Saving the seeds of green heritage Keepers: It's easy to pass along the best of the past -- or the present -- and many people are willing to help.

October 19, 1997|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Seed saving is as old as humankind. The Egyptians, adept preservers, saved wheat grains in the pyramids that 3,000 years later produced viable plants. Native Americans have always viewed seeds as a sacred gift from the Earth, a precious link to food production and therefore survival.

With the advent of seed companies, seed saving began to atrophy, and with it, many standard (nonhybrid) varieties of fruits and vegetables. One hundred years ago, there were 8,000 varieties of apples. Today, there are around 700.

Does it matter?

"We are eroding our genetic heritage," insists Kent Whealy, founder of Seed Savers Exchange, which preserves heirloom plant varieties. "We're losing material we will need in the future to breed pest- and disease-resistant crops. We are also losing history and culture [that] people's families brought with them from all over the globe."

Whealy's interest began in 1975 when his bride's Bavarian grandfather gave them seeds for a large pink potato-leafed tomato, a prolific pole-bean, and a deep purple morning glory with a red star in the center. The seeds were more than the beginnings of a garden. They were a legacy.

"We realized that if these family seeds were to survive," Whealy explains, "it was up to us. Then it spread into a mission of genetic preservation."

The Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, now has 8,000 members worldwide and a 440-page yearbook that lists the names of members along with the 12,000 varieties of heirloom vegetables and fruits that they are offering.

Saving seed is not hard, but there are a few basics for success.

Hybrid or standard?

First, determine whether the plant is a hybrid.

"You can't save seed from hybrids," Whealy notes. "They just don't breed true."

Standard varieties, which are open-pollinated, produce viable seed true to the parent plant. An open-pollinated plant produces seed when its flower accepts pollen from either itself or from another member of the same plant variety. Genetically, this enables the best-adapted characteristics of a plant to transfer from generation to generation. Seed packets, catalogs and the plant markers in nursery or garden center stock will identify whether or not a plant is a hybrid.

Annual or biennial?

Second, determine whether the plant is annual, biennial or perennial. Annuals go through their life cycle in one season, biennials in two. Perennials produce seed but are often more easily propagated through cuttings or root division.

Collecting and storing seed

Collecting seed can be done in several ways. To save seed from the choicest flowers or herbs, cut down the green stalk just after the bloom has faded and turn it upside down in a brown paper bag. Write the plant name on the outside of the bag. Tie the bag loosely with string, and hang it in a cool, dark, dry place (attics are usually perfect) for several weeks until the plants inside have dried completely. Once the contents are brittle, shake the bag vigorously to release the seeds into the bag. Store the seeds in an airtight container -- a canning jar or old mayonnaise jar works well.

Another method is to dry seeds in the garden. Some will reward you by liberally self-seeding in addition to producing seed for next year's use. Cleome, which have marvelous little bean-pod seed packets, and blackberry lilies, whose blackberry-like seed heads add such beauty to the autumn garden, are examples.

Beans and peas are best dried on the vine until just before their pods begin to open and spill seed. Cut dry pods off the plant, and hang them in a bag in a garage or attic until the seeds are hard.

"To test for a perfectly dried seed," suggests garden writer and lecturer Tina James, "bite it. If it leaves no teeth marks, the seed is absolutely dry."

The rewards for seed saving are sweet -- flowers, fruits, herbs, and the ineluctable joys of perpetuating a legacy.


* "Gardening From the Heart" by Tina James (Randall Book Co., Orem, Utah)

* "Growing and Saving Vegetable Seeds" by Marc Roger (Garden Way Publishing, Charlotte, Vt.)

* "Seed to Seed" by Suzanne Ashworth (Seed Savers Exchange, Decorah, lowa; phone 319-382-5990)

* For specific seed-saving techniques: "The Heirloom Gardener" by Carolyn Jabs (Sierra Clubs Books, San Francisco)

Pub Date: 10/19/97

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