Tag Archives: heirloom seeds

Heirlooms of the Americas

In all the history that it’s jammed into a school education very little of it involves plants. You get the big names quickly glanced over as you go through the history of the United States. The Native Americans cultivated corn, beans, and squash and shared them with the Pilgrims. There may even be a mention of the “three sisters garden.” Tobacco and cotton will also be mentioned but on a whole the role of plants in history is largely understated.

Though it may be poorly recorded there is more to American history than conquests, battles, and political upheaval. There’s all the everyday folks and the plants that sustained them and they’re important too. Knowing where crops came from can better connect us with the land, history, and culture. These are some of the plants that evolved in the Americas along side its people and will continue to grow and evolve to face the changing world if we continue to protect them.

Sunflowers

The sunflower is one of the many crops that was first cultivated by Native Americans. Evidence suggests that it may have been grown in what’s now Arizona and New Mexico as early as 3000 BC. In our edible flowers post we discuss its versatility as a food crop.

Amaranth

Golden Amaranth

Like tomatoes, amaranth is in fact an ancient Aztec grain. It was so important it is estimated that it made up about 80% of the Aztec’s diet at the time the Spanish arrived.

Potatoes

If you’re anything like me it can be tough to imagine a world without French fries but like many American crops, potatoes didn’t make their way into the European diet until the 16th century even though it is estimated that they were cultivated for over 10,000 years. Potatoes are actually indigenous to the Andes and were being grown in what’s now southern Peru and northwestern Bolivia when the Spanish were first introduced to them. 

Butterfly Weed

It may not be an important food crop for humans but butterfly weed plays an important role for pollinators as the name suggests. It’s native to North America and adding some to your garden can help attract butterflies. 

Tomatillos

Today in the United States tomatillos are largely overlooked except for the occasional salsa verde. However historians believe that they were probably a major part of both the Mayan and Aztec diets for at least 1000 years prior to Spanish colonization.

Sweet Potatoes

Carolina Ruby Sweet Potato

Today sweet potatoes seem to be a bit underrated in the United States. They’re mostly reserved for thanksgiving meals and we can find just a couple varieties on the supermarket shelves. However sweet potatoes have a long history. We know that they were cultivated in South America and the Caribbean by 2500 BC and that members of the Columbus expedition were the first Europeans to taste sweet potatoes in 1492. Interestingly, scientists were able to radiocarbon-date sweet potatoes to the Cook Islands (part of Polynesia) as early as 1000 AD. The working theory is that the Polynesians who have a maritime culture probably traveled to South America and brought sweet potatoes back with them. 

Peppers

Peppers actually have a rather blurry history. Though we know that they were first encountered by Europeans during the Columbus expedition when they were domesticated and by whom is still unknown. On a broad scale peppers have long been cultivated in South America however it seems as though peppers were domesticated at different times by different groups.

Tomatoes

If you ask someone to guess where the tomato comes from they might guess Italy and because almost every dish you purchase in any Italian restaurant in the United States comes slathered in tomato sauce that really is a fair guess. However it’ completely incorrect. The tomato is actually native to South America and wasn’t brought to Europe until the 16th century! Though its history is relatively unknown it’s believed that it was being cultivated by the Aztecs in what’s now southern Mexico as early as 500 BC.

Avocandos

Avocado trees (Persea americana) can be found in both standard and dwarf varieties. Guatemalan, West Indian and Mexican are the three main species of standard avocado trees. While they vary in fruit size, texture and maturity rate, these types of trees all reach an average avocado tree height of between 30 and 40 feet, though they can grow up to 80 feet tall. Dwarf varieties, such as the Wurtz avocado, reach an average height of 10 feet.

Bergamot

Also called monarda or bee balm, bergamot was grown and used medicinally by many Native American tribes. It’s also a favorite of hummingbirds and butterflies.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of American varieties. There’s the aforementioned squash, beans, and corn as well as a host of other crops like blueberries, papas, avocados, cacao, chia, and quinoa. These are just a few varieties whose history is often overlooked that can easily be incorporated into a family garden. Growing, eating, and saving seed from these plants can help keep history and culture alive.

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17 Varieties New to SESE in 2018

At Southern Exposure we’re dedicated to preserving and sharing open pollinated and heirloom seed varieties. As part of that mission we’ve added many new varieties that we’d loved to see grown, shared, and enjoyed like SESE’s classic favorites.

