Seeds with a Face, a Place and a Taste (1999)
The note came scrawled on an order from California.
“I enjoyed reading about John Withee [a famous bean collector
who amassed nearly 1200 varieties and formed an organization called
Wanigan Associates to help him maintain them]—back in the
70s I had correspondence with him—I gave him a number of seeds
to add to his collection—among them the black seeded Blue
Coco I found growing in the row…I was one of those 10%-ers
he wrote about. I still have his newsletters and some correspondence
from him. I’ve long had correspondences with Will Bonsall
and Glenn Drowns. Wish you’d offer Buxton Buckshot dry beans—ask
Will Bonsall about them.”
In one of those wonderful coincidences, Will Bonsall
happened to be in our office meeting with our purchaser Nikos Kavanya
and me, when the note arrived. Bonsall, himself a noted collecter
of thousands of varieties, was there to give us ideas about heirloom
varieties we might want to add to the Fedco catalog in the future.
Bonsall told us that Buxton Buckshot is an heirloom pole bean from
the town of Buxton, Maine, so named because the small seed looks
like buckshot. Bonsall also told us about the Stimson pole bean,
another Maine heirloom, described by its lone lister in the 1997
Seed Savers Yearbook as having “a long stringless pod, excellent
for eating raw, taste unsurpassed.” And he told us about another
superior pole bean which he got from Gail Flagg of Fort Kent, Maine,
alternately known as the Vermont Horticultural Lima (although not
a lima bean) or the Chester Bean, after its presumed origin in Chester,
Russell Libby, MOFGA’s Executive Director,
likes to refer to locally grown organic produce as “food with
a face, a place and a taste.” How much more true of food grown
from heirloom seed varieties!
Taste? Anyone who has bitten into a vine-ripe
Brandywine or Aunt Ruby’s German Green tomato can attest.
Place? Consider the Long Pie Pumpkin, which looks
like an overgrown green zucchini in the garden, doesn’t turn
orange until well into storage, yet makes pies which can only be
described as “divine.” Said to have originated on the
Isle of St. George in the Azores and been brought to Nantucket in
1832 on a whaling ship, it was at first known as the Nantucket Pumpkin
as it migrated north to Maine. By the 1930s Long Pie had long been
the pie pumpkin of choice among gardeners and growers in Androscoggin
County, who may not even have been aware that in other parts of
the country pie pumpkins were round.
Face? Many faces enter into the Long Pie story.
Were it not for John Navazio, the variety might well be extinct
today. Navazio, a cucurbit aficionado had a booth at Common Ground
Country Fair where sometime in the late 80s LeRoy Souther, Jr. of
Livermore Falls brought a specimen of the pumpkin. Navazio saved
seeds and touted the virtues of the variety. Later, he turned his
avocation into a vocation, going to the University of Wisconsin
to study breeding, and turning up at Garden City Seeds where, as
their breeder, he introduced Long Pie into their catalog. Long Pie
was a standout in the Fedco trials for years, but we could not secure
enough seed to offer it until this year when Wini Noyes grew a marvelous
crop of 16.5 pounds of 95% germination seed at her isolated Thorndike,
Maine, field. If even one per cent of these seeds are purchased
and grown by seed savers, the variety will no longer be endangered.
I’m indebted to Jon Thurston for much of
the historical background on Long Pie.Thurston runs a wonderful
Heirloom Seed Project at Medomak Valley High School in Waldoboro,
Maine, where students research the histories and grow old varieties.
When I was writing the catalog description, Thurston directed me
to LeRoy Souther Jr. who, in turn, referred me to his parents. The
Southers share credit with Navazio for the continued existence of
Long Pie. The senior Mrs. Souther was pleased to hear that the variety
still lives, especially because she no longer had seed. She was
happy to share her recollections, tracing the seed back to a neighbor,
Harry Hurd, who had given it to her family sometime in the forties
or fifties. Mrs. Souther told of bringing up from her cellar pumpkin
canned in 1973 and making it into a delicious pie for her grange
supper. That brought chuckles to our office staff, but we were just
as glad we weren’t at that particular grange supper! From
now on, it will no longer be necessary to find 25-year-old canned
pumpkin to enjoy Long’s scrumptious pies.
