The Welsh Plant Breeding Station (WPBS) was established at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth in 1919 to breed better varieties of grasses, clovers, cereals and other farm crops for Wales. The war had affected imports of agricultural inputs and highlighted the vulnerability of the country’s agriculture industry.
The starting point for developing better varieties is seed collected from farmers locally and exchanged with other breeding institutes, all of which was meticulously recorded in the Accession register as it arrived at the WPBS. For the first year of operations the register includes a couple of entries for Hen Gymro, that “well-known and essentially Welsh wheat” (Prof. R.G. Stapledon, first Director of the WPPS).
Over several years, and led by Head of Grass Breeding T.J. Jenkin, the WPBS developed five strains (or ‘pure lines’) of Hen Gymro and in 1928 made them available to farmers for large-scale trial. This was the first of the WPBS breeding programmes to go public.
Jenkin’s work brought an element of uniformity and consistency to a crop that had until then evolved naturally from farm to farm, from generation to generation. This natural variation had enabled Hen Gymro to produce grain in diverse, often sub-optimal growing conditions, providing sustenance to countless families in rural Wales and remaining in cultivation “longer than any other British wheat landrace” (Brockwell Bake Association).
The WBPS Strain register contains brief descriptions of the pure lines:
- S70: Beardless, glumes hairy, white or pale red; straw long but relatively stiff. Grain red, medium Hen Gymro size, late ripening.
- S71: Beardless, glumes smooth, red; straw weak but grain ripens well, relatively early. Grain red.
- S72: Beardless, glumes smooth, white; straw weaker than S70. Grain red. Rather late.
- S73: Beardless, glumes smooth, white; straw not strong. Grain very small but good; yields well.
- S74: Beardless, glumes smooth, red; straw rather weak. Grain not large but good. Rather early.
Using the Strain register it is possible to trace S70 back to the Hen Gymro seed from Pencarreg and S72 back to Emlyn A.S. Ltd.
It’s not clear how many farmers took up the offer from the WPBS and sowed the new Hen Gymro strains in the autumn of 1930. A 1928 WBPS leaflet summarising the work undertaken to develop the five strains acknowledges the “restricted range of usefulness” of Hen Gymro as a crop, while the Strain register concedes that not one of the strains is “intended for first-rate [growing] conditions but [they] give good quality grain under poor ripening conditions”. And yet such conditions were (and are) widespread in the south west of the country, where Hen Gymro appears to have remained in use for longest.
We do know, however, that some Hen Gymro seed made its way to the Vavilov Institute in Leningrad (St Petersburg). This is not as unlikely as it sounds. It is common for research institutes and seed banks to share seed in order to share the risk; if all Hen Gymro seed was at the WBPS and the building was destroyed by fire or Aberystwyth went the way of Cantre’r Gwaelod, then it would all be lost. Also the Vavilov Institute was amassing the world’s largest collection of plant seeds: if anyone was going to have it, they would.
And there it sat for many decades, protected by the Institute’s staff as the Nazis laid siege to Leningrad and as Welsh farmers moved towards more modern varieties or away from wheat altogether. Then, while on a trip to Russia a few years ago, Andrew Whitley managed to persuade Institute staff that a handful of Hen Gymro should make its way home. Since then a number of growers in Wales and England, led by the indefatigable Andy Forbes, have been slowly bulking up the seed stock – the Vavilov sample that included S72 and some S70 that was retrieved from seedbanks in Norwich and the Netherlands. Variation within the Vavilov seed has given some hope that it is a genuine field sample of the original landrace, meaning it would have arrived in Russia before Jenkin got to work. Jenkin’s other pure lines (S71, S73 and S75) are missing, presumed lost.
One of Stapledon’s successors as Director of the WPBS, E.T. Jones, reports that Hen Gymro was usually grown for ‘home bread-making purposes‘ so when I was lucky enough to get my hands on about a kilo of the 2017 harvest I headed straight for the kitchen. The aroma from the flour was noticeably different from the usual wholemeal I bake with, much more grassy. And even at 50% hydration the dough was incredibly slack.
The next step is for the Welsh Grain Forum to register Hen Gymro as a conservation variety on the national list of plant varieties. This will allow for more production, a marketing campaign and ultimately sales so that more people can enjoy baking with and eating this historic Welsh grain.