oldest of heirlooms in native seeds/search’s catalog and seed bank

Native Seeds/SEARCHSOME 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

Native Seeds/SEARCH conservation farm, TucsonQ. Let’s start with a brief background, Bill—and also can you explain the acronym SEARCH that’s part of Native Seeds’ name? 

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.

Chapalote corn at Native Seeds/SEARCHQ. Because of your focus, you sort of define the word “heirloom” to the extreme. Tell us about some of the oldies in your care.

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.

Glass Gem corn at Native Seeds/SEARCHQ. There was one that went viral this year, wasn’t there (to put an ancient crop in a modern perspective)? ‘Glass Gem’ corn?

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 [2013] 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.

Tepary beans at Native Seeds/SEARCHQ. What are other “signature” crops of NS/S, besides corn?

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.

Magdalena Big Cheese squash from Native Seeds/SEARCHQ. I know you have squash, too! Some very unique creatures, including one of the first unusual winter squash I ever saw, or grew. I think it was ‘Magdalena Big Cheese.’

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.

Native Seeds/SEARCH seed bankQ. Way beyond these three crops, it’s a giant list of seeds at NS/S, isn’t it?

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.

Chiltepin peppers at Native Seeds/SEARCHQ. We can’t finish our conversation without some mention of chiles!

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

Native Seeds/SEARCH 2014 catalogIBOUGHT 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.

  1. John Sayers says:

    Count me in too! We let all the old pumpkins and squash rot up by the fence under the little apple trees here in Morro Bay California. Our garden is just starting to come together after a few years of fixing up this little run down house with only a lemon tree in the yard. Can you imagine a house that after 75 years only really had one plant growing (besides the weeds). We grow and save some corn every year (colorful indian flour and popcorn varieties) and beans and peas too. I think I save too many seeds because I don’t know what to do with them. But I love doing it. This year was the first year we had good tomatoes and peppers thanks to a little greenhouse I put up in the Spring. Still have some fruiting now. Always looking for more to grow in all the nooks and crannies. Especially corn beans and squash for yummy soups in fall and winter.

  2. Brenda says:

    I have not planted the “three sisters” but my mom and I once planted tomatos some fish parts in the soil. She told me a friend of hers at work told her to do that, and we had the most amazing, giant, and tasty tomatos that year. One was as big as two fists and sweet. Wow, thanks for bringing that fun memory back to me. I live right here in Tucson, and we’re so lucky to have you here in the neighborhood. Keep up the great work.

  3. Xochitl Avitia says:

    I’m a young brown girl re learning our ways. The closest I’ve come to growing corn is my home schooled neighbors who had an amazing garden. We would plant all kinds of things including beans and squash. I loved when we let them dry out and painted on them. Now, I’m in dire need to know the roots and would love to give back to our mama by working her tender soil. Thanks for all the great info.

  4. Lisa Anderson says:

    I grew all three together including your glass gem corn and purple/white lima beans in my hoop green/shade house located in the SoCal high desert.

  5. tikaani sequoia says:

    We have yet to opportune a solar season of growth with a Three Sisters traditional planting of maize, squash, and beans and are excited to interact with such plant varieties. These plant foods are regular members with meals and gardening and currently our garden is located in the ‘used to be’ yard encompassing the cabin property. Thank you for all the vital information and offerings of plant allies. namaste

  6. Grace BlackBear says:

    We grow corn, as well as a variety of squash and beans every year in our home organic garden. These are only three of the vegetables that compliment our self sustaining diet. We much prefer knowing our food sources. Preserving the seeds whenever possible for the following year is also important. Our growing season tends to be short but we eat well, feed the animals well as well as family and friends. Wee don’t have worries over GMO’s and chemicals. We are located just south of the center of Western Wisconsin on the edge of a small town, hoping within a few years to move further out in to the country. We would be honored to have some of these seeds :)

  7. donna beaudry says:

    my grand mother taught me how to grow the three sisters as a child in upper peninsula of Michigan our growing season here in Michigan is short but to enhance growth we fertilized with the entrails of the spring smelt we would catch in early spring just after snow was melted away. the heat from the rotting fish planted with the sisters would not only nourish the plant but keep the ground around the seed warm. we often planted three weeks after the snows were gone and ground was workable. our family garden was my grandmothers pride and fed not only our family but several other families due to canning and freezing of the many vegetables we planted.

  8. Kirstin Stopen says:

    I have grown three sisters a number of times. In WNY, Wisconsin and most recently central Oregon. The most recent attempts were the most successful. I find planting 3 corn plants in the same hole works well. Space plants a foot apart. Alternate plants in rows, squash squash corn squash squash corn. Plant beans around corn plants. Bless everyones 2014 gardens!!

