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Put a rattlesnake in your garden

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By Walt Reichert

Interested in growing a piece of history? Read on.

Just after the Civil War, farmers and gardeners in Georgia developed a big, striped watermelon they called rattlesnake. They called it rattlesnake because the dark green stripes on the lighter green background looked like the markings on a rattlesnake. The watermelon later came to be called Georgia Rattlesnake.

Rattlesnake was big, very sweet and easy to grow so it was widely planted. Later, other oblong, striped watermelons were developed and because the name was so well known, Southerners called those watermelons "rattlesnake" also.

But the original Georgia rattlesnake did not ship well to distant markets, so it gradually lost favor to melons with tougher rinds. Never mind that its sweetness was nearly unrivalled. By the mid 20th century, the original Georgia Rattlesnake was almost extinct.

I got the seeds from an Ohio state trooper who had been saving them for years. Shortly after I acquired the seeds, he stopped offering them to the public. For a while, I may have been one of the few people, if not the only person, to have seeds of the original watermelon.

I offered them to the public through a group knows as Seed Savers Exchange. Fortunately, after the seed got passed around for a few years, the watermelon started making a comeback. A few commercial heirloom seed companies even started offering the watermelon.

So the rattlesnake came back from the brink of extinction. I would like to keep this one small piece of agricultural heritage among the living. If you would like to help, I will give anyone who stops by the Sentinel-News at least 10 free seeds until the supply runs out (The women at the front desk will love me for this.)

Why should we bother to save old watermelons and other agricultural varieties, like the Georgia Rattlesnake watermelon, the Kentucky Wonder pole bean or the Howling Mob sweet corn? Because they are part of our heritage. Because they were grown at a time when taste was paramount and ability to ship well was secondary.

But, most important, old varieties of vegetables and fruits, as well as old breeds of livestock, represent a gene bank we may need to withdraw from someday. If diseases hit modern varieties and breeds, scientists may need to turn to the oldies but goodies to save our food supply. But if those varieties and species have become extinct, they won't be there to help. We will have threatened our future because we let go of the past.