These varieties are new varieties selected to help small farmers and gardeners overcome disease and insect pressure using sustainable, organic methods. They’re heirlooms lovingly nutured by generations of gardeners who’d love to see their rich flavors and unique traits enjoyed by others. They’re seeds from aorund the world that can bring a little piece of other flavors, cultures, and traditions into your garden and onto your plate.

Monticello Old Breadseed Poppy

This gorgeous variety was saved by Seed Savers Exchange members Christina Wenger and Patrick Holland! Along with its beauty it also offers a long bloom time.

Silverleaf Sunflower

A rare species added to the SESE ranks, this sprawling sunflower is native to the Gulf Coast and Southern Texas. If planted early the stalks can reach 15 feet tall and are highly attractive to pollinators and birds.

Willowleaf Colored Lima Beans

With a rainbow mix of colors this bean is sure to win your heart. It’s named for its narrow, willow-like leaves which make the plants appear more like willow trees than lima beans.

Hog Brain Southern Peas

Though we don’t know how this Alabama heirloom earned its name we do love this variety for its good flavor and excellent drought resistance. This seed was sent to SESE by Douglas Pitts.

Odell’s Large White (White Stoney Mountain) Watermelon

The rich sweet flavor of these melons is said to rival the legendary “Bradford.” This rare South Carolina variety dates back to 1840 and has been stewarded by Karen Metze’s family since 1880. Her husband Rodger Winn now grows and cares for the seed. It produces very large melons (30-35 lbs) with excellent storage quality.

Zapallo del Tronco Summer Squash

This rare Argentinian variety is a great summer squash to try for a unique, sweet, rich flavor and texture. It’s ready to harvest in just 48 days!

Bettersnap Southern Peas

Unlike many southern peas Bettersnap can be eaten young in the pod like green beans. They’re also an excellent choice for southern gardeners because they’re resistant to root knot nematodes and many other southern afflictions.

Mayan Jaguar Lettuce

Mayan Jaguar was the heaviest yielder in SESE’s 2017 lettuce trials! This variety has a lot going for it with dark green leaves with bold dark red splotches, attractive pink hearts, upright leaves that reduce splashback of soil onto leaves, and it’s slow to bolt.

African Drum Gourd

These huge, thick walled gourds are perfect for making baskets, buckets, or drums! They’re round to slightly teardrop-shaped and hold up well to downy mildew.

Rotten Clarage Dent Corn

Rotten Clarage is a rare Ohio heirloom from the early 1900s that was a cross between Yellow Clarage and another blue corn. This variety grows sturdy 9 foot stalks, 8-9 inch ears, with mostly two ears per stalk. Its seed has been grown and stewarded by the Appalachian Heirloom Plant Farm in Winchester, Ohio.

Early Nozaki Chinese Cabbage

This chinese cabbage variety fairs better than others in warmer areas being slower to bolt than our other varieties. It’s also tender and mild perfect for salads, stir frys, and ferments and is quick to produce.

Aji Chinchi Amarillo Hot Peppers

These peppers pack a lot of flavor into there small size. They’re fruity with medium to high heat and are typically about 3 × 1/2 inches. This variety is a heavy yielder and a key ingredient in Peruvian cuisine.

South Anna Butternut

The South Anna Butternut is a cross between the Seminole Pumpkin and Waltham Butternut develop by Common Wealth’s Edmund Frost. They have good productivity, excellent storage ability, and high levels of downy mildew resistance.

DMR 401 Slicing Cucumber

Another downy mildew resistant variety, these cucumbers can withstand levels that would kill another standard slicing variety. They were grown as part Michael Mazourek’s breeding program at Cornell University and did the best in Cornell’s 2015 trials.

Jasmyn Rissie Hot Peppers

Jasmyn Rissie Hot Peppers offer a lot of sweet peppery flavor along with mild heat. The seed for these little beauties was collected in Hartbeespoort, South Africa.

Prize Choi

This quick growing, cold hardy heirloom grows 2lb heads in just 7 weeks! Prize choi has dark green leaves with crunchy bright white stems and did excellent in our 2017 Asian green trials.

 

We all have our tried and true favorites but we hope you’ll try some of our newly available varieties too! We’re sure there’s a variety here that will win over your heart or tastebuds.

 

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Seed Saving for Beginners

Saving seed and heirloom varieties is extremely important work, whether on a large scale like at Southern Exposure or a smaller scale like a family’s backyard garden. Saving seed helps to preserve genetic diversity, provide people with secure food sources, and connect people to the earth and their local community.

