Celebrating plant cousins: Crop Wild Relative Week

Sept. 22, 2020 – To increase the awareness of “crop wild relatives,” the Crop Science Society of America (CSSA) created Crop Wild Relative Week in 2018. Celebrated each Sept. 22-28, this year’s promotion features four blogs. Two are about the familiar crops of tomatoes and flaxseed. Two others are about techniques to preserve the genetic material of crop wild relatives.

The fruits, grains, and roots of crop wild relatives are not as large as domesticated crops. Some might be bitter or have poor texture. But these hardy plants have a natural and useful diversity of traits that helped them live in wild landscapes and harsh conditions. These traits are useful to breeders in the fight to create a sustainable and secure food supply.

  1. Tomatoes: Ripe, juicy tomatoes are one of the hallmarks of a summer picnic – and a key ingredient in salads and the classic BLT. Like many of our modern crops, today’s tomatoes have benefited from the work of crop scientists who collected, studied, and preserved their wild relatives. Wild species native to South America carry natural disease resistance that breeders have used to create modern varieties. This is the story of how one wild tomato relative, a rare and endangered nightshade from the Atacama Desert of Chile, was (re)discovered and bred (eventually) with tomatoes. To read the full blog, visit https://sustainable-secure-food-blog.com/2020/09/22/the-tale-of-a-wild-tomatos-discovery/
  2. Flax: Flaxseed is one of humanity’s oldest, and most widely adopted multi-use crops. For over ten thousand years, the oil-rich seeds have been an important source of nutrition for both humans and livestock. They have also been used for commercial purposes. Scientists are looking at ways to make flax into a perennial crop. To read the full blog, visit https://sustainable-secure-food-blog.com/2020/09/22/giving-flax-a-perennial-upgrade-with-crop-wild-relatives/
  3. Cryopreservation: There is a humble, wild chile pepper that grows in Arizona. Commonly called chiltepín, it is the wild relative of hundreds of domesticated pepper varieties grown (and eaten) all over the world. This research involves a new vision to conserve these wild relatives called “trans situ conservation.” To read the full blog, visit https://sustainable-secure-food-blog.com/2020/09/22/what-can-the-wild-chile-teach-us-about-conserving-crop-wild-relatives/
  4. Tissue preservation: Plant gene banks, such as the USDA-ARS National Plant Germplasm System (NPGS), conserve vast collections of crops. They are saved for use in breeding and research programs. These collections are primarily conserved as seeds. Other plants need to be cryopreserved as tissue. This ensures that researchers can turn to the wild varieties to help with breeding programs. To read the full blog, visit https://sustainable-secure-food-blog.com/2020/09/22/how-can-crops-that-are-not-grown-from-seeds-be-conserved-in-gene-banks/

Full information about crop wild relatives can be found on CSSA’s page, www.crops.org/crop-wild-relative. Readers will find general information on wild crop relatives and some specific examples based on sunflower, cranberries, yams and potatoes.