  9. Linda says:

    I have grown “3 Sisters” nearly every year for the past 20, but have never grown the Magdalena squash or Glass Gem corn…..usually a variety of short season organic sweet corn, and zucchinis or pumpkins along with Rattlesnake beans or a variety of Scarlet Runner…..They do well in Western Colorado….Thanks! Would love to try these varieties…..Love what you do!

  10. shiner says:

    I ahve tried growing the Three Sisters, which make an incredible soup when combined. The corn was not very successful, only 2 ears in my Asheville NC garden. We do not receive full sun, but I did plant in my sunniest area.
    Trying a more adapable seed is an exciting thought!

  11. celestina says:

    My nana use to grow these when I was little. I was so fascinated at it cuz its so beautiful. I found some of these
    on amazon . Sold out so fast. Would LOVE to win these. Id grow them n make my blessing baskets ..

  12. Becky says:

    I tried the 3 sisters last summer here in Ohio. The weather here was less than desirable, we had too much rain and it was a challenge to grow anything in the squash family. The beans and corn did fine tho. My garden is located in the city of Akron.

  13. Leslie says:

    I like to plant variations on the Three Sisters theme. My garden is very near to a field that rotates between gmo corn and soybeans, so during the corn years, I plant other crops if I want to save corn seeds.This past year, I had a circle of Titan sunflowers, red yard long beans, and Heart of Gold canteloupe. Another circle was planted with sweet corn, scarlet runner beans, and Pennsylvania Dutch Crookneck winter squash. Last year, broom corn took the tall spot in one of the circles, and cucumbers the sprawling role. Not sure what they will be composed of this coming season. I am growing in southern Minnesota, zone 4b.

  14. Kathy Thomas says:

    I’ve been gardening for close to 60 years, but I’m not familiar with the Three Sisters planting, I’ll have to try it this year and hope the deer and/or raccoons don’t get it, lol. I have planted squash with corn, but gave up on corn when the raccoons destroyed it. I’ve also had deer raid my squash vines. We have 4 acres in western Iowa, and I try to plant a large garden if the weather cooperates.

  15. Megan says:

    I live in an area that has hot and dry summers and we have a limited amount of water. Drought resistant varieties would be much appreciated!

  16. Marie says:

    Count me in! I have grown the three sisters in various places all over Southern and Southwestern Colorado. They are a staple for our family, both spiritually and food-wise. I come from Anasazi [I know that label is a misnomer] Bean country, and continue to enjoy the pinto bean category. Of course, Three Sisters are enhanced greatly by a good heirloom Chile crop!

  17. Carol says:

    When my children were younger, we used to grow corn and beans and squash and everything else, but then we stopped as they got older and I didn’t start again until I retired a few years ago. Now I plant only heirloom and compost and use no pesticides, but I try to do as much companion planting as I can. The three sisters method is such a fantastic idea, but the first year I tried it, I did it wrong and put all three seeds into the same hole. The corn stalks only got about two feet tall and the squash sprouted and didn’t get past a few inches. However the beans took over and fed us almost all summer. I have been trying to do it right for the past two years and have had some success. The corn does very well and the squash does too, but the beans haven’t done as well. I used to think that the beans didn’t need to have good soil since they add their own nitrogen, but I’ve learned now that they also need good soil to start with. This year I hope to grow the three sisters successfully. Besides compost, I will also try using dried seaweed and some fish emulsion in the soil. I’d love to win this contest since these are the seeds I want to grow as well as some good chiles.
    I forgot to mention I’m in Southern California near the ocean where the climate is dry and sunny. I’ve grown the three sisters for the past three seasons although the first time I did almost everything wrong. Each year I’ve gotten better results and would love to try the glass gem corn and Magdalena big cheese squash this year with some good pole beans. My garden is in the front yard because there is more sun and more space and I’m across the street from a high school where people really keep track of what I am growing each year. I grow sunflowers for the wild parrots and lots of heirloom tomatoes and sweet to hot chiles. Everything is heirloom and open pollenated and I never use pesticides. I also save and share seeds and would share some seeds with the school garden if I win the contest.

  18. Lisa D. says:

    Yes! My grandmother taught me. Corn, squash, beans and the occasional pumpkin. I`ve never done well with the pumpkins, however.
    I actually started heirloom gardening without being aware of it. My grandmother started me with seeds, cuttings and rootings from her gardens. Heirloom flowers were first and then came tomatoes. The deer and raccoons love me and the squirrels too! We live in the Southeast and have a great growing season. Would love to learn more.

  19. Donna Wood says:

    Count me in, I grew up with a family garden and canning. This year I have started canning again and putting up the produce in our garden. It is great using my canned food too.

  20. Rita Foust says:

    yes, we have tried all three sisters arrangement in the past. We had them out in our field area and the squash did not do too well, it was not a really big success. That won’t stop us from trying it again though. We already have the gym Korn because we ordered that from native seeds search when it first came in from backorder. Corn is a regular crop for us.

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