What’s old is always new again in the world of heirloom gardening. Historic and treasured plant varieties, often dating back centuries, offer a sense of discovery and wonder when grown in our 21st century, digital universe. That wonder is what the 16 newly offered seeds in the 2018 Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) catalog aim to capture. All of the varieties reveal a peek into our past while remaining relevant today.
Old, uncommon and dripping with history, heirloom plants retain the same properties and rich tastes they’ve boasted for generations. Knowing where varieties originated, and when, is as important as the seeds themselves, giving thanks to the ancestors who saved them and the gardeners who continue to grow them. “Food brings people — families, communities, neighbors — together,” says Lee Buttala, Seed Savers Exchange’s Executive Director. “And food grown in our backyards, from seeds that have a story, strengthens our sense of togetherness and unity.”
Bringing heirloom seeds back into our gardens — and the flavors onto our tables — is the driving force behind SSE’s work. While the nonprofit preserves 25,000 rare, heirloom and historic varieties in a seed bank for future generations, the organization also strives to put those seeds into the hands of modern gardeners. SSE is not a seed company, but a nonprofit that uses the proceeds of its sales to support the ongoing preservation of our seed heritage.
New from the Collection
‘Isle of Naxos’ Basil: A lettuce-leaf strain, this tall basil grows 24 to 30 inches and produces a steady crop of large, lush leaves if its flowers are pinched off regularly. The basil comes from longtime SSE member and advisor David Cavagnaro, who received it from Jana Muhar, who collected the seeds while living on the Greek island of Naxos.
‘Yellow Intermediate Mangel’ Beet: Winner of SSE’s 2015 beet taste evaluation, these white- and yellow-ringed roots measure 4 to 6-1/2 inches long and vary in shape. While mangel and fodder beets are larger than typical beets and are generally used for animal feed, you’ll find these sweet, juicy and smooth roots are prime for the dinner table.
‘Jebousek’ Lettuce: “Everyone who has tried it says it’s the best,” wrote Ella Jebousek of this deer-tongue lettuce in 1987. Compact plants form rosettes of dark green, triangular leaves, which grow 7 to 9 inches long and 4 to 5 inches wide. Ella, of Brooks, Oregon, received this variety from a descendant of the family who brought it from Czechoslovakia.
‘Simpson’ Okra: The straight, green, downy pods of this okra variety are intermediate in length and width and are best eaten when less than 5 inches long. SSE member Dr. James Wolfe received the variety from the Simpson family of Rogersville, Tennessee.
‘Cairns Family Hanover’ Rutabaga: These tan roots with light red and green shoulders grow 6 to 8 inches in diameter and have a sweet flavor after a frost. Evalynn Schnackenberg shared this family heirloom rutabaga with SSE in 2013. Her grandmother’s cousin, Leo Cairns, was an avid gardener and grew it as early as the 1950s near Bellingham, Washington.
‘Auntie Wilder’ Bean: Sweet, tender and juicy, this heirloom pole bean took top honors in SSE’s 2015 snap bean taste evaluation. It has a strong climbing habit and produces striking, 7-inch-long, dark purple pods. Dorothy Barnett of Shelton, Washington, received the high-yielding variety from her mother, who traces it to her nurse, “Auntie Wilder,” an immigrant who brought the seeds with her from Sweden in the 1890s.
‘Monstorpolgi’ Celeriac: Savored by SSE members for more than 20 years and reportedly by the French since the 1600s, this celery root variety has a mild, sweet celery flavor and firm, round roots that measure 3 inches long by 3 to 4 inches wide. Its roots, stems and leaves make a fine addition to soups and stews.
‘Ellen Felton Dark’ Collard: A favorite of SSE staff, this heirloom collard dates to at least 1935 and produces tender green leaves with a sweet, slightly fruity taste. Plants measure 15 to 22 inches tall by 22 to 35 inches wide and fare well in low temperatures.
‘Jernigan Yellow Cabbage’ Collard: This faintly sweet, buttery-tasting heirloom collard produces modest heads and light green to yellow-green edible leaves that are elliptical, lobed and slightly dangling. Plants measure 17 to 23 inches tall by 32 to 43 inches wide. It hails from Snow Hill, North Carolina, where Nancy and James Jernigan grew it throughout their married life after receiving it from James’ father.
