Posted on 14 Comments

Don’t Be Ordinary: Grow Seeds with a Story

I’d been growing Farnsworth’s jewel flower (Streptanthus farnsworthianus) for several years before learning about the person behind the plant. While doing some research about botanical names on California Plant Names: Latin and Greek Derivations and Meanings, I discovered that “farnsworthianus” refers to Evalyn Lucille Klein Farnsworth, a California rancher and naturalist. There’s more to her story (and many others) on the site, which is, by the way, safe to visit even if your browser says it is not secure.

Several years ago, I posted the first installments of the “Don’t Be Ordinary” series—Explore Intriguing Alternatives , Consider the Source, and Eight Utterly Un-Ordinary Gems—to highlight some of the many ways that growing plants from seed can make your garden unique. Since spring arrived too late for this month’s Bloom Day, and the next is nearly a month away, this is a perfect opportunity to pick another topic. Let’s consider the ways seeds, and the plants they produce, can link us to other times, places, and people through the stories connected with them.

I think most gardeners have heard of Gertrude Jekyll, the English artist, writer, plantswoman, and landscape architect.  Among her many accomplishments was breeding and selecting a number of plants, including this beautiful strain of Nigella damascena: ‘Miss Jekyll’ love-in-a-mist.

Preserving the Past

To a certain extent, all seeds come with a backstory. Even mass-produced, commercial seed varieties each have a history, though the specifics of the parentage, the thrill of the find, and any personal significance of the chosen name are mostly relegated to the hybridizer’s notebook, a patent application, or a passing mention in a trade publication and never known to the gardeners who grow them.

‘Bill Archer’ borage (Borago officinalis)—a variably variegated seed strain—commemorates the British alpine gardener Bill Archer.

For really good seed stories—ones with humor, drama, intrigue, romance, or just quiet charm—heirloom seeds are the place to look. Like a long-preserved piece of artwork or a cherished piece of handmade furniture, heirloom seeds have a life long beyond the person or people who originally shaped them. When we grow them today, their stories connect us with other gardeners: their originators as well as the often-unnamed stewards who acquired the seeds, grew them out, collected them, and passed them along so we could enjoy them too. While the seeds themselves have value for the beauty or bounty they can produce, the history that comes along with them makes growing them a much richer experience.

‘Fort Portal Jade’, an heirloom pole bean variety, has long been grown in Uganda. It was brought back to the US by plant explorer Joseph Simcox, who originally acquired it in a market in the Ugandan city known as Fort Portal.

If you want to dip into great seed stories, look no further than the bean offerings of almost any small seed company. Bean seeds are easy to grow and to collect, and their qualities are diverse, making them good candidates for saving and sharing. (According to “Place-Based Food of Appalachia,” there are over 460 heirloom bean varieties known from the upland South, many times more than any other vegetable!)  When gardeners before us grew them in different climates and conditions, for different purposes, they selected those that worked out best for their needs. As those seeds got passed along to friends and relatives, the names of the gardeners who first cherished them often traveled along with them, so many heirloom beans are associated with personal or family names.

‘Flossie Powell’, an Appalachian heirloom pole lima bean variety

Two favorites that I’ve acquired over the years include ‘Flossie Powell’, a speckled lima or butterbean from Kentucky, and ‘Nonna Agnes’ Blue’, a pole bean with seeds that are a murky gray to brown in summer but a gorgeous, jewel-like blue when ripened in cool temperatures, eventually drying to a deep blue.

Color variation in the dry seeds of ‘Nonna Agnes’ Blue’ pole bean (Phaseolus vulgaris), a quaintly named heirloom more accurately known for its origin in San Bernardo, Italy

As an interesting side note, the Experimental Farm Network has decided that ‘San Bernardo Blue’ is a more accurate name for this strain, since it apparently originated in that town in northern Italy. The more widely known name, they say, comes from an American who named it after his grandmother. I appreciate their effort to be precise but can’t help but think that ‘Nonna Agnes’ Blue’ is a bit more charming, somehow. It’s not unusual for heirloom varieties to acquire a number of different names as they get passed from person to person: the horticultural equivalent of “whisper down the lane.” That just adds interest to their stories, I think.

‘Borlotto di Nova Ponente’, another pole bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) variety that came to me in a trade with an Italian bean collector. I don’t know much of its history beyond that, except that it likely hails from Nova Ponente in northern Italy. It must have another name there.

Speaking of place names…though they make for rather prosaic monikers when attached to seeds, they do give you a clue to their origin stories. I grow another lima bean called ‘Alma’s PA Dutch Purple Burgundy’, which tells of a person as well as a place. Sadly, the exact identity of Alma is apparently lost, but knowing its history in Pennsylvania Dutch country, not far from where I live, makes it special to me.

