Crop Plants are the Companions of Humanity

Breeder portrait Christina Henatsch

A hot summer day. Visit to Kultursaat breeder Christina Henatsch at Gut Wulfsdorf in Ahrensburg near Hamburg. The breeder offers her guests cool water from a carafe to wet their hands and face. A wonderfully fresh feeling spreads over the skin. Everyone has probably experienced this before and remembers the pleasant cool feeling that lasts for a brief moment. But this water seems different: The refreshing feeling lasts, even when the water has long since evaporated and the skin has dried.

Despite the heat, you feel wide awake and positively invigorated. According to Henatsch, it’s all down to common couch roots that are left soaking overnight to refresh the water in this way. Common couch? Common couch (Elymus repens) is a member of the grass family. It forms rhizome-like runners, making it a root weed that is usually particularly unpopular and difficult to control.

Portrait photo Christina Henatsch

The Vitality of Wild Plants

The breeder, on the other hand, sees potential in the strong vitality of the “weed” that not only stimulates our spirit, but could perhaps also supplement our diet in the future. For several years she has been working with wild plants such as couch grass, the steppe grass dasypyrum, soft brome and dandelion to find out whether cultivated plants can be developed from them.

“Crop plants are cultural companions of humanity, they develop with humans. Depending on how I approach a plant or what questions I ask of it, it obtains a certain nutritional quality. The plant already carries this within itself,” she says with conviction. “The challenge is to find out how a wild plant can be turned into a crop plant.”

Elymus repens

Exchanges with Plants

This question occupies the breeder on a purely practical level in term of breeding, but also on a spiritual level. It is typical of organic growers that they develop a very intense relationship with the plants they work with on a daily basis. This is the only way they can recognize different types or certain traits among the plants they grow, which sometimes can amount to hundreds of specimens, and which can then be further developed through selection to eventually become specific varietal properties.

Henatsch has taken this intensive relationship even further for some time now. “In the context of meditations, I enter into an intensive exchange with the plants. I ask them in which direction they would like to develop,” is how she describes the nature of the exchanges. That may sound absurd, but Henatsch’s breeding successes prove that she is very successful with her intuition.

View of the breeding garden

Training and Influences

Henatsch is an expert breeder who can look back on more than twenty years of bio-dynamic breeding. Her first point of contact was a seminar given by grain breeder Georg Wilhelm Schmidt. He was contining the work of his father, Martin Schmidt. In the 1920s, Schmidt’s father was one of the first bio-dynamicists who were directly influenced by Rudolf Steiner’s agricultural lectures and had developed the so-called Schmidt rye.

However, Henatsch regretted that breeding did not play a role either in her agricultural training at the Warmonderhof in Holland, a school for bio-dynamic agriculture and horticulture, or during her studies in agricultural sciences at the University of Bonn.

Brokkoli in the breeding garden

The Path to Breeding

It wasn’t until the end of the 1980s when she managed to reconnect with the issue through the Initiative for Bio-dynamic Seeds. It was a meeting point for gardeners and farmers who wanted to preserve and further develop pure line varieties. With hybrid varieties becoming more and more common, they shared their knowledge of seed propagation and finally joined together to form the Kultursaat association.

It wasn’t long before Henatsch was teaching courses on topics such as “hybrids” and “open pollinated varieties” and, like many of her colleagues from the initiative, embarked on her own breeding projects.

Kultursaat e.V. Logo
Logo of the Kultursaat association

Successful Varieties

Henatsch has been a breeder at Gut Wulfsdorf for 21 years. Here she deals with a wide range of plants through selection and the meditation technique mentioned above: Beans, broccoli, kohlrabi, chard, melons, carrots, leeks, red, white and pointed cabbages, radicchio, lettuce, chives, spinach, zucchini and sugarloaf chicory. Eleven new vegetable varieties from her breeding have already been registered with the Federal Plant Variety Office.

Several are now very well established in cultivation and processing: For example, her Solvita carrot makes up about 70% of the carrot juice produced by the Voelkel company. The popular chard mixture Rainbow in the Bingenheimer Saatgut AG range consists of Henatsch’s chard varieties Limago, Pirol, Roscho and Salimo.

Carrot Solvita

Bitter, coarse, sour, sweet

Using chard, the breeder demonstrates the complex requirements that she has to consider when breeding a new variety. “It must meet the technical requirements of cultivation, meaning it needs good harvestability and a good yield. The growth habit should be upright, the stems thick.

The stalks should have a bright color that remains after cooking,” explains Henatsch. To test color retention, she boils the stalks of 60-80 selected plants until tender. Then she tastes the cooking water: Is it bitter, sweet or fruity? Then the stalk itself is tasted: Is it bitter, coarse, sour or bland?

Henatsch with harvested chard

How New Varieties are Created

“Everything that doesn’t taste good gets dropped,” Henatsch summarizes, and that initially only one or two out of 40 chard plants were edible. “After five generations of selection, we had a sweet and fruity chard with a slightly tart note.” The four chard varieties in the Rainbow mix have green or purple leaves, and the stalks vary from bright yellow to orange to red to purple.

Nevertheless, Henatsch continues to breed. “The orange varieties are not (yet) stable,” she explains. “In chard, orange is a cross between white, yellow and red. That’s why you can see rows of white-yellow, white-purple and red on the field.”

Chard variety

Plants for the Future

Will couch grass make it into the seed catalogs? The next few years will tell. In any case, selecting couch grasses for different characteristics every six weeks keeps her happy right now.

. There are three clear distinguishing factors already based on root, shoot and seed type. It could be that one day they will enrich all our lives.  

Couch grass roots

Photo credits: Photo 2: The Ohio State University Weed Lab Image Archive, Photo 9: Russ Kleinman, Bill Norris, & Kelly Kindscher, Black Range, McKnight Peak; rest bioverita