Ancient Seeds for Modern Gardens

Reader Contribution by Karen Newcomb
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Ancient Seeds for Modern Gardens

I recently received a seed catalog that, by accident, I found on the internet.  I got excited about this seed organization.  Native Seeds/S.E.A.R.C.H (Southwest Endangered Aridlands Resource Clearing House) is a nonprofit organization that, through their retail store, online store and catalog–where they sell seeds, are all a means to their mission to conserve, distribute and document the adapted and diverse varieties of agricultural seeds, their wild relatives and the role these seeds play in cultures of the American Southwest.  The company is located in Tucson, Arizona.

In the late 70s I lived in Las Vegas, New Mexico for a year   Located about 70 miles north and east of Santa Fe, I admit for a California gal I had to adapt to a new way of life.  There wasn’t a day that went by that my husband and I didn’t explore the area.  During that year I think we saw every mesa, every outpost, and every pueblo in the state.  Santa Fe became our favorite Sunday excursion.   We witnessed afternoon thunder storms that should have sent us running back to California.

What always fascinated me were their gardening practices.  We saw corn growing in the middle of nowhere, in little patches, and no water in sight.  We realized they couldn’t be planting modern day corn, or the other two sisters, beans and squash, that always grew together.  But ancient varieties that depended on what daily rain they received.  At the time we were working on a garden book called The Vegetable Gardener’s Sourcebook.  Since there were no commercial growers featuring Native American varieties, we couldn’t include them.

Today, there are two seed catalogs that feature Native American seed, Native Seeds/S.E.A.R.C.H and Plants of the Southwest (which has a limited variety).  Other seed catalogs offer a few native varieties, a few bean varieties, maybe some corn or a squash or two.    These varieties are drought tolerant and hardy and I don’t see any reason they wouldn’t grow in drought areas.  Native Seeds offers seeds that were originally collected from subsistence and small-scale farmers and gardens.  They state, ‘these are the food crops that have sustained traditional communities for centuries.  They have been selected and nourished by farmers over generations, becoming adapted to local culinary and ceremonial practices.  Some of the varieties come from high desert, others come from low desert and some come from both areas.’  

Another thing we witnessed during our year in New Mexico was during the harvest season were men who sat on the side of the road stringing those famous New Mexican hot chili peppers.  Houses had string after string of red chili ristras drying from their roof eaves.  What a colorful spectacle. 

Native Seeds makes it easy for a gardener to choose with seed collections.  They of course offer individual seed varieties too.  Much like the Asian seed collections, you may want to start with one seed collection.

Chilies  is a selection of chiles and chiltepines representing the diversity of shapes, colors and heat.

While these may or may not be the varieties in the Chilies selection, here are a few they offer.

Chimayo  From the farming town in northern New Mexico at 5,900′ famous for its local chile.  Mild, 3-3 1/5″ long.  Source:  NAT

Chimayo chile        Photo courtesy Native Seeds/S.E.A.R.C.H

Negro de Valle  Collected north of Buenaventura on the plains of Chihuahua, Mexico.  A darker “native, old type” chile.  Some cooks select only these dark brown chilies to make the best chile Colorado.  Very productive.  Mild to medium heat.  6″ long.   Source:  NAT

Pico de Gallo (Rooster’s Beak)  Grows in high and low desert areas.  A very prolific and slender narrow-leafed salsa chile from Sonora.  Very hot, 3″ long pepper.  Source:  NAT

Pico de Gallo Hot Pepper      Photo courtesy Native Seeds/S.E.A.R.C.H

Sinahuisa  From a communal farm in Sonora.  The fruit are very fleshy and similar to serranos.  Good for container gardening and extremely high-yielding.  Medium to hot 1 ½” long.  Source:  NAT

Sinahulsa      Photo courtesy Native Seeds/S.E.A.R.C.H

Wenk’s Yellow Hots  From one of the last large truck farmers in Albuquerque’s South Valley.  Very fleshy.  Early maturing and very prolific, with outstanding taste.  Waxy yellow fruit have a pronounced orange phase before turning red.  Medium-hot the very hot.  1 /12″ wide and 3″ long.  Source:  NAT SEED THE

Wenk’s Yellow Hots      Photo courtesy Native Seeds/S.E.A.R.C.H

Chiltepin are wild relatives of most cultivated chiles.  Native to North America chiltepines are perennial plants for shady to filtered light areas in the low desert.  They will freeze back in the winter.  The pea-sized fruits are very hot!