‘Alma’s PA Dutch Purple Burgundy’ lima bean (Phaseolus lunatus), a beautiful Pennsylvania heirloom

There’s little information published about it, but I was able to track down the now-closed website of Amishland Seeds, my original source, through the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. I’ve copied the description of this heirloom variety from the December 2004 version of the site, which seems to be the first time it appeared, so it’s more easily accessible to anyone looking for it now: “This Lima is small and very dark burgundy purple and has a terrific yummy flavor. Very rare heirloom variety. My seeds are from my 87 year old Pennsylvania Dutch friend, Eva, whose family has grown these same lima beans on her farm for 5 generations. Long vines and very prolific. This season they “attacked” my 7 foot Butterfly bush and grew all over it! For those of you in colder regions who thought you couldn’t grow lima beans, these may be worth a try, they kept pumping out until hard frost!”

‘New Hanover’ ground cherry (Physalis), a southeastern Pennsylvania heirloom

The origin of ‘New Hanover’ ground cherry (Physalis) is even closer to me: just 10 miles or so away, in New Hanover, PA. I wasn’t even thinking of the local connection when I first tried it, simply hoping to find a ground cherry strain that I liked. Now, I wouldn’t be without it (even if I wanted to, probably, because it likes to self-sow if you miss harvesting some of the fruits).

‘Axminster Streaked’ balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus), a seed strain named by nurserywoman Lynda Windsor, who lived near Axminster in the UK

Another place-based seed I treasure is ‘Axminster Streaked’ balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus). Though it originated far from here, it grows happily in my garden. You can read its backstory in an old issue of Plants magazine: “New Platycodon and New Viola” by Lynda Windsor. I acquired the seeds through a seed exchange back in 2008 and have done my best to get the seeds into the hands of other gardeners. I’ve been trying to get some other seed companies to pick it up, in the hope that it won’t get lost if I’m no longer selling it someday.

This strain of jewels-of-Opar (Talinum paniculatum) is often sold under the name ‘Kingswood Gold’, but that spelling is wrong. It was discovered at Kingwood Center Gardens in Mansfield, Ohio, so ‘Kingwood Gold’ is correct.

Sometimes, the history behind a seed isn’t immediately evident from the name, but rather something you run across while reading or researching. If you have any interest at all in learning more about the origins of intriguing heirlooms, look for writings by William Woys Weaver in books, magazines, and seed catalogs—such as this piece he wrote for Mother Earth Gardener: “The ‘Fish’ Pepper: A Vivid History”—to get the full scoop, not just the snippets that often get copied (or mis-copied) from one catalog or article to another. Imagine being able to share that story with garden visitors or dinner guests as they enjoy the ‘Fish’ peppers you’ve grown!

‘Fish’ peppers (Capsicum annuum) in various stages of ripening

Telling Your Own Story

It’s not always about telling someone else’s story, of course. Every heirloom variety has to start somewhere, with someone who appreciates what makes it special, and that someone could be any of us. If you’re raising plants from seed—particularly open-pollinated (non-hybridized) kinds—there’s always the potential to come up with something new. Maybe you’ve been growing and saving seed from favorite zinnia or tomato for many years and have noticed it’s now a bit, or a lot, different than what you started with. You could choose a name, share the seeds with friends, and be part of that variety’s backstory.

‘Keith’s Ailsa Gold Leaf’ tomato (Solanum lycopersicum): colorful and tremendously productive too!

One of my new favorite seed strains came to me from a customer who had been growing ‘Ailsa Craig’ tomato for years, then noticed a yellow-leaved seedling among the green ones and kept saving seed from that special one. Last year, when I grew out the seeds he shared with me, I agreed that it was something special and needed to be shared. With his permission, I gave it the name ‘Keith’s Ailsa Gold Leaf’ to commemorate the grower, connect with the original strain, and describe its special feature.

‘Peridot’ jewelweed (Impatiens capensis): a strain of our native species with chartreuse foliage

A special seed gift shared by another customer—a version of our native jewelweed or spotted touch-me-not (Impatiens capensis) with bright yellow-green foliage—also came to me without a name. I thought of it as ‘Joel’s Gold’ all last year, but when I asked him if he had an idea for the name, he suggested ‘Peridot’, after the yellowish green gemstone: a clever connection to the name jewelweed.

‘Mega Punk’ spike celosia (Celosia argentea var. spicata): a Hayefield original

Back when I started the gardens here at Hayefield, I happened to be growing two kinds of celosia (Celosia argentea) close to each other: ‘Punky Red’, with purplish red spikes and green leaves, and ‘Wine Sparkler’ (or ‘Sparkler Wine’), with deep red plumes and red-tinged leaves. In following years, the seedlings that popped up in that area had a mix of traits from each: deep magenta-red spikes and red-tinged leaves on plants that got significantly larger than ‘Punky Red’. I ended up calling it ‘Mega Punk’, just to be silly, and have shared and sold it since then. Just last year, it got picked up by Select Seeds. If I had ever known it might reach the big time, I’d have tried to come up with a better name, But hey, fun names are okay too.

