I read a phrase that is so true: “It all starts with the seed. The seeds take care of us.” We rely on seeds, thus plants, to feed, clothe, and shelter us. But these seeds in turn rely on us. Our cultivated plants (not wild grown but grown in gardens and farms) depend on human care. If we do not preserve a species it will become extinct. If no one grows a plant and saves the seed, the plant and its genetic material will not exist anymore.
The Importance of Seeds
Because seeds are fundamentally important to our survival, saving seeds, especially open pollinated, heirloom seeds, is vital. Plants make up 80 percent of our diet. On an agricultural level, saving seeds preserves genetic diversity. Breeders can tap into a large genetic pool for improved crops and pest/disease resistant crops. Saving seeds of various plants ensures crop diversity so that one pest/disease does not wipe out one crop. Saving seeds of plants that have adapted to a local area helps to become resilient to climate change.
On a home gardener level, saving seeds saves money. One can exchange seeds at seed swaps or pass down seeds to future generations. Over time, saving seed from plants that have done well in the garden saves plants that have adapted well to the region. This may help with climatic change. Saving seed also increases the diversity of plants grown. There is more of a choice, more of a variety to choose from for better flavor, time of harvest, or plant type. Saving seeds also saves the memories and stories from previous generations and the lineage of heirlooms.
However, each year, as seed are not saved, plants become extinct. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, an estimated 75 percent of global food diversity has become extinct in the past 100 years. Of just 20 plants used for global food production in 2014, only 9 accounted for more than 66 percent of all crop production. Only five cereal grains make up 60 percent of our calories. In the past century we have lost more than 90 percent of our seed diversity. Thousands of plant species are no longer available, and we continue to lose them every day. Yet biodiversity is essential to food and agriculture and provides us and plants with resilience.
Seed Saving Initiatives
Fortunately, there are seed saving initiatives across the world to save seeds for future generations. One American organization, Seed Savers Exchange, has several programs that are extremely useful and helpful to home gardeners. Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) began in 1975 by Diane Ott Whealy and Kent Whealy. Diane’s grandfather gave them seeds of Grandpa Ott’s morning glory and German Pink tomato which were brought by Grandpa Ott’s parents from Bavaria when they immigrated to Iowa in the 1870’s. Diane knew that with her grandfather’s passing, unless the seed were grown and saved, they would be lost. She reached out to like-minded people interested in saving and sharing heirloom seeds and gradually formed a network.
Seed Savers Exchange
Today, SSE is a non-profit organization in Decorah, Iowa, with more than 13,000 members. Its mission is to “conserve and promote America’s culturally diverse but endangered garden and food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants.”
The SSE maintains a seed bank with 18,000 to 20,000 varieties at their headquarters in Iowa. They also send seed to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) seed vault at Fort Collins, Colorado, and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway.
“At SSE, we store seeds at zero degrees Fahrenheit and 20 percent humidity. Under these conditions, certain seed can last up to 100 years,” said Philip Kauth, Ph.D., Director of Preservation.
To give an idea of the number of varieties that can exist within one plant, Philip said that currently the SSE collection has 6,000 tomatoes. There are 3,000 types on the market that are commercially available. “We have 1,100 varieties of corn but the USDA has 20,000 varieties of corn. We also have 6,000 varieties of beans.” What makes SSE unique is that they also maintain the seed’s history. “We put a lot of emphasis on stories. We preserve the varieties and their histories as well as evaluation data on their performance as a plant.”
The Seed Exchange
Anyone, including home gardeners, may access some of these varieties through the Seed Exchange. The Seed Exchange is a free online database of seeds, basically a seed swap. Anyone can offer or obtain open pollinated seeds to grow in their garden. It does not cost money to view this database; however, in order to list or request seed a free account must be established. If reading hard copy is preferable, there is an annual catalog called the Yearbook that can be ordered for a fee. The Seed Exchange has more than 11,000 varieties of homegrown, open pollinated vegetable, flower, and herb seed. Once people obtain and grow these, they can save and re-sow the seed (hence have them for a long time) or even save and share the seed with friends and family. The Seed Exchange also includes potato tubers, garlic bulbs, apple tree cuttings, and other non-seed material.
Today, a quick look at the Seed Exchange reveals 9,563 varieties of tomatoes. Some entries have short descriptions, some long, and some have photos. For example, the description for the Silvery Fir Tree tomato is a “compact (18 – 24 inches high) with unusual, delicate, lacy leaves. In Russian, it is called ‘Serebristaya El’ .. it is an old Russian variety that was introduced to American seed savers in the early 1990s by Marina Danilenko, pioneering private seed seller from Moscow during the Perestroika-era.”
There are 38 entries for spinach including a broad leaved prickly seed spinach “described by Albertus Magnus, a Catholic saint from Germany, in 1260, has been commercially available in the US since at least 1806, and was planted by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello in 1809 and 1812.”
SSE also sells seed, people can order online and from a free catalog. SSE makes about 600 varieties available commercially to the public when inventory of seed is high enough to meed the demand. The revenue from the seed sales, as well as donations and memberships, maintain the organization’s seed collection and promote and encourage the tradition of saving and sharing seed.
Seed Savers Exchange Projects
Other interesting SSE projects are Seed Rematriation (identifying and growing plants grown by indigenous communities in order to obtain and save the seeds); SeedLinked, a seed data platform connecting people with information on varieties from other gardeners/farmers; and the Community Seed Network, which engages hundreds of people across the United States and Canada to connect, share, and learn about seeds. The SSE also provides free seed to schools, community groups, and people in need via the Herman’s Garden and Disaster Relief Seed Donation programs.
The SSE is a destination point — hundreds of gardeners, horticulturists, and seed savers visit the headquarters, known as Heritage Farm, each year. The public is encouraged to visit the Lillian Goldman Visitors Center and Gift and Garden store, walk through display gardens, including an apple orchard with 900 varieties of apple trees, and attend events such as a seed swap, an heirloom plant sale, a seed school, a tomato tasting, and a harvest festival. And if that isn’t enough, there is always the Robert Becker Memorial Library with 6,000 volumes covering agriculture, horticulture, and biodiversity. And to think it all started with seeds of a morning glory and a tomato.
All photos courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange