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Travel & Culture

Preserving Culture Through Seeds

human factor

Every plant begins as a seed, and within every seed is the potential to blossom into life.  But in order for those seeds to become what is written in their DNA, they require the right conditions – soil, water, sun, and in the case of many of the foods we eat, humans.

Without the human factor we wouldn’t have most of the food-bearing plants that we enjoy today. Mankind has spent millennia domesticating edible plants to not only be more palatable, but to also thrive and produce maximum yields to support growing populations. According to Tom Standage’s An Edible History of Humanity, a great example of humans intervening with naturally occurring plants is maize, also known as corn.  Maize is a result of humans propagating a plant over several generations until a series of random genetic mutations led to a crop that was viable.

But there’s a symbiotic relationship between people and food.   Humans may have played a major role in shaping food, but food has also shaped us, and in many ways, it serves as a foundational pillar on which culture is built.  The foods we eat – the ingredients we use and how we prepare them – are an expression of the lands from which we come and the deep roots we established in those places.

Seeds carry genetic information, but they also carry the stories of the people who cultivate them, their resilience, and how they’ve adapted to their environments.  As long as there is a seed, the stories of these cultures can continue to be told.

But as our relationship with food has changed over the centuries, so has our relationship with seeds, putting a lot of heritage seeds at risk of being lost. “This globalized food system means everyone is losing their cultural seeds across the board because of this move away from the land,” says Owen Taylor. “But this is especially true in communities where land is totally inaccessible and healthy food is hard to get.”  Taylor is a seed keeper and farmer at Truelove Seeds in Philadelphia which offers culturally significant vegetable, herb and flower seeds. Truelove Seeds gives home gardeners a chance to engage with food in a more meaningful way, contextualizing a deeper conversation around food sovereignty, cultural preservation and sustainable agriculture.

Their catalogue, for example, includes Ají Amarillo (a Peruvian chile peppers native to the Andes) and Froncois Syrian Molokhai (an essential taste in some Middle Eastern cuisines).  A particularly special seed with a story rooted in the Philadelphia region is the Hannah Freeman Bean, a recovered bean from the garden of Hannah Freeman, a Lenni-Lenape woman who lived in the area from 1730 – 1802.  It is said that Freeman was the last surviving Lenni-Lenape in Chester County, Pennsylvania.

Returning the Seeds to their People

“Saving culturally important seeds and keeping them in the community means a whole other level of self-reliance, but also this connection to where we come from,” says Taylor.  “Connection to the land, connection to our ancestors — there’s power in that.  There’s power in having a story and holding onto it and being able to pass that onto the next generation.”

For many, the American story is one of migration – immigrants and refugees traveling across the globe to settle on a new continent, Native Americans being displaced from their lands, and the African Diaspora, to name a few – and in that migration, a deep connection to culture is at risk of being lost.  One way to stay connected to our roots is through food.  But for some, the culturally relevant ingredients required for staple meals can be hard to come by and access to these ingredients can be difficult to gain.  “We always talk about access to healthy food, and affordable food, and culturally appropriate food, but a lot of times we didn’t focus on the culturally appropriate part,” says Owen Taylor, reflecting on how his career path in food justice and food sovereignty led him to seed keeping.  “And I saw seed keeping as a way to do this.”

"One way to stay connected to our roots is through food."

Rematriation, the concept of returning seeds to their communities of origin, is at the heart of Truelove Seeds’ mission.  The work in connecting people to their culturally relevant seeds begins with a collective of 20+ small-scale urban and rural farms up and down the East Coast.  Participating farmers and gardeners, who represent a multitude of cultural backgrounds including immigrants, refugees, indigenous communities and people of color, grow an ancestral crop and sell the seeds through Truelove Seeds.  Half of the profit from seed sales goes back to these farms, allowing them to finance other food sovereignty projects.  In addition to earning extra income, selling seeds gives these farmers and gardeners a chance to preserve and share their personal stories and their culture.  It also gives them the opportunity to return these seeds to the people to whom they belong. 

“A lot of people ended up in this country not by their own choice.  So finding a seed for a food that is so essential to their cuisine – one that they would normally have to buy frozen or dried in a specialty shop in a city – they can now grow it themselves,” says Taylor.  “We’ve been able to find these seeds through our network and to have the people who love them so much grow them and share them broadly amplifies the ability to get those varieties out there.”

