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Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Biology and Biography of a Seed…

Seed catalogs              “…like a wet wild seed in the hot blind earth.”

       As I Lay Dying

            William Faulkner

When you think about it, a seed catalog is a metaphor for the products it advertises: you plant one tiny speck of seed, and depending on what you sow, you harvest many times over that microgram capital outlay. When you order one packet of seed from the glossy pages of a solitary catalog, next season you’ll need a wheelbarrow to haul your harvest of seed catalogs home from the mailbox. Not that I mind…I just think it’s curious how many businesses across the country know I have a vegetable garden out back and are so eager to help me plant it.

There are the staunch old standbys: Burpees, Gurney’s, Territorial Seed and RH. Shumway’s newspaper-sized catalog, newspaper print format, with the staid patriarch Shumway the First glaring at you from the cover, looking as if he just stepped right from between the pages of the Old Testament. (Imagine trailing a beard like Shumway’s down a furrow!) “…like seeing an old friend suddenly show up at your door,” according to one Shumway fan. Specialty catalogs, too: greenhouses, gardening supplies, nursery stock…one that emphasizes “the kitchen garden.” One of my favorite specialty catalogs is “Totally Tomatoes,” (well, not totally tomatoes… a few peppers, cucumbers, and greens insinuate their way into the 289 tomato varieties the catalog offers. (A few years ago among  the packets I ordered from TT was one pristine envelope, sealed and in mint condition but without a single seed within. I wrote a note, returned the empty packet, and they sent me another, this one containing seed, no questions asked.)

This year as I thumbed through the stack of catalogs, I decided to sticky-note those pages that featured a vegetable variety I might like to try in this year’s garden. I figured that would preclude having to thumb through the stack again come ordering time. One catalog had a motto that caught my attention. “Saving the Past for the Future,” is  the mission statement of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (SESE). This company focuses on “heirloom” seeds and plants. SESE defines “heirloom” as a pre-nineteen forties variety, the seed from which has been passed from one generation to the next. Hybrid seed came on the market after the ‘40s, the company states. SESE is also building its own seed bank and encourages seed savers to contribute their favorites. Those who do, receive gift certificates which can be used to purchase products from their catalog.SESE

I was most impressed with SESE’s emphasis on saving seed gathered through the “open pollination” process. Whereas “closed pollination” produces hybrids by hand or the mechanical manipulation of pollen, resulting, therefore, in an artificial, man-made organism. “Open pollination”occurs through the whims of nature: wind, birds, insects… natural dissemination of pollen. SESE maintains open pollination promotes bio-diversity in the plant world. “Closed pollination,” on the other hand, can lead to “inbreeding depression,” which causes diversity to stagnate or wane. Natural hybridization produces random, surprising mutations, the seeds from which are saved and successive generations (F2, F3, F4) are different from their parents. To insure their plants are pollinated “openly,” SESE isolates their seed crops from pollen sources that may be genetically altered. These distances may require four times those used for controlled open pollination seed plots.

All seed from SESE is non-treated. Varieties are labeled “OG” for certified organic (“We will not knowingly offer seed of genetically modified varieties,” they declare.) and “E” for “ecologically grown.” An hourglass icon represents “heirloom”varieties.

[Note: SESE and seventy-five other plaintiffs have challenged the Montsanto Company for its work with GMOs (genetically modified organisms), and maintains: “The mechanical transfer of genetic material outside of natural reproductive methods and between genera, families, or kingdoms poses great biological risks, as well as economic, political and cultural threats.” Just what those “threats” might be, SESE never does say. The lawsuit  further seeks to address the plaintiffs’ right to save seed without fear they will be sued for patent infringement should Montsanto’s transgenic seed contaminate their crops. Plaintiffs also maintain Montsanto’s GMOs are not useful to society and therefore their patents are invalid. These days the GMO issue is in hot debate. During the current legislative session, the Washington State legislature has proposed legislation (“Label it WA,” I-522) requiring all GMO products to be labeled as such. Ed Hume (Ed “Humus” as he’s known in our household), our own local seed purveyor stated on the radio the other day that the term “GMO” is an unfortunate one. His point: any hybrid including those arising from open pollination has been genetically modified. Thus considered, we are all hybrids then, aren’t we? Hume suggested genetically “engineered” would be a more apt term for an organism created by mechanical manipulation. Just a little “organic” food for thought.]

