Heirloom plants play an invaluable role in our history – and in spite of the fact that many are lost each year, these varieties may well be the key to our future. Below are some tricks for finding heirloom seeds for both fruits and vegetables. Imagine never having the choice to savor the guava-like flavor of a Roxbury Russett, one of America’s oldest apples. Or imagine a world where the only sweet corn available is the super sweet hybrid developed for the global food system. Plant genetic riches are lost with each heirloom’s extinction, but, science aside, when it comes to the garden and orchard, diversity greatly enhances the interest, intrigue and flavor.
Many heirlooms are but a phone call away at your local seed house; many more are available in abandoned orchards and gardens, or in the hands of heirloom enthusiasts everywhere. If you are looking to grow something old and really unusual, you might even need to do a bit of detective work on your own.
John Bunker, an apple historian, never has enough variety in his apple orchard. A Fedco Seed Co. procurer in Maine and Massachusetts, Bunker often has five to 10 different apples grafted onto one tree.
In the 1970s, Bunker collected apples for cider from forgotten orchards in central Maine. Then one day, a local farmer brought into Bunker’s local food co-op a dark-purple Maine apple called a Black Oxford. Bunker was intrigued. He wanted to find other apple varieties that originated in Maine.
“I couldn’t help getting sucked into what amounted to an endless treasure hunt,” Bunker says.
Maine is a big state with many orchards, so Bunker needed to enlist others to help him look. Taking a cue from the FBI, he created “Wanted” posters of the heirloom apples he was seeking, complete with artist’s sketches and descriptions. He distributed the posters at festivals and events.
His detective work paid off. He’s found several types through the posters, including the Marlboro Apple, which was one branch away from extinction. Bunker took a small cutting from the only live branch on the tree right before it died and reestablished the cultivar in his orchard.
Bunker’s posters are just one strategy heirloom seed preservationists use to track down fruit and vegetable varieties on the verge of extinction. Below are six other strategies used by heirloom hunters. If you don’t mind the detective work, you too can help preserve the genetic diversity of the agricultural world and have the most unique garden in your neighborhood.
Crack the books
In some ways, tracking down heirloom seeds has never been easier, says C.R. Lawn, founder of Fedco Seeds.
“If you have a specific variety, simply Google it,” Lawn says.
Even the Internet has its limits, though, especially since many heirloom gardeners are from the generation more comfortable with a hoe than a mouse. So when Lawn hears rumor of a new variety, he often cracks open a book – and an old one at that.
One of his favorite reference materials is Vegetables of New York, a four-book series written in the 1930s that provides detailed descriptions of the different varieties of corn, squash, peas and beans grown in New York. The books are rare and pricey, but state agricultural libraries sometimes have copies. Lawn also combs through old seed catalogs and antique bookstores to find heirloom descriptions.
Even literature might be a good place to track seeds. Bunker knows a collector tracking an apple in England through the geographic ramblings of an incidental character in Charles Dickens’ semi-autobiographical David Copperfield. Time will tell if this hunch bears fruit.
Strength in numbers
There’s no need to hunt seeds alone.
Many seed companies focus on heirlooms, including Fedco, Baker Creek and dozens of smaller regional seed growers.
You also can hook up with numerous seed exchange groups, including The Seed Savers Exchange, a non-profit organization that has helped gardeners trade some 1 million seeds since 1975. They have a catalog, as well as a yearbook in which members discuss what they have to trade for free.
“We have 11,000 members,” said John Torgrimson, editor of Seed Savers publications. “They are willing to exchange 13,000 varieties.”
You say tomato, I say … close enough
A friend wanted to help John Bunker find an apple that came from mid-coast Maine, so she wrote about it in her local newspaper column.
“She wrote, ‘We’re looking for an apple called the Fletcher apple,’” Bunker says. “She had the name wrong, but it was close enough.”
Someone called the paper saying that he had a Fletcher Sweet Apple, which is the type Bunker really had been seeking.
This isn’t the first time Bunker has dealt with multiple names. When most people in the United States lived on farms, they were more comfortable communicating orally than with the written word. This has made for endless spelling and name variations for seeds. Some seed varieties have five to 10 different names.
