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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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).
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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::)
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.