Seeds With Deep Roots: Heirloom seeds keep alive memories of people and place

illustration by Kirsten Harper

by William Woys Weavers

As far back as I can remember, I have always been surrounded by seeds. During my preschool years, I farmed with my grandparents, and it was my Grandfather Weaver, with his acre or so kitchen garden in West Chester, who raised me at his knee.

My grandfather ran an accounting business, but his heart was in plants. He started collecting seeds in the early 1930s from relatives in Lancaster County where he was born. Before long, his entire property had become a botanical showplace, with fruit trees, bee hives, a pigeon house for racing pigeons (which provided manure for the gardens) and all sorts of wonderful things no one sees today, like Pineapple Rhubarb with yellow stems.

Armed with my own little wheel barrow, hoe and shovel, I helped in the garden, and I suppose by osmosis I absorbed a lot of what my grandfather was doing. One of his garden buddies was renowned folk painter Horace Pippin, who also lived in West Chester. Pippin would visit the garden and my grandfather’s bees in order to get stung, a remedy that seemed to give him relief for an old war injury. My grandfather was not too happy about sacrificing his rare bees in this way, so to make up for it Pippin brought him seeds. As it turned out, these friendly bribes represented some of the rarest African-American heirlooms available then, including the Fish Pepper, now found in many seed catalogs.

My grandfather died in 1956 and his seed collection was forgotten. Twelve years later, my grandmother and I were cleaning out the old freezer in the cellar, and there they were, safely stored in air-tight baby food jars. Those tiny jars reminded me of so many wonderful things from his magical garden, I took up the challenge to see what could be salvaged.

The freeze had helped preserve the seeds. I lost some, but I managed to bring many of the best back to life. My fits and starts at seed saving became more serious in the 1970s, as I realized  not everyone had grandparents with gardens full of heirlooms. I began retracing my grandfather’s steps, contacting elderly cousins who still had gardens, seeds, and most importantly, the stories to go with them. By the end of the 1970s, when I moved the entire garden to Devon, I had acquired several thousand heirlooms, many more than my grandfather’s core collection.

I have always been interested in the vast riches of our tri-state region, and I suppose I have always favored heirloom seeds from this area, especially the Native American varieties. Having evolved here, these seeds do much better here than, say, desert heirlooms from the Southwest. They have provided me with the wonderful genetic material to continue breeding where my grandfather left off. “Bred and grown in Pennsylvania” has become one of my mottos.

The future of the seed collection I have assembled over the years, what I now call the “Roughwood Seed Collection,” is not clear. The Keystone Center for the Study of Regional Foods, which I am setting up this year to promote foods from our tri-state area, will fill a long-needed role in supplying seeds and offering workshops on regional foods and heirloom gardening. I am hoping it can also take on that part of the Roughwood Seed Collection devoted to our regional heirlooms.

The first step in this realization will be the groundbreaking this spring on a fully operational 1860s Pennsylvania Dutch kitchen garden at Kutztown University. Hopefully, it will become a launching pad for more serious work on our seed heritage, and a source of locally originated heirlooms for kitchen gardeners across the region. Because we don’t grow heirlooms just for nostalgia; we grow them to eat.

If you’re interested in cooking with heirlooms, try the recipes in William Woys Weaver’s newest book, As American as Shoofly Pie: The Foodlore and Fakelore of Pennsylvania Dutch Cuisine (April 2013, University of Pennsylvania Press).

Each month, Dispatch features personal reflections on adventures in sustainability. Have a story you’d like to share? E-mail getinvolved@gridphilly.com