When seed hunters like Bunker talk to other gardeners, they often aren’t listening for a perfect match. Instead, they listen for what might be in the ballpark. Generally, if a gardener uses an unusual-sounding name to describe a variety, it’s worth checking out.
The easiest way to track down a seed is to know who used to grow it.
“This is partly a treasure hunt … it’s also a lesson in local history,” Bunker says.
A few families dominate the history of any small town, and a seed hunter has to sift through these family histories to find farms. Bunker knows if he traces a family back far enough, it most likely will lead to a farm.
“The history of Maine is primarily an agricultural history,” he says.
Successful seed hunters often partner with local historical societies to find heirlooms. Some varieties are named for where they originated, but often the municipal boundaries have shifted since then; whole villages have been lost to history. Only those who know the local history can help find the forgotten boundaries and farms.
Lawrence Davis-Hollander, the Massachusetts-based author of Tomato: A Fresh-from-the-Vine Cookbook, often slows down when he gets to certain neighborhoods because he can sense which gardens are more likely to harbor heirlooms. Davis-Hollander is on the lookout for the little details: the shape of the garden plot, how the tomatoes are tied up, the age of the house.
“It’s just about driving by the right place … that just has the right feel to it,” he says.
Often, he concentrates on immigrant neighborhoods. Smart move, says Virginia D. Nazarea, a University of Georgia anthropology professor and founder of the Southern Seed Project.
Immigrants often bring seed from home, she says. The seeds provide a vital psychological link to family and culture. During her research, Nazarea learned that many Vietnamese immigrants brought seed to the United States even if they weren’t ever gardeners in Vietnam.
“It’s the attachment that’s important. It’s a rooting device in an alienating world,” she says.
It’s not just immigrants who have a wealth of heirloom seed stock. Native American tribes developed seeds that were uniquely adapted to their microclimates. The founders of Native Seeds SEARCH realized that the Hopi and Tohono O’odham tribes in Arizona and New Mexico were in danger of losing seed stock that thrived in unforgiving climates. The organization rushed in to preserve whatever seed they could find, says Suzanne Nelson, the group’s conservation director.
“It was pretty much kind of a Noah’s Ark approach,” Nelson says.
The seeds they preserved are now distributed to Native Americans free of charge and sent around the world to farmers in similar unforgiving climates. The group’s seed stock contains gems like variations of Tepary beans, which are more nutritious than pintos and have a substance that delays the release of blood sugar, making it helpful for diabetics. The project also has corn seed that reaches maturity in just 60 days.
Davis-Hollander says any group that still maintains strong traditions likely has heirlooms.
“If it’s a more culturally intact community, those people tend to be a little more tied to the food and the plants,” he says.
Road trip roundup
Sometimes, there’s nothing like a good drive to find seeds, says Jere Gettle, owner of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in Mansfield, Missouri. A few years back, he found a round silver squash during a slow meander through Mexico. Baker Creek now promotes it as Pipian from Tuxpan on the website. The squash meat is nothing to write home about, but the seeds are delicious and used in a regional dessert.
“We collected this variety near Tuxpan, Mexico, from a gentleman at a roadside stand. We were driving along the road watching for anything unusual that pops up,” Gettle says.
He’s also brought back eggplants from Thailand during a similar seed-hunting trip. His customers also have mailed back seeds from Portugal and Sweden.
The work of sleuthing out rare heirloom seeds can be daunting, says Lawn, but the rewards can be sweet, as when he tracked down and sampled a slice of a sought-after Mountain Gold Gopher melon in someone’s garden.
“When we found it, it was like a revelation,” he says. “There are a lot of ‘wow’ moments.”
Readers: Send stories and photos of your favorite heirloom finds to editor@Grit.com or Editor, GRIT Magazine, 1503 SW 42nd St, Topeka, KS 66609.
Craig Idlebrook is a freelance writer in Maine. His work has appeared in MOTHER EARTH NEWS , Mothering and Funny Times, among others.