SOME PEOPLE ASSERT AN HEIRLOOM VARIETY must date to pre-1951ish (around when hybrids became popular); others claim 100 years old as the cutoff. At Native Seeds/SEARCH in Tucson, Arizona—whose seed catalog includes the motto “Ancient Seeds for Modern Needs”—such heirlooms would be mere pups. Learn about some of America’s longest-cultivated seed varieties in my interview with Bill McDorman, then-executive director of Native Seeds/SEARCH, where I bought seed for my very first oddball winter squash decades ago.
Native Seeds/SEARCH (NS/S) is a different kind of seed catalog. It’s a non-profit seed bank focused on conservation, and offers many things you won’t see anywhere else–some of them varieties that have been cultivated for thousands of years by America’s native peoples. Through its traveling seed school and other efforts, NS/S serves as a model for other organizations that want to do seed stewardship.
And in a shifting climate, its collection of Desert Southwest varieties are proving to have a common trait–drought-tolerance–that looks increasingly appealing as the planet changes rapidly.
“There will be larger areas where these crops will be adapted to growing,” said Bill during our recent conversation on my radio show, which is highlighted below.
the q&a with bill mcdorman
A. The acronym in Native Seeds/SEARCH stands for the Southwest Arid Lands Research Clearinghouse.
It basically just symbolized that we were searching for what was left.
The organization got started 30 years ago, because of fears we were going to lose much of the diversity that had made up our agriculture. There was no longer a reason for people to pay attention to the small, niche varieties of things that were left growing in the Southwest for thousands of years. We were moving to big agriculture—and all we needed were the new hybrids.
A group of visionaries here said, “You know, it’s probably a good idea to scurry around and save what’s left before it all disappears.”
It was out of that thought, in the late 70s-early 80s, that we were born. [Read the whole history of NS/S. That’s part of their Conservation Farm in the landspace photos above.]
Q. Though the NS/S collection centers on the Desert Southwest, it doesn’t just appeal to Arizona gardeners, does it? I know even living in New York State, I’ve ordered to see if I can coax some of those old beauties into performing in my garden.
A. I think there’s a really important concept here that gardeners are just now starting to become familiar with, and that is:
There are differences in the amount of diversity still left in the varieties of the crops that some gardeners are growing.
So if you buy new, modern industrial hybrids, the diversity’s been bred out: They’ll be more uniform. We can predict more exactly what they are going to do in specific conditions.
And those were bred from varieties that were either landraces or had been around for awhile. If you follow it all the way back to what Native Seeds/SEARCH tapped into—which was the oldest agriculture on the continent–you start getting back into varieties that were the basis for almost everything that we grow and eat in North America, at least from the New World foods, the ones that were native here.
So the farther back you go in time, there’s probably more diversity left in those varieties. And one of the expressions of that is that it has the adaptability to grow almost anywhere.
So if you buy some of our seeds in New York, and you get them to grow and save seeds from those, you’ve adapted them to your climate. You’ve take the inherent diversity that is still in them, and you’re starting to express it in your own area.
And that’s the process that we like to promote: creating new diversity in our agriculture, instead of watching it disappear.
A. The oldest evidence of agriculture within the boundaries of the continental United State is just outside of Tucson here. It’s a more-than-4,000-year-old archaeological site.
There’s evidence of a corn there, it’s a Chapalote corn [photo above], and we have what we think are the ancestors from that corn in our collection.
Of course corn goes back between 8,000 and maybe 10,000 years south of us here in Central Mexico.
And we have over 500 varieties of corn, from 50 tribes in the Desert Southwest, and we don’t know how far they go back. As one of the tribal leaders said to me once: They don’t try to define the number of years. They just know it goes back a long, long way, and we have the children of these crops. In a sense we have inherited all the care that all those people gave to those crops, by saving them where they lived—saving the ones they liked best.
And it was that simple ritual that was ending in the late 70s. Grandparents were finding no place to pass their seeds.
