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Heirloom seeds have rich history

Gardeners everywhere are flipping through seed catalogs, looking for the newest and best varieties to try this year. Some of the most popular choices aren’t the newest offerings – they’re the oldest.

Heirloom gardening has been gaining in popularity for years now and with good reason. In many cases, the resulting fruit and vegetables look and taste so different than standard varieties. Who says tomatoes have to be red or yellow? Heirloom tomatoes can also be purple, green, or just about any color in between.

While it’s definitely interesting to grow and taste unusual fruits and vegetables and enjoy beautiful heirloom flowers, the really interesting part to me is the history behind the seeds.

Seed Savers Exchange (SSE), a nonprofit heirloom seed company based in Decorah, Iowa, helps gardeners save and share seeds. You can buy heirloom seeds online and by catalog ( or 563/382-5990).

A Piece of History

When shopping for seeds through SSE, not only do you get information on planting, germination, care, and harvest, but you also get some history.

For example, Grandpa Ott’s morningglory seeds come from SSE cofounder Diane Whealy’s grandfather. His parents brought the seeds with them when they sailed to America from Bavaria in 1867. Whealy’s grandfather grew the morningglories all his life and saved the seeds, then passed them on to Whealy.

The Bidwell Casaba melon is named for Civil War general and U.S. Senator John Bidwell, who got the seeds from the USDA in 1869.

Seeds from the Cream of Saskatchewan watermelon were brought to their namesake Canadian province by Russian immigrants because this variety does well in cool, northern climates.

The Dester tomato’s seeds were donated to SSE by Missouri farmer Larry Pierce, who received them from an Amish woman, who received them from a doctor, whose family brought them from Germany.

Smuggling Seeds

That is fascinating to me. If you think about packing up your entire life and moving to a new country, especially under difficult circumstances, what would you take? Important papers, clothes, medicine, and photos probably top your list, but seeds?! I wouldn't be too surprised if my farming and gardening grandfather, pictured above, would've taken some seeds with him.

When gardeners of the past took their seeds into other countries, they often risked breaking the law. To hide the seeds from immigration officials, they were sewn into the hem of a dress or hidden behind the lining of a suitcase. Think about that for a minute. Seeds were that precious.

Gardeners held on to their heritage through those seeds. They may have been in a different country, but at least in their gardens and their kitchens they were home.

It’s due to these brave and thoughtful gardeners that we can enjoy such a beautiful variety in our gardens today. I urge you to choose at least one heirloom seed to plant this year. Learn the story behind it. When you smell that fragrant flower or bite into that juicy tomato, take a moment and thank the gardener who made it possible.


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