‘Hayefield Green’ flowering tobacco, a selection of Nicotiana mutabilis

Now that I’m selling seeds myself, I’ve been choosing more straightforward names for the special strains that pop up here. A couple of summers ago, for instance, my patch of Nicotiana mutablilis—a species with white flowers that age to bright pink—produced one plant that had yellow-green new blooms that aged to a really pretty rosy pink. As soon as I noticed them, I cut down all of the typical plants to leave just that one, and I later collected seeds from it. Since then, the seeds it produced have come true (in other words, have reproduced the green-to-rosy-pink trait), so I named the strain ‘Hayefield Green’ and grow it in a separate area to keep it distinct.

Isn’t it thrilling to think that every new batch of seedlings brings the possibility of something unexpected showing up? You rarely have that happen when you’re buying vegetatively propagated, named cultivars. Uniformity is a fine thing if you’re planning a formal garden to create a specific aesthetic effect, but you lose the potential of a delightful surprise that way.

Of course, seeds can have stories that are special only to you: to start with, at least. Maybe they came to you years ago from a now-passed friend, and you think of that person fondly each time you see their favorite flower pop up in your plantings. Or perhaps you brought seeds home from a trip abroad, or a distant garden tour, and their presence reminds you of good memories from your travels.

This charming, multicolored marigold (Tagetes patula) came to me with the tale that someone had brought it to the US, hidden in a sock, on a visit from the European country of Moldova. It seemed different from other marigold strains, so I gave it the amazingly creative name of ‘Moldova’ to preserve the memory of its heritage.

Or, maybe there’s something about that them that makes you smile, even if no one else gets your sense of humor. (As a Monty Python fan, I can’t resist breaking into song when I see my lupine seedlings come into bloom. If you’ve somehow made it this far in life without ever hearing the tale of Dennis Moore the Lupine Bandit, you can watch it here: Dennis Moore. “Your life or your lupines!” ::snicker::)

Besides the Monty Python connection I make with lupines in general, this one is special to me for another reason. The seed was shared with me as “Lupine from Prince Edward Island,” a location well known to anyone who adores Anne Of Green Gables and other books by Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery.

There’s always room in any bed or border for another story, whether it’s part of our shared lore or simply a private joke no one else may ever know. When you grow from seed, you’re not just adding plants: You’re adding to the unique tale your garden can tell.

I’ll leave you with one last storied seed: this exquisite white mullein (Verbascum) that came to me over a decade ago as a gift from a blog reader in Vermont. The packet was labeled ‘Governor George Aiken’, a name that didn’t mean anything at the time, so I had to do a bit of digging. It turns out that George Aiken was indeed a governor of Vermont (1937-1941), and a seven-term US senator, too, but I imagine the reason someone chose to memorialize him with this beautiful thing was a nod to Aiken’s lifelong love of plants and his accomplishments in land conservation. I found this document that tells of his legacy in much more detail: “A Garden in the Woods: Preserving Senator George Aiken’s Pioneering Wildflower Heritage.” Knowing about his many years as a nurseryman and his dedicated efforts to protect wildflowers makes me proud to have him in my garden.
Posted on 14 Comments

14 thoughts on “Don’t Be Ordinary: Grow Seeds with a Story

  1. Oh Nan, I always love your posts, but this really made my morning. I’ve published on plant naming practices on the academic side, but the stories you shared here absolutely delighted me. Thanks for a fantastic combo of history, gardening, and always stellar writing. So glad I have those Farnsworth’s jewel flower seeds from you! This makes them even more special.

    Good morning to you, Gabrielle! I’m so happy to hear that you enjoyed the post; it was fun to put together. Don’t forget to thank Evalyn for finding her exquisite jewel flower!

  2. Just took a quick scan of your post and can’t wait to sit down and spend some time with it! I love this kind of info (seeds/plants with a story). I already know that I’ll need to order more seeds from you based on this article. :-) Have a great spring, Nan!

    Thanks for the visit, Sue. I hope all of the goodies from your last order are performing well. Happy spring to you too!

    1. Time will tell (since my order was from late December ’22 so haven’t sowed most of them yet) but I’m sure they’ll do well. All of the seeds I’ve received from you over the years have performed well.

  3. Always a special treat to hear from you & your gardens. Thanks for keeping in touch. So excited to get things started this year. I’ve gotten some real gems from you. Happy Gardening!

    Hi Rebecca! Yes, it’s a thrilling time of year, watching all of the action in the seed pots and cheering on the little sprouts. Enjoy!

