by Sarah West
Gardening is an act of culture. To those who claim ours is a country lacking significant or individual character, I would counter with a stack of heirloom seed catalogs. Stories abound in these pages, celebrating a cultural artifact that can only be maintained through use. To save a seed in the vaults of a library or the shelves of a museum is hopeless. In short time, the once possible seed becomes a lifeless speck, dried and useless, unable to convey the foliage and fruits, flavor and mystery it could once unfold. Seeds are an artifact that must be continuously reborn—nurtured, cultivated, harvested and destroyed—garden plot after garden plot, year after year. They cannot be held in stasis for long because their value is rooted in the cyclical.
For thousands of years, gardeners have worked alongside these plants, tending them, selecting favorites each year from which to save seed, passing that seed onto the next season, the next plot, the next generation. For most of our history, flowers and vegetables have been handed parent to child, neighbor to neighbor, native to visitor. In contemporary times, most gardeners browse seed catalogs for these heirlooms, choosing the best stories with which to populate their gardens; living artifacts in a living museum.
Some seeds’ stories embody our rootedness. Turkey Craw, an heirloom bean grown for many years in the Southeast, said to have been found originally in a wild turkey’s craw. Stowell’s Evergreen, a sweet corn perfected by and then swindled out from underneath Newman Stowell’s nose when a two-faced friend bought his seed for $4 and resold it for $20,000. Grandpa Admire, lettuce seeds held in the family for over 100 years (“held” by being grown at least 100 times), named after civil war veteran and grandfather George Admire.
Some tell the stories of ancestral homes, what our forbearers deemed essential to take with them when they left their past behind for a new land. Rat’s Tail, a Southeast Asian radish variety grown in the US since the 1860s for its edible seedpod. Red Russian Kale, a Siberian variety brought to Canada by Russian traders in the late 1800s. immy Nardello, a sweet Italian roasting pepper that immigrated with Jimmy’s mother in 1887 when she left Italy for the United States.
And some tell the story of now—new varieties that reflect our current desires, tastes and geographies. Purple Dragon, a purple carrot with a fiery orange center bred in Washington by John Navazio of the Organic Seed Alliance. Oregon Homestead, a selection of the Oregon Sweet Meat winter squash variety made by Carol Deppe of Eugene for its ability to produce exceptionally flavored flesh in the cool clay soils of the Willamette Valley. Lettuces, numerous and enigmatic, bred in Philomath by Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed. These discoveries will be our gift to the next generations.
Seeds, and the vegetables and flowers they produce, are the fruits of cumulative labor: it is blooming in our gardens, it is the flavors we will share with those we love, with neighbors, our community, the next garden plot, the next season. It is the hand of the past pulling us back and pushing us forward.
For further reading on heirloom seeds, send away for any or all of the following catalogs: Seed Savers Exchange, Wild Garden Seed, Nichols Garden Nursery, Adaptive Seeds, Uprising Seeds, Victory Seeds, Siskiyou Seeds, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Kitazawa Seed Company. Many of these sources are local, all are exceptional in the work they do to preserve our seed heritage.
(Originally published in the Hillsdale Market newsletter, The Grapevine, May 17, 2012)