History's Seeds

Aug 18, 2014

Most vegetable seeds today are bred by seed companies to be hearty and easy to grow. They’re created by cross-breeding different varieties and selecting for specific characteristics.

Heirloom seeds are different. Like your grandmother’s engagement ring or a dusty old photo album, these seeds have been passed down through generations.

White icicle radishes grown at Seed Savers Heritage Farm.
Credit sleepyneko

And today’s gardeners likely wouldn’t have access to many of their favorite heirloom plants if it weren’t for the work of the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah.  Seed Savers is one of the world’s largest seed lending libraries specializing in historic, non-hybrid plants, or heirlooms.

Environmental-anthropologist-turned-communications-coordinator Steve Carlson shows me around the Seed Savers Heritage Farm in Decorah.  “We have gardens all over the place, just little gardens. It’s not 890 acres of just plowed land, this is 890 acres of rugged, limestone bluffs and forests, and valleys, and pastures.”

Unlike the most of Iowa, Decorah’s limestone bluffs escaped the last glacial period. Now they provide natural barriers between gardens so that rows of Dragon carrots, Trail of Tears beans, and Silver Queen okra don’t cross pollinate. 

Before World War II, most produce grown and sold in the U.S. were heirlooms. Today the majority of seeds are hybrids, bred by scientists to express certain traits. 

Additionally, heirloom aficionados enjoy a connection to the past. As I munch on some Swiss chard, Steve Carlson explains, by definition an heirloom plant has a history of being grown by a specific family or in a specific place.  

“These are seeds with histories, with stories. And they are related to specific recipes even. “

It was a connection to the past the inspired Seed Savers founders Diane Ott Whealy and her then-husband Kent Whealy.  Kent is not longer with the company, and Diane wasn’t at Seed Savers the day I visited, but Carlson gave me a history of the company.

In addition produce, Seed Savers also maintains a herd of White Park cattle. This breed originates from the British Isles dating back 2,000 years.
Credit Chiot's Run

As a wedding gift, pair received seeds of German pink tomatoes and morning glory from Diane’s grandfather. His parents carried the seeds with them, while emigrating from Bavaria to Iowa.

“Shortly after Diane got these seeds from get grandfather, he passed away. So Diane and Kent felt this responsibility to ensure these seed varieties that had been passed down in her family for multiple generations survived.”

In 1975 the Whealys started Seed Savers, trading seeds with about 30 gardeners. With the popularity of hybrid sees booming, Seed Savers wanted to preserve these older varieties. They believe the best way to preserve a plant variety is to grow it.

Jane Miller, senior associate garden and outdoor living editor for “Better Homes and Gardens Magazine” credits the foodie movement with heirlooms’ growing popularity.

“They’ve suddenly become novelties again…I think they’re considered to be gourmet too. You find heirloom vegetables on a lot of restaurant menus that serve really high-end food.”

Today, the exchange has 13,000 members, reaching all 50 states and about two dozen countries.  Some of the world’s rarest fruits and vegetables bloom in Decorah.

One Seed Savers member, Jere Gettle of Mansfield, Missouri, joined in the 1990s. “I started trading seeds with people in Australia and Iraq, and from there, that really was what greatly influence my interest.”

In 1998 Gettle started his own business, the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co. He estimates 25-percent of Baker Creek’s collection comes from SSE.

Steve Carlson handles some seeds of Trail of Tears corn . During the forced march in the 1830s from the southeastern U.S. to Oklahoma and Arkansas, Cherokee planted these seeds along the way. 4,000 Cherokee died during the force relocation.
Credit Sarah Boden / Iowa Public Radio

“It was an amazing organization that grandfathered the whole heirloom movement. They really didn’t start it…there were other companies that coined the word before. But they were the one that brought it to the public’s view.”

Gettle says his business continues to grow. In fact, the recent recession was a lucrative period for Baker Creek. Many people returned to gardening to save on groceries and supplement their income.

“The whole industry you know, from Seeds Savers, to us, to many of the other seeds houses. And even the people who don’t sell heirlooms traditionally. All of the sudden they were scrambling to get enough seed of heirlooms varieties to keep them on their shelves.”

Today dozens of venders sell heirlooms. And millions of people eat them thanks in large part to Seed Savers.