Sonoran  Wild harvested from central Sonora, Mexico.  Small fruit that packs a punch. Source:  NAT

Sonoran Chiltepin Hot Pepper      Photo courtesy Native Seeds/S.E.A.R.C.H

South Texas Chile Piquin  Originally collected along the Lower Rio Grande Valley near McAllen, Texas.  Plants were growing naturally in the brush along cultivated fields.  Source:  NAT

South Texas Chile Piquin     Photo courtesy Native Seeds/S.E.A.R.C.H

Hopi Yellow     Photo courtesy Native Seeds/S.E.A.R.C.H

Their next seed collection is called Hopi :  a selection of Hopi varieties renowned for their hardiness.  The collection includes amaranth, pumpkin and mixed sunflower.  A great selection for high desert locales.

Some other Hopi varieties you may want to try:

Lima Bean

Hopi Gray  (“Maasi hatiko”)  The light beige beans can be plain or mottled with black.  The seeds are sometimes sprouted and used in ceremonies.  Source:  NAT

Hopi Gray Lima      Photo courtesy Native Seeds/S.E.A.R.C.H

Hopi Yellow  (“Sikya hatiko”)  Seeds vary from deep yellow to dark orange with black mottling.  During spring ceremonies, the seeds are sprouted, attached to katsina dolls, rattles, and bows and given to children.  Sprouts are then chopped, boiled and cooked in soup for feasting.  Source:  NAT SOU

Hopi Yellow     Photo courtesy Native Seeds/S.E.A.R.C.H


Hopi Blue (“Sakwapu”) 62 days to pollination. Flour corn.  Blue kernels are ground to make ceremonial piki bread.  Dry farmed below the Hopi mesas.  Plants tend to be short (less than 5′ tall with tassels). 100 days to dried ears.  Source:  ANN BOU NAT TER TERR

Hopi Blue     Photo courtesy Native Seeds/S.E.A.R.C.H

Hopi Greasy Head (“Wekte”) 56 days to pollination.  Flour corn.  Often planted early by Hopi farmers so the harvest can be used for the Home Dance ceremony in July.  Plum-colored kernels on 10-12″ ears.  Short 3′ plants.  103 days to dried ears.  Source:  NAT

Hopi Greasy Head       Photo courtesy Native Seeds/S.E.A.R.C.H

Hopi Sweet (“Tawaktchi”)  Sweet corn.  Small white ears.  Harvested in the mild stage.  It is dry-roasted in a pit oven and then rehydrated when ready to use.  Very short plants.  Rapid maturity and very prolific.  Source:  NAT

Hopi Sweet Photo courtesy Native Seeds/S.E.A.R.C.H


Hopi Casaba  Two distinct fruit types within this collection: (1) wrinkled, round, yellow-green fruits; and (2) smooth elongated yellow-green white fruits.  Both have pale green to orange flesh.  Juicy and mild flavor.  Good keeper if unbruised.  Source:  NAT

Hopi Casaba Melon      Photo courtesy Native Seeds/S.E.A.R.C.H


Hopi Pumpkin  Fruits can be round or elongated, striped or soli green turning yellow as they mature.  Source:  NAT


Hopi Yellow  (“Sikyatko”)  Green striped fruits have pale yellow/orange flesh.  Occasional plants produce red fleshed fruit.  Large fruit with crisp, sweet taste.  Source:  NAT

Another seed collection is Tohono O’odham (Pagago) and highlights remarkably heat and drought-tolerant varies of low desert crops such as tepary beans, devil’s claw and cowpeas.  Here are a few varieties of Tohono O’odham listed in their catalog (but not necessarily in the collection).


