties represent northern Louisiana’s rich agricultural history. The goal of this project, tentatively called the North Louisiana Seed Preservation Program, is to collect and house seeds of these nearly lost varieties and make them available again to both home and commercial growers.

A fruitful encounter

Serendipity plays no small role in finding old seeds. After speaking to the Marion Garden Club in Union Parish last year, I was approached by Mrs. Lula Shurtleff who told me she had been given some watermelon seeds some years ago, and that she thought the watermelon had been developed at the Calhoun Station. That got my attention because numerous enquiries about seeds and plants of the Calhoun Sweet watermelon have come into the office every spring since I’ve been an extension agent. Mrs. Shurtleff’s seeds turned out to be those of Red-N-Sweet, a variety that followed the Calhoun Sweet by 36 years.

Red-N-Sweet was released in 1987 and was the last Calhoun watermelon. It is a striped melon with dark, red flesh and a thin rind. Plants were grown last summer from seeds saved in 2001, 2003 and 2006. The six largest melons ranged in weight from 30 to 46 pounds and had sugar contents measuring 12- and 13-degrees Brix, where 1 degree Brix is 1 gram of sucrose in 100 grams of solution. Calhoun Sweet, a Black Diamond-type melon, and Calhoun Gray, a cross between Calhoun Sweet and Charleston Gray, have also been located, and attempts are being made this year to grow them out for seed stocks.

Kerry D. Heafner is area horticulturist in Morehouse, Ouachita and Union parishes and the Northeast Region horticulture and Master Gardener coordinator.

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