Contrast the richness of these names and stories
with the relative sterility of names like Hybrid 860, which emerge
from laboratories and are rarely accompanied by information about
origins. Blame seed trade secrecy for the reluctance of the hybridizers
and genetic engineers to share such details. It is their loss, and
The search for heirlooms good enough to list in
our seed catalog is an intriguing form of adult treasure hunt. The
1998 Yearbook of the Seed Savers Exchange lists more than 11,000
varieties, and their Heritage Farm collection has at least 7,000
more. Thousands more, still uncatalogued, are in private hands.
Fedco is way too small to attempt a comprehensive growout of all
or even a significant fraction of them, so some form of winnowing
To keep from getting lost in this immensity of
germplasm, we look for something special to bring a variety to our
attention. Maybe one of our sister seed companies has listed it
and praised it or one of the recent references on heirlooms has
catalogued or illustrated it. Maybe it is recommended by an eminent
collector like Will Bonsall or Mary Schultz. Perhaps a customer
such as the one in California has clued us in. Maybe, like Amish
Paste Tomato or Hutterite Soup Bean, it has multiple listings in
the Seed Savers yearbook, attesting to a widespread appeal. But
multiple listings are no guarantee of a sure winner; we were not
impressed with Riesentraube tomato in our trials despite its 24
listings, while Roberta picked the superb Ciudad Victorio cherry
saved by only one or two folks. In any given spring we will assemble
several hundred varieties for entry into our trials.
So will the Buxton Buckshot, Stimson and Chester
Beans make it into a future catalog? Or how about some of these
Bonsall suggestions: Byron Flint Corn, formerly grown in the Kennebec
Valley; Pease-Crosby and Baxter sweet corns, grown in the heyday
of the canneries; or North Pole lettuce, recommended for wintering
over; or the intriguingly-named Smelly Stone bush bean from Hungary?
That depends on whether we can find seed samples, and then how they
do in the trials. Varieties of local or historical interest start
with a leg up, but even they must perform with distinction in the
field and/or the tasting. Many are tried, few are chosen.
But even choosing a variety does not settle the
issue. Years can pass between discovery and commercial availability.
The wait can be excruciating; this is no business for the impatient.
With some varieties we start with such limited quantities of seed
that it must be multiplied for a year or two before there is enough
to grow a seed crop. We are still multiplying Mayfair Peas. Others
await a good seed grower. With Cream of Saskatchewan melon we tried
growers in Virginia and Oregon with limited success before Jill
and Peter de Bethune broke through for us in the unlikely climate
of St.Albans, Maine.
Several stars from our 1998 trials are waiting
in the wings. Early beets were raised for their greens, not their
roots. Of the 26 beets in our trial, Bull’s Blood surpassed
all the others for its spectacular “reds” of superb
flavor. It is perfect for the current mesclun craze. We were very
excited about it even before reading Eliot Coleman’s high
praise in his Winter-Harvest Manual. Cold conditions actually enhance
its leaves’ beautiful deep maroon color, making it a good
winter salad plant.
Few seeds are as beautiful as the shiny maroon
True Red Cranberry Polebeans. Described as “very rare”
by Abundant Life Seed Foundation, it may soon no longer be endangered
because Tom Stearns of High Mowing Farm in Vermont multiplied one
half pound of stock seed into a 60-pound organic seed crop this
season. A prolific producer even in cold climates, Cranberry Pole
awaits only a positive baked bean taste test to clinch inclusion
in a future Fedco catalog.
The Candyroaster, an enormous orange-pink squash
better known in the Carolinas and Georgia than in New England, was
an unlikely standout in a St. Albans, Maine, trial. It was coddled,
sharing a field with Saskatchewan melons, so we still have some
doubts about its suitability in our climate, but we have no doubts
at all that we love its sweet orange meats. Will it ever make our
catalog? Stay tuned.
Intrigued by heirlooms and want to learn more?
Perusing seed catalogs is a good way to meet new old ones. Try these
catalogs with good selections: Southern Exposure, Garden City, Pinetree,
Salt Spring Seeds, Abundant Life, Fox Hollow, Seeds of Change, High
Mowing and Johnny’s. If you can find a copy, The Heirloom
Gardener by Carolyn Jabs (1984) is a good introductory reference.
If you’re more visually oriented, check out the great photographs
in Taylor’s Guide to Heirloom Vegetables by Benjamin
Watson. If you want to delve more deeply, William Woys Weaver’s
Heirloom Vegetable Gardening is the definitive volume.
Happy treasure hunting!