O’odham Pink (“S-wegi mu:n)  A pink bean from the desert borderlands of Sonora, Mexico and Arizona.  Fast growing, the plants will sprawl and produce in early spring or late fall in low desert.  Also grows in high desert.  Delicious and creamy-textured when cooked.  White flowers.  Source:  NAT

O’odham Pink Bean      Photo courtesy Native Seeds/S.E.A.R.C.H

O’odham Vayos  Mixed gold and light-tan beans with a sweet-mild flavor and creamy texture.  Early maturing.  Good as a green bean.  White flowers.  Grows in high and low desert.   Source:  NAT

Tepary Bean

Big Fields White  From the Tohono O’odham village of Big Fields where an O’odham farmer maintained this white variety for years, but it is rarely found under cultivation anymore.   Source:  NAT

Big Fields White Bean      Photo courtesy Native Seeds/S.E.A.R.C.H

Tohono O’odham White  O’odham legend says the Milky Way is made up of white tepary beans scattered across the sky.  Early maturing white beans from the Tohono O’odham Reservation in southern Arizona.  Smooth, rich flavor.  The favored tepary for many Native families.  Source:  NAT

Tohono O’odham White Bean      Photo courtesy Native Seeds/S.E.A.R.C.H


Tohono O’odham 60 Day  Flour corn.  Extremely fast maturing desert-adapted corn traditionally grown with the summer rains in the ‘ak chin’ flood water fields of the Tohono O’odham.  Produces short 6-10″ ears with white kernels on short plant stalks.  Usually roasted and dried before being ground into flour.  Source:  NAT

Tohono O’odham 60 Day Corn     Photo courtesy Native Seeds/S.E.A.R.C.H

Cow Pea

Tohono O’odham (“U’us mu:n”)  A gorgeous black and white bean with variable mottling, may be all black (occasionally brown) or splotched on white.  Source:  NAT


O’odham (“Ke:li Ba:so”) (Old woman’s knees)  Refers to the knobby appearance of the fruit.  Fruits are casaba type with light green flesh.  Source:  NAT


Tohono O’odham I’toi  Prolific multiplier onions were introduced to southern Arizona by the Spanish.  Mild shallot-like bulbs and slightly spicy greens.  Easy to cultivate and in low desert will grow to both winter and summer rains.  In cooler regions their growth is the summer.  Rarely flowers.  Propagate by dividing the bulbs.  The name I’toi signifies the Elder Brother, who is the creator deity in Tohono O’odham legends.  Source:  NAT

I’toi Onion      Photo courtesy Native Seeds/S.E.A.R.C.H


Tohono O’odham (“Ha:l”)  A very heat tolerant and rapidly maturing squash from the Tohono O’odham Nation.  Traditionally blossoms are mixed with wheat flour to make a porridge and seeds roasted for snacks.  Prized for the immature fruits which resemble zucchini.  Mature fruits have light orange flesh, mild flavor, and a starchy texture.  Stores well.  The flesh can also be sun dried and boiled to resoften.  Source:  NAT SOU

Other seed collections include Southwest Warm Season Garden, Southwest Cool Season Garden, Monsoon, Children’s Garden, Container Garden and Herb Garden.

To learn more about Native American varieties and this seed saving organization visit the Native Seeds/S.E.A.R.C.H at


ANN   Annie’s Heirloom Seeds

BOU   Bountiful Gardens

NAT   Native Seeds/SEARCH

SEED   Seed Savers Exchange

SOU   Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

TER   Territorial Seed Company

TERR   Terroir Seeds

THE   The Pepper Gal

 © Copyright by Karen Newcomb

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