  4. What a lovely surprise to find Hayefield in my inbox this morning and it’s all about seeds. On my way home from breakfast I stopped at Ace Hardware for a light bulb, but it was out of stock. Instead, I picked up a packet of Arugula seeds, probably not heirloom, but I hope for a good crop of the leafy herb (from Renee’s Garden). It’s good to know that seeds are being saved and shared and that Burpee does not have a complete monoply!

    Good morning, Mrs. Colliver! Thinking about seeds seems a good way to get through this drippy, dreary, not-very-spring-like day. I don’t imagine the arugula seeds will help shed any light on your life, but you’ll have something tasty to eat, anyway. :)

  5. I love the histories behind heirloom seeds. Dee Nash and I have been reading The Seed Detective: Uncovering the Secret Histories of Remarkable Vegetables, by Adam Alexander to talk about on our podcast episode next week. Your post will tie in nicely! Thanks for sharing all the history!

    How fun, Carol! Learning about seed histories never gets old. Sharing the stories as well as the seeds helps to keep both alive.

  6. Loved this post Nan!!! Thank you for taking the time to educate and enlighten us on the history behind these seed names – very interesting!!

    Hey there, Gayle. Happy to hear that you enjoyed the post. I hope your spring is going well!

  7. I just love to read your blogs and enjoy the pictures that go with it, Nan–so interesting and informative!! I love the Axminster streaked balloon flower and the Kingwood Gold Jewel of Opar I grew from your seeds. This year I’m starting the Pimpinellea rosea seeds from you with the winter sowing method–so exciting!!! It’a a good thing we’re not neighbors–I’d want to be exploring your garden all the time, and asking you a million questions!! :)

    Great to hear from you, Kathy! That’s good news about the ‘Axminster Streaked’ and ‘Kingwood Gold’. I hope the Pimpinella sprouts well for you. Some of my winter-sowed seeds were starting to pop when we had that warm spell a few weeks ago, but the action has slowed dramatically since it got chillier. I’ve been wondering if we even got enough cold this winter for the seeds that need it, so maybe this additional cold is a good thing.

  8. This was a delightful read! I too love the stories that come with the seeds and appreciate the heritage that I am holding in my hands when I hold my seeds. Thanks for this article.

    Hi Stacey! It’s kind of an added responsibility, isn’t it, knowing how precious some of these seeds are? All the more reason to share them when we have success. Best of luck with your sprouting projects this spring!

  9. This is a great piece of writing! It makes me want to start more plants from seed, even though I get too busy in May to take care of them properly.

    Thank you, Kathy, so much! You certainly do your part in plant sharing.

  10. Hi Nan,
    I am glad that you kept the marigold seeds that I sent you thriving in your garden. The person that gave them was actually from Moldova and was living in the states for awhile but went back to live there. With the uncertainty in that region, she is now back in the states. I was hoping for some more, maybe different seeds, but no luck.

    Hi Paula! Yes, your seeds were a gift that keeps on giving. I appreciate the correction on their backstory; I will change that in the text. Happy spring to you, and to your friend as well.

  11. Dear Nan,
    What a wonderful post to read. I just potted up the Streptanthus farnswothianus that I purchased from you and am so excited to watch them grow on. It really is a joy to read the stories behind the seeds and honor all the hard work that went into growing the plants and harvesting the seed that you and all small seed growers do. Thank you!

    Thank *you*, Judy, for reading, and for the good news about the jewel flower. It’s always a surprise (to me, at least) how different the seedlings look from the flowering-stage plants.

  12. Nan, as always a wonderful post of plants and seed information@! I loved reading all the plant connections to places, people and special friends. A lot of my flowers are connected to people and friends and warm my heart as they evoke memories. A couple of years ago I got some Moldova seeds from you and ran across the pack with a few seeds left that I just planted with a wish🙂.
    I hope that you are well and I’m delighted that your “Mega Punk” seeds were picked up by Select seeds!
    Warm wishes always and happy growing season.

    I’m so happy to hear from you, Jean. The seeds you have shared with me are also part of my garden’s stories. I hope the ‘Moldova’ seeds cooperate. I’ve had good luck with them sprouting even after 3 years!

  13. Lovely! There aren’t many ways we can hear a story, engage personally with it, and in doing so, write ourselves into the story. It all comes down to seeds.

    That’s a great way to say it, Mike! You’re now part of my garden’s story too, with all of the seeds you shared. They are already doing you proud: I have loads of the Polemonium caeruleum subsp. himalayanum, and the Ptelea trifoliata, Cotoneaster hupehensis, and Arisaema consanguineum are starting to sprout already. I shared some of the seeds with other people too, so your generosity has spread good feelings far and wide.

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