Yaqui basil. Chia roja. Mt. Pima oregano. Tarahumara anis. These herbs carry names that conjure deep associations with native people who, for centuries, cultivated them, cooked with them, and cured with them in the Sonoran region of southern Arizona and northwestern Mexico. You won’t find these seeds in packets for sale in your local nursery, but thanks to Native Seeds/SEARCH, a Tucson-based nonprofit organization founded in 1983, these herbs, plus other rare corns, beans, chiles, gourds, melons, and squash, are now collected, preserved, protected, and disseminated.
These hardy heirloom seeds are specially adapted to their environment and remain exempt from corporate packaging; rather, they have for generations been handed down through families and exchanged between neighbors, small farmers, and backyard growers. Planting seeds offered by Native Seeds/SEARCH is like caring for a special piece of history and culture in your garden. Seedlisting, the organization’s catalog, has pages of such biodiverse treasures as the chiltepine, the fiery, scarlet berry that originated in Bolivia and Ecuador and is the ancient “mother of all chiles,” and Mexican teosinte, believed to be the tassled ancestor of corn.
Even better news for those planning travel to Tucson, Native Seeds/SEARCH welcomes visitors to its various locations, where it is possible to follow the life of rare heirlooms from storage in the seed bank all the way to harvest in the field.
First stop is a tour of the seed bank at Sylvester House, where visitors are warmly greeted with cups of herbal tea and a basket of blueberry-Hopi blue corn muffins prior to the tour. On the grounds of the historic adobe, in the 3/4-acre garden, lie baskets of drying squash, pumpkins, and gourds. After a brief and informative slide show explaining the organization’s mission and methods and a question-and-answer period, seed curator and director of conservation Suzanne Nelson opens the door and grants participants entrance into the cool vault. There, in 10,000 jars that fill floor-to-ceiling shelves, are more than 2,000 kinds of precious seed stocks waiting their turn to be “grown out.” The jars contain dozens of varieties of beans and corn, fifty-five varieties of chile, many cilantros, dills, basils, oreganos, and epazote (Chenopodium ambrosioides)—a truly awesome treasure chest of the earth’s bountiful possibilities. Most of these seeds have been gathered from Native American farmers and growers in small villages of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Mexico, and from those concerned about the survival of the seeds and the cultural heritage that goes along with them. Tours are given weekly.
Hardy heirloom seeds have been handed down for generations.
In 1997 Native Seeds/SEARCH acquired a 60-acre farm in Patagonia, about sixty miles south of Tucson, where the seeds are planted, grown, and harvested. Visitors and volunteers are welcome here during the growing and harvest season from March through October, and the place is famous for its many marvelous potlucks arranged throughout the season as well as its conservation farm tours. To observe some of the organization’s uses of traditional growing practices based on soil and water conservation, there is a demonstration Native American garden at the Tucson Botanical Gardens where seeds are grown in Hopi terraced beds. Also, the herb garden section of the Tucson Botanical Gardens is at its peak between April and June.
Another Tucson must-do for gardeners and cooks is the Native Seeds/SEARCH store. Its shelves are crammed with packets of native seeds, mole and chipotle spices, soup and stew mixes, exotic chiles, salsas, desert honeys, prickly pear preserves, mesquite meal, and many more native food products. In addition to books on gardening and ethnobotany, the store carries Native American music, pine needle baskets, cooking utensils, and textiles handmade by Tarahumara, Tohono O’odham, Navajo, and Mayo people. It is also possible to find herbs and teas of Mexican oregano, canutillo (Mormon tea), saguaro blossom cactus tea, and many more. Other projects of Native Seeds/SEARCH include helping set aside the 2,500-acre Wild Chile Botanical Area preserve near Tubac, Arizona, in the Coronado National Forest as a protected chiltepine habitat on U.S. Forest Service land. In addition, Native Americans are offered free memberships and free seeds as part of the Desert Food for Diabetes project to promote the production and consumption of traditional desert foods to combat diabetes. The Arizona Regis-Tree is a registry of heirloom fruit and nut trees, and the Sierra Madre Project helps reclaim severely eroded land by working with Tarahumara farmers to build rock retention walls, known as trincheras, to enhance revegetation. The Cultural Memory Bank Project, a process of collecting, recording, and organizing horticultural, ethnobotanical, and cultural history of each of the crop varieties in the seed bank, began in 1996.
Seeds are planted, grown, and harvested on a 60-acre farm in Patagonia
While in Tucson, don’t miss Tohono Chul Park, a 40-acre preserve with many trails blooming with brightly colored wild and cultivated flowers, water-wise plants and a productive and thriving native herb and vegetable garden. The Tea Room at Tohono Chul serves, in addition to breakfast and lunch, an exquisite High Tea, complete with scones, cream, and jam. It’s possible to spend a morning or an entire day strolling the desert gardens here in this peaceful oasis, growing increasingly tranquil.
Membership in Native Seeds/ SEARCH is available for $25 a year. Members receive the seasonal Seedhead News, the organization’s newsletter, as well as updated catalogs.