Buried Secrets: Heirloom Seeds Have Centuries-Old Stories To Tell

Walk to your kitchen and find a tomato. If you don't have a tomato, a cucumber or carrot will do. Now pick it up. Lift it to your nose and give it a good sniff. Hold it up to your window and watch how the light reflects off of the tomato's rich red-orange skin, the cucumber's delicate pastel speckles. Hold it up to your ear and see if you can hear the ocean. All right, put it down, joker. You can't hear the ocean—that's a tomato. But if you pay close enough attention, it might whisper tales of Swiss mountaintops, ancient Andes terraces, and homesick families sailing across oceans with delicate seed packets in hand, desperate for a taste of home.

In commercial farming, hybridized seeds tend to bring in the big bucks. Hybrids are the result of artificial plant pollination, with the goal of producing seeds that germinate faster into plants that grow larger and withstand unstable growing conditions. Here's the problem: hybrids are genetically unstable, meaning growers have to purchase new seeds every year to ensure an edible product. And for some produce purists like Shannon McCabe, a horticulturist for Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, "edible" might be pushing it. While many commercial hybrids are selectively created for vigor or size, they're often lacking in flavor. "There's just no nuance in a grocery store tomato," McCabe tells me, laughing. "They just can't get with it. Sorry, hate to say it." Instead, she prefers the bright, acidic, endlessly nuanced flavor of heirloom tomatoes.

Unlike hybrid seeds, heirloom seeds are open pollinated, which means they're pollinated in an entirely natural way—either via insects, animals, or the wind. Occasionally, they're pollinated by hand, a gentle process that involves passing pollen from one flower to another with a paintbrush or a feather. The genetics of heirloom seeds are carefully monitored to emphasize a few things: flavor, heritage, and, most importantly, consistency. Unlike hybrids, which aren't genetically stable, heirlooms produce the same "genetically pure" product again and again. Like folktales passed down through generations, heirlooms are seeds with stories to tell.

Take the Gniff carrot, an eye-catching lavender carrot with a bright yellow center. McCabe tells me that the Gniff originated in the picturesque Alpine village of Bre, Switzerland; now, the Gniff is prized for its sweetness and attractive violet hue that stays consistent through generations of careful farming. Then there's the Jimmy Nardello chile pepper, a sweet, low-heat pepper that traveled to the United States in 1887 by way of Ellis Island, carried in Giuseppe and Angella Nardiello's luggage when they emigrated from southern Italy. McCabe also mentions the red kuri squash, otherwise known as the Hokkaido pumpkin, a delicate squash with smooth, dry flesh and a distinctive chestnut-adjacent flavor. Like the Gniff carrot and the Nardello pepper, the Hokkaido pumpkin has had quite the journey, accompanying a traveler from Fukushima, Japan, in 1933. Despite their diverse origins, the three vegetables have one thing in common: their seeds, and the fruit of those seeds, have produced exactly the same product for years. They're seeds you can count on.

While the Gniff, the Nardello, and the Hokkaido are all semi-recent heirloom varietals, seed savers around the world have preserved centuries-old seeds—many of which paint a picture of the agricultural ingenuity of indigenous people. McCabe's personal favorite is teosinte, an ancient wild corn varietal that preceded the golden stalks you might see on a road trip through the heartland. "It marvels the mind to think about the ancient Native Americans who took teosinte and turned it into the wild diversity of corn that we know today," McCabe tells me, adding that her iPhone background is a close-up of corn she snapped at an outdoor market in Cusco, Peru.

More than anything, the resilience of seeds like teosinte are a testament to sophisticated ancient agricultural practices. Take, for example, the Moray terraces, a farming area in the Andes outside Cusco that features multi-level terraces in a distinct amphitheater shape. The terraces are carved into the amphitheater at varying heights, which, researchers believe, allowed Incan farmers to test-grow seeds at different altitudes.

And while heirloom seeds can tell stories of triumph and resilience, they also spread because of violence against indigenous communities—like the Cherokee Trail of Tears Bean that indigenous peoples carried during their forced displacement. Centuries earlier, conquistadors ravaged the Americas, laying waste to local agriculture and hauling barrels of produce like squash back to Europe. Now Europeans take credit for innovative squash varietals—like the farmers in Styria, Austria, known for their so-called Lady Godiva pumpkins that are named for their naturally "naked" pumpkin seeds. But while European farmers and seed archivists can take credit for identifying the mutation that produces the naked seeds, the fact is that the region profits off of stolen goods.

Operations like Baker Creek seek to share heirloom seed varieties while giving credit where credit is due. The seed company works with a group of 200 growers across the globe, as well as several seed distributors, to source the 1,200 varieties of seeds currently in the Baker Creek catalog. McCabe tells me that new gardeners are often drawn in by heirloom seeds' rich traditions—traditions that served as inspiration during last year's COVID-19 tumult. "People like knowing where their food comes from, and we all have this common goal of protecting our health and our families right now," McCabe says. "Yes, heirloom seeds promise a quality product, but it's also really inspiring to know that you're growing something with so much history."

The numbers don't lie: in 2020, Baker Creek saw seed sales increase fivefold, largely thanks to new gardeners looking to get their hands into the dirt for the very first time. "I honestly chalked it up to time," McCabe says. "At the onset of the pandemic, people had the time on their hands, but there was also a renewed interest in growing and cooking our own food." Other seed suppliers nationwide also had historic sales last year. "The closest before COVID hit was during Y2K, and Y2K was this little blip compared to this," one seed purchaser told NPR in February. There's also the skyrocketing social media presence of gardeners like Gerald Stratford, the British veggie mastermind who's racked up nearly 300,000 Twitter followers over the course of the last year.

So, why the boom? Like McCabe mentioned, gardening may represent recommitting to homegrown health and wellness during an ongoing health crisis. For others, gardening offers a sorely needed sense of community. McCabe told me about her own community garden, which hosts growers from communities in Peru, Mexico, and Guyana, to name a few. "We share so much with each other at the community garden," she says. "Sure, we're exchanging seeds and recipes, but the exchange of cultures and ideas is definitely a big source of human connection right now."

In McCabe's experience, heirloom seeds offer all those things: a chance for people to grow their own nutrient-dense produce; the opportunity to connect with the food they eat; and, finally, a deeper understanding of the ethics of growing, as well as an opportunity to pay homage to the generations of tradition behind each seedling. To growers like McCabe, a tomato is never just a tomato: it's hundreds of years of history forever memorialized inside one tiny seed.