To deepen the impact of their rematriation efforts, Truelove Seeds will return, free of charge, ancestral seeds back to communities who have lost them through removal from their land or other traumatic events such as slavery, war and genocide.  Similar to how museums will return artifacts back to their original people, Taylor and his team will return heritage seeds back to those who need them most – back to their original keepers, many of whom see these important varieties as living relatives.

Taylor says the work helps him gain a deeper understanding of who we are, how we got here and what we lost in the process of assimilating.  Researching and collecting seeds has also helped him personally reconnect with his heritage and his familial stories.  “I didn’t grow up with a feeling of connection to the people I come from.  I knew we were Italian, Irish and English, but there wasn’t a part of that in our everyday experience,” says Taylor.  “Recovering and reclaiming has been an awesome experience to combat that feeling of growing up and not having a culture.”

These seed stories carry on outside of the farm on Taylor’s podcast “Seeds and Their People.” Taylor is joined by his partner Chris Bolden-Newsom of the Sankofa Community Farm at Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia, one of Truelove Seeds partner farms. Together they explore the significance of ancestral seeds and the nuances of how they are used throughout time and throughout cultures. The third episode features Ira Wallace, one of the driving forces behind Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and the founder of the Heritage Harvest Festival which is held every fall at Monticello.  On the show she shares her life experiences with collards and roselles, two important foods from the African Diaspora. 

Before starting Truelove Seeds, Taylor worked for another seed keeping organization called The Roughwood Seed Collection, Pennsylvania’s oldest private seed collection.  This is where Taylor’s deeper appreciation for seeds began.  “It felt like a living museum,” says Taylor.  “It made me think of seeds as living, breathing cultural family members instead of disembodied specimens.”  (It’s worth nothing that Truelove Seeds offers seeds from the Roughwood Seed Collection. These seeds are part of Taylor’s personal collection from the time he spent working with Roughwood.)

The Roughwood Seed Collection was started in 1932 by H. Ralph Weaver.  Years after Weaver’s passing, his grandson, Dr. William Woys Weaver found the seed collection at the bottom of his grandmother’s deep freezer.  Luckily, many of the seeds were still viable and Weaver was able to cultivate them.  He decided to continue his grandfather’s work in seed keeping, moving the collection in 1979 to Devon, Pennsylvania.  He named it Roughwood after the Victorian house where the collection is still kept today.  Dr. Weaver is now the Curator Emeritus of the Roughwood Seed Collection.

Since taking over his grandfather’s seed collection, Dr. Weaver has expanded Roughwood’s catalogue to over 7,000 varieties, many of which are seeds from around the world, as well as those that are historically significant.  Among the collection is the chapalote, a kind of corn that can be popped while still on the cob.  Dating back over 4,000 years, the chapalote is considered one of the oldest corn varieties grown in North America.

“Our whole idea is heritage foods through heritage seeds,” says Dr. Weaver.  In addition to being Roughwood Seed Collection’s Curator Emeritus, Dr. Weaver is a food writer and ethnographer whose research and writing focuses on connecting food to its history.  His approach to the seed collection is a holistic one educating home growers throughout the seed’s entire journey.  The organization serves as a resource on not just the cultural significance of these seeds but also teaches gardeners how to best use these ingredients in the kitchen after harvest.  Dr. Weaver has published a multitude of books on growing, preserving and cooking heritage foods such as 100 Vegetables and Where They Came From, and The Roughwood Book of Pickling.  “We’re about the culture of food and that can reconnect you to your roots,” says Dr. Weaver.  Like Truelove Seeds, Roughwood Seed Collection also focuses on rematriation and will return seeds, free of charge, back to the communities to which they belong.

Heirloom varieties open up the door to culinary possibilities that cannot be achieved with conventional produce available at a general grocery store.  The flavors, textures and composition of these foods is unique and a great way to utilize them is through preparing them in the ways they were intended.  “If you want an authentic Philadelphia pepper pot soup, you have to have the authentic peppers that were used to make it,” says Dr. Weaver.

People go to heritage seed companies like Roughwood Seed Collection and Truelove Seeds because, as both Dr. Weaver and Taylor mentioned, “people are hungry for this kind of connection.”  In addition to the cultural connection, people who are interested in growing heirloom gardens understand that this kind of seed keeping is an artform. “We have an extraordinarily high level of seed purity.  This is an artisanal seed collection,” says Dr. Weaver.  “They’re coming to us because they want higher quality seeds with better germination rates.” 