Q. Five-hundred kinds of corn?
A. Yes, I think we have 564 varieties, in every color of the rainbow.
A. I’ve had personal experiences where opening up corn cobs brought tears to my eyes.
A Cherokee man spent about 20 years breeding corn for beauty. He wanted to unlock all the colors and all the beauty he could find—using traditional breeding techniques.
After 20 years he started hitting on some spectacular cobs of corn. And during those 20 years the internet was invented, and we can pass pictures around at the speed of light, so:
Ancient breeding to find new beauty meets new medium—and ‘Glass Gem’ corn [photo above] took off.
Last year  was the first time we had quantities so we could sell it, and about August we started getting photos back from people who grew it from all over the world.
Things with fluorescent green and pink in them—where did that come from? One person called it “Crayola corn.” So we had a contest, and picked the best photos to create a 2014 calendar. This has become the poster child for all those people who are worried about genetically modified crops, because this is the opposite. ‘Glass Gem’ even has a Facebook page.
A. We’ve famous for tepary beans [photo above]. They were here when the first Spanish colonists got to Arizona; the Pima Indians grew these beans in a sort of monsoonal agriculture along the rivers here.
Apparently they were wild here, but the beans were very tiny, so they just saved seeds from ones that were bigger and eventually bred this crop to be almost the size of regular beans.
They’re probably the best beans I’ve tasted for use in my soups.
A. Yes, with corn and beans, it’s part of the traditional Three Sisters of food crops. I’m curious as to which one you bought all those years ago? ‘Magdalena Big Cheese’ is one of our most popular varieties, and we’ve had it since the beginning.
A. The number of names of things you’ve never heard of before, when you first open the catalog, is amazing. We have almost 2,000 accessions in our collection. We are a world-class seed bank now, and we are charged with taking care of these things. Five years ago we completed a capital campaign, and we are now in a $1.4 million state-of-the-art facility [above, part of the storage facility].
But we can’t just put them in a freezer, and leave them forever. We have to take them out, and keep them alive. To do that we grow them out, and do very careful data collection around them. And then the surplus of those seeds from our grow-outs is what we make available in our catalog.
A. Again, they go way, way back. But at the base of it all—and many gardeners don’t know this—all chilis evolved from one plant, what we call chiltepins [above photo]. It’s a wild chili that grows wild here in Arizona. They’re tiny fruits, like little round things, and they are very hot. And they are packed with diversity.
All the different sizes and shapes and colors, and all the different ranges of heat in chili peppers that we have today all came out of this plant.
So you have tremendous power when you start growing chiltepins, to select for something that you really like.
The power to do this is what has been largely taken away from us in the 20th and early 21st century. That’s the crime. We forgot that we’re the ones who created all this food in the first place-and we still have the power to do that.
enter to win native seeds/search seeds
IBOUGHT TWO LUCKY WINNERS seed for the beautiful and delicious ‘Magdalena Big Cheese’ squash, colorful ‘Glass Gem’ corn, plus another variety of their choice from Native Seeds/SEARCH’s 2014 listings [GIVEAWAY IS NOW CLOSED]. They entered to win by answering this question in the comments box way below:
Ever grown a Three Sisters traditional planting of corn, squash and beans, and are any of those crops regular parts of your home garden? Where is that home garden located?
In my Zone 5B New York State backyard, I have only grown corn once or twice, years ago (but Susan who works with me in the garden for many years always does, so I get an ear or two!).
Two winners were chosen at random after entries closed at midnight on Tuesday, January 7, 2014.
enjoy other posts and podcasts in the seed series
MY ENTIRE SEED SERIES, a collection of ongoing interviews with organic seed farmers, breeders and sellers, is archived at this link. Travel around the nation with me in these articles and podcasts to learn about the people creating and preserving great varieties–and developing new ones–in the name of diversity.
(All photos from Native Seeds/SEARCH.)
prefer the podcast?
BILL MCDORMAN of Native Seeds/SEARCH was the guest for the December 30, 2013 edition of the radio show. You can listen anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio’s three stations on Monday at 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. It is available free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from RobinHoodRadio.com or via its RSS feed. The December 30, 2013 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marked the start of its fourth year in March, and is syndicated via PRX.