‘Bloody Butcher Northern’ Corn: With ears that reach 8 to 9 inches in length and striking dark red kernels, this quick-maturing heirloom dent corn is great as an ornamental and for making distinctively colored flour. Acquired from Ernest Strubbe, a well-known Minnesota wildlife artist, this is a northern-adapted strain of an old eastern U.S. variety that predates 1870. Its sturdy stalks reach 8 feet in height at maturity.
‘Jaune du Poitou’ Leek: Beautiful yellow-green leaves, a mild taste and a wide, thick, edible shank have long made this leek a popular variety in Europe. Described by the French seed house Vilmorin-Andrieux as early as 1856, this rare historic variety was acquired by SSE member William Woys Weaver while traveling in Alsace, France.
‘Whitesitt Family Baby’ Lima Bean: This exceptionally versatile heirloom pole lima bean tastes delicious just-picked or cooked. When jade-green, the limas are sweet-tasting and thin-skinned. The dry limas have a creamy texture and buttery flavor. The slightly curved pods average 2.9 inches long by 0.8 inches wide. This bean has been prized by the Whitesitt family since 1887, when the family brought it to Montana’s Bitterroot Valley from Kansas.
‘Apple’ Pepper: The broad-shouldered, conical, wildly sweet peppers of this prolific variety reach 3 inches in length and ripen to red on sturdy, 24-inch plants. SSE member Ron Thuma has faithfully grown this pepper since 1993, when he obtained the pepper from Johnny’s Selected Seeds for trial.
‘Ames Amber’ Sorghum: This sweet sorghum derives its name from Ames-based Iowa State University, where it was developed prior to 1920 for syrup production. It can also be used as an ornamental. A historic variety that grows up to 8 feet tall, it produces juicy, sweet stalks and matte-green leaves and midribs. Plants have one to two flowering stems.
‘Salvaterra’s Select’ Tomato: Winner of Seed Savers Exchange’s 2017 Tomato Tasting Contest (paste and sauce division), this tomato’s meaty texture is paired with tangy, sweet flavor to make an ideal sauce tomato. Fruits measure 2-1/2 to 3-3/4 inches. At the SSE Heritage Farm (Zone 4B), it was a bit later-maturing than other tomatoes, but it had above-average productivity. Grown by Charles Salvaterra since the early 1980s, this heirloom indeterminate tomato has been shared within the Hazelton, Pennsylvania, community since the 1950s.
‘Borries Yellow’ Watermelon: This juicy, flavorful variety ranks first with SSE’s greenhouse manager, who has sampled dozens of watermelon varieties. Acquired by Joseph Borries in about 1970, it so impressed his family that they’ve grown this heirloom variety faithfully in Illinois since that time. The oblong fruit averages 15 to 20 pounds, ripens to green with dark green stripes, and produces yellow, sweet flesh.
Seed Savers Exchange
Diane Ott Whealy and Kent Whealy founded Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) after Diane received two types of seed (‘German Pink’ tomato and ‘Grandpa Ott’s’ morning glory) from her grandfather, whose parents brought them from Bavaria in the 1870s. That simple exchange of seeds made Diane and Kent imagine all the other seed savers who might also hope to pass on the seeds of their favorite varieties. The couple started SSE in 1975 to help gardeners everywhere find, preserve and share seeds with one another. Soon after, letters with compelling stories about treasured varieties began rolling in — with the seeds to accompany them.
The organization now boasts nearly 900 acres of land for crops and gardens. In addition to the preservation garden and heirloom apple orchard, the farm is home to heritage cattle and chickens, along with several offices, a giant seed bank, outbuildings and research facilities. The SSE staff works to rediscover and document the historic and touching stories of every vegetable, herb, fruit and flower variety in the collection while ensuring seeds remain viable, healthy and pure.
There are countless ways to become involved in Seed Savers Exchange’s important work. Grow an heirloom garden of your own from the seeds they offer at the Seed Savers Exchange; become an SSE member; donate to the organization; visit the beautiful Heritage Farm in northeast Iowa; or attend one of the nonprofit’s various annual events.
Author Alicia Chilton leads the marketing, fund-raising and membership activities for Seed Savers Exchange.