Heirlooms: 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, Vermont.

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 ours.

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 is necessary.

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!
CR Lawn