Home gardeners are stewards of our genetic heritage

Our food supply is in the hands of the multinational corporations — to reclaim control, we can only save the seed from important plant varieties or start to seek varieties that never were sold that way. Here are some basics about seeds.

When we plant a seed, we create a direct link between our ancestral past and our potential future.

The seed we plant has traveled around the world, from farmer to farmer, from Native populations to traders and conquerors to royalty and eventually back to farmers.

The carrot seed that we plant originated in Afghanistan; tomatoes and peppers, in South America; potatoes, in the Peruvian Andes; eggplant, in central Asia; watermelon, in tropical Africa.

Most of our brassicas originated in the Mediterranean basin. Lettuce was first noted in Greek and Roman times. (The word “romaine” is an adulteration of the word “Roman.”) Peas are quite ancient: the oldest saved seed found at the Spirit Cave site on the Thailand-Myanmar border, dates back to 9750 B.C.E. Peas were also prevalent throughout the Mediterranean region to the Near East and central Africa. Their paths have led them in and out of popularity and through a long culinary history.

North America, the cultural melting pot, is also a wealth of genetic diversity. Seed traveled northward from Central and South America, carried along footpaths by Native populations. It came with early European settlers, and later treasured seed from the old country came sewn into the hems, hatbands, and suitcase linings of generations of immigrants - a piece of their culture.

More recently, seed has come with the Vietnamese, Laotian, and Haitian immigrants as well as those from the former Soviet Union.

* * *

Over the last century, our increased dependence on seed companies has drastically reduced our direct links to our seed heritage. Small, regionally based seed companies like Fedco Seeds and Johnny's Selected Seeds, both in Maine, and High Mowing Organic Seeds in Wolcott, Vt., can offer varieties that perform well in the surrounding climate.

Of great concern are the immense multinational seed-chemical-pharmaceutical corporations that buy up the biggest companies that have bought out the midsize seed houses that have bought out the small regional companies.

These companies control what seed gets grown and who can buy it. Local varieties that do thrive in our little frost pockets draw no attention from the corporate eye unless they have genetic traits of value to research.

* * *

We have all lamented the loss of a favorite plant variety whose seeds are no longer available in any catalog. Even as self-sufficient home gardeners, our food supply is in the hands of the multinationals. One can only start to save the seed from those important varieties or start to seek varieties that never were sold that way.

Interest in saving seed is rising. This year, Seed Savers Exchange had 991 of its members listing 19,622 varieties of seed, including 11,044 unique listings. Members are offering nearly twice the number of open pollinated varieties as the entire mail-order garden seed industry in the United States and Canada.

Once again, home gardeners are the stewards of our genetic heritage.

* * *

Many of us start to save a few beans or tomato seeds, and we learn as we need more information. A few basics are helpful.

• Every plant has a botanical classification. Each vegetable belongs to a family: carrots, parsnips, and parsley to the Umbelliferae; tomatoes, peppers, eggplant to Solanaceae (nightshades); etc.

Families are divided, first into genera and then, further, into species. Lettuce, Lactuca sativa, is in the Compositae family, the Lactuca genus, and the sativa species. Plants of the same genus and species can potentially pollinate one another.

• Plants are either self-pollinating or cross-pollinating.

A self-pollinating plant has flowers that pollinate themselves, often before opening, or they pollinate another flower on the same plant. Insects are not strongly attracted to them.

Cross-pollinating plants transfer pollen from one plant to another, by insect or wind. Male and female flowers form on the same plant, or plants are entirely male or female. If growing two or more cross-pollinating plants of the same species, they need to be isolated from one another by specific distances.

A great book for gardeners is Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners, by Suzanne Ashworth. I also write about seeds in my first book, The Woodchuck's Guide to Gardening.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates