Here’s another batch of great seed catalogs for your consideration. I’m shortening the length of these reviews because I’ll never get to them all with the level of detail I gave you in my first review. I’ve been preoccupied with researching biblical herbs, culinary herbs and spices for some new posters.
Many readers are familiar with Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds which has quickly positioned itself as one of the premier heirloom and open pollinated seed catalogs, in addition to creating a veritable heirloom seed industry. They’ve gotten a lot of media attention and deservedly so because they are doing a lot to promote and conserve heirloom seeds. Their catalog is impressive to behold, weighty and thick and filled with lots of photos. You might even call it a bit indulgent with lots of gloss and full page photo spreads, and this serves as a excellent photo resource yet with a down home feel.
It’s not always clear from their descriptions what’s an heirloom and what is an open pollinated variety and there is plenty of information in the descriptions. Clearly they have made a great effort to include many rare and historic varieties. The listings of cucumbers. eggplants, tomatoes, squash, watermelon, melons are outstanding and there’s even some species melons included. Other well represented vegetables include okra and cowpeas (usually waste of time in my Zone 5) beets, carrots and oddities like the tropical winged bean or Solanum sisymbriifolium, a nasty thorny tomato relative that’s interesting to sample, and clearly they liked the fruit a lot more than I do. There’s plenty of flower seed selection at the back of the catalog. All in all Baker’s Creek is a treasure trove of heirloom and other seeds
If Baker Creek is becoming the big boy on the block then the Seed Savers Exchange must be the Dad. This non-profit’s decades long seed preservation efforts created new awareness for the value of our food heritage and helped sprout other seed savers and programs. Their catalog is filled with many rare and historic categories and I’m pleased to see extraordinarily rare items I was growing ten years ago are available commercially. For example in peppers there’s Maule’s Red Hot, a variety I reintroduced, which was available from only one seed bank I Europe, and Napolean a great sweet pepper. Particularly notable is SSE selection of melons, squash, watermelon tomatoes, peppers, lettuce cucumbers eggplant and beans. They offer a limited selection of transplants, potatoes and garlic including a few of my favorite Bogatyr, Chesnok Red, Georgia Crystal and Siberian. There’s also a good selection of flowers and some prairie seeds although their geographic origin is not clear, which is useful to know for native plantings.
Southern Exposure Seed has been actively preserving southeastern varieties since the 1980s and has maintained its environmentally friendly non-glossy catalog. Their offerings are full of unique varieties, especially from the southern region that may not do well in northern climates—although always worth a try. This includes great selections of okra, peanuts, cornfield pole bean varieties, southern dents and flour corns. cotton, and cowpeas. They have a number of Cherokee corns and beans. Their selection of other vegetable types is excellent including tomatoes, summer squash melons and watermelons.
One of the most delightful parts of their catalog descriptions are they make it quite clear when something was introduced, thus leaving no doubt as to the age/lineage of a variety. This is very helpful. SSE has broadened its offerings to include many modern open pollinated selections, and at least one hybrid onion. They have a good selection of potatoes and garlic, culinary and medicinal herb including roots and rhizomes of ginseng and goldenseal, flowers, books and more.
An outstanding heirloom seed catalog is produced by Native Seeds/SEARCH in Tucson Arizona. They probably carry more unique varieties of seeds than anyone else. This outstanding organization has been preserving rare Southwestern Native American seeds for decades and working with tribes to reinvigorate their traditional agriculture. This includes new world seeds and some old world introductions like melons and sorghum, long cultivated in this region They do not routinely send out their catalog preferring you to go online, and for a couple of bucks they’ll send you one. These days it is in color and still on plain newsprint paper.
NSS varieties are not going to replace selections from a more “typical” seed catalog offering a wider range of vegetable crops. This catalog is exclusively dedicated to varieties that are grown by traditional people of the region. Thus many of their selections will not do well or mature fully in moister, colder, and shorter season areas. That said try some and see how they do. However for example if you live in the north and have space for one dry corn variety then I encourage you to grow a northern regional variety and not Hopi Blue corn. Their selection of beans is astonishing, including heat loving tepary beans, and black eye peas. They offer about 25 chilies, 50 corns including wild teosinte, gourds, melons, sorghum, devils claw, tomatillos, sunflowers, and 30 varieties of four squash species. They also have a nice selection of hard to find Southwestern foods including teas, chilies, cornmeal, and mole powders—just the thing to lend some authenticity to a southwestern/Mexican meal.
Lawrence Davis-Hollander is an ethnobotanist, plantsmen and gardener, former director and founder of the Eastern Native Seed Conservancy, and currently a principal of DandelionGardening Arts. He's an expert on heirloom vegetables, and a seed preservationist with an avid interest in herbs, spices, food, cooking, kitchen and ornamental gardens. His newest project revolves around sacred tobacco and its redistribution to native peoples. You can find him on Google+.