To keep the plants as true to the original ancestral varieties as possible, seed keepers have to prevent unwanted cross pollination.  In the description of every seed offered on Truelove Seeds’ website there are seed keeping notes that instruct growers not only how to harvest seeds but also how to keep the seeds as pure as possible.  For the White Velvet Okra, an endangered heirloom and important part of Southern foodways for over 100 years, seed keepers are instructed to keep their okra isolated from other varieties by at least 1/8th of a mile, and ½ mile for those who are concerned about seed purity.

People Returning to Their Seeds

Seed keeping as a means of cultural preservation wasn’t the initial intention of H. Ralph Weaver’s seed collection when he started it. The senior Weaver’s start in seed keeping was a combination of fortunate timing and necessity. “He didn’t start collecting heirloom seeds out of curiosity or historical interest,” says Dr. Weaver, “he was feeding all of our cousins who were out of work.”  When the collection started in 1932, it was the height of the Great Depression.  Weaver and his wife had just purchased a house in 1929, right before the market crash.  When economic hardships hit his family and friends, Weaver allocated some of his land to growing food to keep the community going. Collecting seeds was actually part of a genealogy project Weaver happened to be working on at the time.  While building his family tree, he would ask relatives for their seeds. 

“We’ve come full circle because we’re doing that again, but in another way,” says Dr. Weaver.  Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a run on seeds.  According to the New York Times seed companies like Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Burpee have seen increased sales since March 13th when a national emergency was declared.  It seems that during times of economic uncertainty, people tend to buy more seeds.  The same article cited that the housing crisis and market crash of 2008 led to similar seed buying behavior.  Before that, home gardening flourished during World War I and World War II when people were encouraged to plant Victory Gardens to grow their own produce to supplement their wartime rations.

There are plenty of reasons to start a home garden.  It’s a family friendly activity that many people find calming.  Plus, it is a rewarding activity where with hard work you literally reap what you sow.  However, looming food shortages and the pressure put on our food supply chains have recently motivated many people to pursue home gardening as a means of self-reliance.

"...they have to shut down the website’s ordering system for several days a week to keep up with the demand."

“This is a real shift in paradigms,” says Dr. Weaver.  Since the beginning of the pandemic, Roughwood Seed Collection has also seen an uptick in sales.  Same goes for Truelove Seeds where they have to shut down the website’s ordering system for several days a week to keep up with the demand. Due to shelter in place orders issued in Philadelphia, Taylor has had to move most of the seed operation to his house where he fills orders.

But for a profit-sharing company, where half of the profits goes back to farmers, Taylor sees this as beneficial to everyone involved. “We usually have seeds at the end of the year that didn’t find homes,” says Taylor, “but all of the seeds are flying off the shelves now, which means that they’re going to good homes where they’ll end up in the soil and feed people this year, which makes us very happy.”

Becoming Seed Keepers

As the adage says “give a man to fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”  Growing your own produce is an excellent way to feed yourself, your family and community, but you can achieve another level of self-reliance by learning to preserve your own seeds.  “I’m always trying to push people to become seed keepers,” says Taylor, “especially in such uncertain times when you don’t know what service is going to get shut down; your favorite seed company, the post office – who knows.”

If you’re one of the many who are starting or expanding your home garden this season, consider trying your hand at the art of seed keeping. “Learning how to pay attention to your plants and noticing when they’re maturing and knowing when the seeds will be ripe — this is a skill that a lot more of us need to learn to ensure that we have access to the foods we need to eat,” says Taylor. 

Preserving seeds is an act of self-preservation, both in the sense of being self-sufficient as well as ensuring a piece of your food culture survives and can be passed down through the generations.  Before seed companies, our ancestors selected the best plants and saved their seeds for the next growing season.  And those seeds would tell stories of the bountiful harvest, the foods that were enjoyed and all of the people – from the growers to the cooks – who made that food possible.  All food stories begin with a seed and though seeds carry our stories, we are the ones who carry the seeds.

Written By Kae Lani Palmisano Food Writer & TV Host Kae Lani Palmisano is the Emmy nominated host of WHYY’s Check, Please! Philly, a show exploring dining throughout Philadelphia.
Kae Lani Palmisano is the Emmy nominated host of WHYY’s Check, Please! Philly, a show exploring dining throughout Philadelphia.