Genuinely heirloom seeds
are seeds with stories. They were
passed down through generations of families and communities. Typically, they
traveled long distances with immigrants to new lands as cherished food plants.
These traditional sources of food were a comfort, and beyond that, a necessity.
In our urban supermarket and fast-food culture it’s easy to forget that at one
time families relied on what they could grow, and the crops they grew were a
rainbow of diversity.
What happens to these unique varieties of edibles when there
is no one to grow them and pass seeds on to the next generation? Extinction.
Many have already been lost, but there are heroic efforts underway to save as
many as possible, along with their stories.
A Cucumber Lost, Then Found
For example, I love the story of the Collier Cucumber, named
after a family who began growing it in about 1910, after being given seeds by
traveling gypsies. Seed sleuth Sara Straate, was able to collect information
through interviews with the Collier children. Straate, who is a Seed Historian
with Seed Savers Exchange
(SSE), learned that in the 1950’s the parents had planted all of the seeds
they had. As fate (and weather) would have it, the entire crop failed. The
family was crushed to have lost this much-loved cucumber, which they ate fresh
Remarkably, a single plant came up the next year from a seed that
survived in the ground. The father diligently protected it and was able to save
Saving Stories Through the CORE Project
Through an ambitious project called CORE,
Origins Research Effort, Seed Savers Exchange (SSE), the largest seed saving
organization in the United States, is gathering, verifying, and filling in the gaps
in the stories behind the thousands of heirloom seeds that they are entrusted
Many of the
seeds they have received are accompanied by background information, but it is
often incomplete or consists of letters that are difficult to decipher. It’s
Straate’s job to follow up on any gaps or inconsistencies in their records and
attempt to reconnect with donors who have ties to and memories of these seeds.
|'Grandma Stout's Speckled’ lima|
A Beautiful Speckled Lima Gets Its Name Back
Sometimes the historical information on file is handwritten
and leads to misinterpretation. SSE has in their collection a 'Grandma Storrt's
Speckled’ lima. This is a lima bean that SSE received as a donation in 1989
from a 70 year-old woman in California who was afraid it would be lost (it
wasn’t growing well there). The lima had been cultivated by her family in Missouri
since the 1800’s. It had been a
reliable and hardy source of food, even when all else dried up in the
garden. Misinterpretation of her
letter led to the name Storrt's. Straate
was able to confirm that the proper name is 'Grandma Stout's Speckled’ lima by
recruiting the help of the Historical Society in Johnson County, Missouri, to
aid in tracing the family.
As Straate tells it in an Email message:
“Not only did the historical society correct the name of the
lima bean itself, but their research helped identify the family members who had
been stewards of the lima for over 120 years.”
|'Three Heart' lettuce was brought to the USA in the 1880s|
'Three Heart' Lettuce Lives On
My own fascination with growing and eating heirlooms led me
to join SSE’s Member Grower Evaluation Network (M-GEN). I’m currently growing ‘Three
Heart’ lettuce to provide cultivation data to the organization, which relies on
member participation. I admit that it appeals to my romantic nature, and as a
gardener, the opportunity to grow a rare, special variety is too enticing to
I found the
story of “my” lettuce poignant:
“Three Heart’ was donated to Seed Savers Exchange in 2005 by
Steve and Anna Marie Stoller of Indiana. In communication with SSE, Steve tells
the story of how he received seeds of ‘Three Heart’ in 2003 from Amelia
Scharlach Schini, a resident of a local nursing home. Amelia indicated a family member brought ‘Three Heart’ with
them when they immigrated to the United States from Alsace-Lorraine
(Germany/Switzerland) in the 1880s. “
‘Three Heart’ is still grown today by a few members of the
older generation of the Apostolic Christian Church, a small denomination of
under 100 congregations worldwide".
SSE has long recognized that the stories that accompany
these seeds are precious historical gems, as well as important for
understanding the food plants themselves (cultivation requirements, uses, etc.).
SSE co-founder Diane Ott Whealey chronicles this in her engaging book Gathering,
the story of how she and her husband safeguarded not only heirloom seeds, but
the accompanying tales that came with them. It’s been over 35 years since the
founding of the organization and the collection now numbers in the thousands.
Straate will be busy for a very, very long time.
The expected outcomes of CORE are:
1. Improved quality of information associated with each variety
in the collection, enabling better utilization of its biological and historical
2. An enhanced understanding of the practice of seed saving,
including its cultural, familial, and agricultural implications.
3. Identification of varieties most in need of preservation and
For more information about the CORE Project click here
Four Runner Beans by Patricia Larenas
Grandma Stout’s Speckled Lima courtesy of
Seed Savers Exchange.
Three Heart Lettuce by Patricia Larenas