SESE builds its inventory from seed exchanges with gardeners and growers  in the Mid-Atlantic states and while germination rates and maturity dates target that region, the catalog states many of their offerings do well in the Pacific Northwest. The company especially welcomes the seed from gardeners who have carefully saved varieties over the generations. They encourage exchangers to include stories—seed biographies—of the seeds they contribute and include these brief bios in their catalog. These little seed histories I found quite fascinating and some of the more interesting ones follow:

“Turkey Craw” (Heirloom OG snap bean from VA, NC, and TN). “According to folklore a hunter shot a turkey and removed a bean from its craw; the bean was later planted and saved, hence the name ‘Turkey Craw.’”

“Aunt Lou’s Underground Railroad” (Heirloom and E tomato ) “Heirloom carried through the Underground Railroad by an unnamed black man as he crossed to freedom in Ripley, OH, from KY. Seeds were passed on to Aunt Lou, who passed them to her great nephew, and eventually on to heirloom tomato enthusiast Gary Millwood.”

“Paul Robeson” (Heirloom E Russian heirloom.) Original seed sent to SESE by Marina Danilenko, a Moscow seedwoman. Named after Paul Robeson, performer of ‘Old Man River,’ and operatic vocal artist who was an advocate of equal rights for Blacks. His artistry was appreciated worldwide, especially in the Soviet Union, and hence this tomato bearing his name.”

“Earl of Edgecombe” (Heirloom E)  New Zealand heirloom. “When the 6th Earl of Edgecombe died in the 1960’s, the heir to the title was a sheep farmer in New Zealand. When he traveled to England to claim the title, he brought this tomato with him. Our seed source was Dr. Carolyn Male who found it the best of her 1996 tomato trials.”

I’ve saved my favorite for last:

“Mortgage Lifter, Radiator Charlie’s” (Heirloom OG) ‘The following history is based on portions of our 1985 taped interview with M.C. Byles who developed this tomato in the early 1930’s while in Logan, WV. Mr. Byles is affectionately known as ‘Radiator Charlie.’ He earned that nickname from the radiator-repair business he opened at the foot of a steep hill on which trucks would often overheat. Radiator Charlie had no plant breeding experience, yet he created this legendary tomato by cross-breeding four of the largest-fruited tomatoes he could find: German Johnson, Beefsteak, an Italian variety and an English variety. One of the four varieties was planted in the middle of a circle. Then using a baby’s ear syringe, he cross-pollinated the center plant with pollen from the circle of tomatoes. Next year he selected the best seedlings: he planted the best seedling in the center and the rest in a circle around it. The pollination and selection process was repeated six more years until he had a stable variety. After Charlie developed and named this large tasty tomato, he sold plants for $1 each (in the 1940’s) and paid off the $6,000 mortgage on his house in six years. Each spring, gardeners drove as far as 200 miles to buy Charlie’s seedling tomatoes.’”If Old Radiator were around today, his tomato discovery might very well have fended off a short sale!

As far as free literature goes, a gardener couldn’t find better reading material than SESE’s seed catalog. Not only can one learn about seed history, but also other interesting facts. (Did you know wormwood, Artemisia, repels cabbage butterflies? Or woad, Isatis tinctoria, whose leaves produce a natural blue dye, has been used as a dye plant for over 2,000 years? How about the fact that birdhouse gourds may very well have saved the Purple Martin from extinction? And that Washington State is represented by two varieties of garlic? Inchelium Red from the Colville Indian Reservation, Inchelium, WA. and Nootka Rose from Nootka Rose Farm, WA? Troubled with migraines? Chew two or three leaves of Feverfew, Chrysanthemum parthenium, daily over a period of time and your migraines will be less frequent, less severe. Sorry…if you’re pregnant, however, you need to stick with pickles.)

If you want to plant heirloom broom corn (Hungarian Black Seeded) or heirloom cotton (Arkansas Green Lint), are looking for a good heirloom parsnip (Hollow Crown) or Egyptian Walking Onions (heirloom? You bet…guaranteed so), SESE’s is the the catalog for you. Choose from a small library of books (Gardening When it Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times looks intriguing…you never know…), or help the less fortunate folks by looking into SESE’s “Plant a Row for the Hungry” program. Check out SESE’s website www.gardens@SouthernExposure. Order a catalog. It’s free and if you place an order, who knows, you may just reap a bounty of seed catalogs next year.Seed catalog SESE

Open pollination; it actually works, you know. Just ask my pioneer friend Dorothy Lewis (Dorothy’s an heirloom herself, turns ninety-seven next month). She’s a devout seed saver, Dorothy is, boasts she hasn’t bought a packet of seed in years. Last season she planted some muskmelon seeds she saved (“mushmelons,” she calls them). At the end of the summer I gave her a call, asked her how the muskmelon crop turned out. A bit of silence. Then laughter. “They came up squash.” Not quite enough isolation space would be my guess.

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