Unfortunately saving seeds isn’t as simple as harvesting and cleaning your seeds. First you need to ensure you have the right kind of plants to start with.

Open Pollinated vs. Hybrid

In order to save seed that will “breed true” or have the same characteristics as its parents you need to start with open pollinated or heirloom seeds or plants. All heirlooms are open pollinated but not all open pollinated plants are heirlooms.

Open Pollinated

Open pollinated simply means that a variety has been bred and then maintained until it was genetically stable. This means that if you save seed from an open pollinated individual that seed will grow plants with the same characteristics as its parent plants.

Heirlooms

Heirlooms are just open pollinated varieties that have been passed down for many generations. While there are a few definitions, at SESE we describe heirlooms as varieties dating from before 1940. Unlike modern varieties that have been developed for use with modern industrial agriculture and our global food system these varieites were grown, saved, and cherished by small farmers and gardeners.

Hybrids

Hybrids on the other hand are not genetically stable. They are the seed from two seperate varieites being crossed. While their first generation traits are predictable they would not be if you were to again save seed. The second generation seed can have characteristics from one or both of the parents or entirely new characteristics altogether.

Hyrbrids are not GMO or inherently bad. In fact many people grow them for their “hybrid vigor” which can make them grow faster than their open pollinated counter parts.

Choosing a Variety

Obviously you’ll want to choose a variety you love and care about. Maybe you fell in love with an heirlooms story or your family just can’t eat enough of your a certain variety. Whatever the case, it’s much easier to stay motivated throughout the season and proccess if you’re really invested.

If you’re a first time seed saver you may also want to consider choosing from a few easy vegetables. Squash, cucumbers, beans, peas, tomatoes, and peppers are all great choices for beginners.

Planting

If you want to grow plants to save seed there’s a couple things you need to consider. First many plants require other plants of the same variety to pollinate with and produce viable seed. Also for this reason seperate varieties should be kept a certain distance apart to avoid cross pollination. For more about how to plan a seed saving garden check out this post:

Garden Planning for Seed Saving

Selection

Even if you don’t have longterm goals for changing or creating a new variety selecting which seed to save is still important. You want to save seeds from healthy and productive plants that have desirable traits.

Harvesting the Seed

Tomatoes

Old German Tomato

To save seed from tomatoes you should harvest them when they’re fully ripe. Then the flesh can be seperated from the seeds and gel that surrounds them. The gel and seeds should be placed in a glass container with a bit of water and lightly covered. This mixture should be stirred twice a day unil the seeds sink to the bottom. The liquid can then be poured off and the seeds rinsed and spread on a towel to dry.

Peppers

Cayenne, Long Red Hot Pepper

Peppers are much easier to save seed from than tomatoes because their seeds lack that gelatinous coating. Wait until the pepper is over ripe, it should begin to wrinkle, and then harvest the seeds and spread them out to dry.

Cucumbers

Mexican Sour Gherkin (Mouse Melon, Sandita)

A ripe cucumber for eating is not the same as a ripe cucumber for seed saving. Cucumbers you wish to save seed form should be allowed to ripen on the vine until they’re yellow or brown in color. Then they need to cure for an additional two weeks or until mold begins to appear. Then the seeds can be scooped out and fermented in a jar just like tomato seeds.

Peas & Beans

Creel Crowder Southern Pea (Cowpea)

Harvest your peas and beans when the pods have turned brown. Then dry them in a single layer for 1-2 weeks until they’re crisp and dry enough that you can here the seeds rattle in the pods. They can be threshed individually or stomped or beaten in a pillow case to remove the pods and then winnowed.

Squash

Candy Roaster Melon Winter Squash

Winter squash, summer squash, and pumpkins are all harvested in the same method. Wait until the fruit is hard and large to harvest. Then cure for 1 month at room temperature before removing the seeds. Wash seeds thoroughly and lay out in a single layer to dry for 3 weeks.

Storage

All seeds should be stored in air tight containers in a cool dry place. Some people choose to add a small amount of silica desiccant in with their seeds to absorb moisture. It’s also important to note that different types of seeds have different lifespans.

 

Saving seed really isn’t difficult. It’s a great way to connect with land and a bit of history. Start saving seeds this season or making a plan for next year’s garden! For more information check our Seed Saving Guides in our Growing Guides Library.