LIKE ANY GARDENER looking ahead to another growing season, I’m deep into the seed catalogs, dreaming of things to come. But many seeds also offer us a window to look back in time by telling us their stories, which are also the stories of the people who grew them before us and the places those people and seeds have journeyed from.
I have a special affection for catalogs that celebrate seeds with such histories to share. Ujamaa Seeds, founded in 2021, is one such place and one of its founders talked to me about “seeds as vessels of cultural heritage,” as they refer to them.
A force at Ujamaa is Bonnetta Adeeb, a retired educator, president of Steam Onward, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to increasing the number of minority and underserved youth pursuing higher education in STEM-related fields. In 2020, she founded the Ujamaa Cooperative Farming Alliance, a collective of BIPOC growers, farmers, and gardeners who cultivate and distribute heirloom seeds and grow culturally meaningful crops.
Then in 2021, the Ujamaa Seeds online catalog was born; its second online catalog went live in recent weeks.
Read along as you listen to the February 13, 2023 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
ujamaa seeds, with bonnetta adeeb
Margaret Roach: It’s good to talk to you again, and congratulations on launching the second seed catalog for Ujamaa. Yay. With twice as many varieties, it seems like, as last year.
Bonnetta Adeeb: Yes. Well, our goal is to grow more growers, and our growers were more successful and more things came in. And then as we look at the broader mission, our work with youth and our regenerative work, it’s very important that we have increased perennials, things-
Margaret: Oh, yes.
Bonnetta: …that are better, good for the planet, and actually are very good for new growers, to have things that don’t have to be planted that will volunteer and come back on their own [laughter]. So that’s how we came to increase the catalog much more than we thought we would.
Margaret: Yeah. So you add a lot of perennials and a lot of other great things. And so just to start as background, tell us what Ujamaa means, for example, the name means, why did you choose it?
Bonnetta: So one of the things that many African Americans in this country have struggled with is figuring out our heritage. Many people have in the past seen themselves as orphans, without history, without culture, and all of that.
And so about 50 years ago, a gentleman decided to get together with other scholars and put together a culturally event called Kwanzaa, and to have seven principles. And these seven principles would allow African American communities outside of the continent to reclaim and rebuild a community structure.
And so Ujamaa is one of the seven principles that has to do with cooperative economics and people pulling together, working together around a common cause. It’s a pretty important concept for people who need help and can get help from within their communities, can build from within, and bring in friends that want to help build something positive. And so therefore, we came up with that name, to talk about the collaborative nature of the work that we have to do in order to reclaim a lost heritage.
Margaret: And it’s not a conventional commercial catalog, but I believe the proceeds support the work you’re doing that I was beginning to describe in the introduction, the work to support the cooperative farming alliance, to grow more growers, as you say and so forth. Is that what the proceeds are for?
Bonnetta: Yes. So it’s interesting that my family, along with many other families fled the South. My family fled the South by night because of Jim Crow and repressive activities in the South, but not everything… We took some things with us, but one of the things that we really did not seem to take as a people was the seed, the knowledge of seed and seed varieties. And it seemed to get lost along the wayside, even families that have been farming for hundreds of years still seem to have lost the connection to those heritage varieties.
So when you really think about it, so it was like, “Well, we grow turnip greens,” or, “We grow mustard greens, or collard.” It wasn’t the fastidious nature of the details of holding onto this one variety. So that’s the work that we have to do in order to reclaim that knowledge of seed saving, of seed stewardship, and then gathering those seeds and make sure that they’re saved and protected for future generations.
That’s going to take some time and some work. And so when you get seeds from Ujamaa Seeds, you’re helping to support work in reclaiming that heritage and providing long-term systems for maintaining those traditions. [Above, ‘Purple Top Globe’ turnip, grown for roots and greens.]
Margaret: As I said in the introduction, what draws me to seeds often, besides the deliciousness or beauty of a particular variety that I can grow, is the story. I love reading the descriptions in my favorite catalogs, some tied to a particular culture, a particular time, a particular family even. Do you have a family seed story? Was there a seed that meant something to you, or that you know about from your family?
Bonnetta: Yeah, so when we started doing this work, we started interviewing grandmothers, the elders in the community. COVID had taken so many elders, so we felt a sense of urgency to find out what was in their grandmother’s gardens. And so we identified certain things in various cultural communities, Asian, Native American, that were central to those communities.
In my case, there was a repetition of things that came up. There were always collard greens, there was always okra, certain things just persisted in gardens. And my family has been farming in South Carolina actually since 1710. We’ve traced back folks, and we heard these stories about how successful farmers were able to protect their families and live a better quality life. And the way they did this was by having certain signature crops that were profitable.
And the case of my family, I heard about some watermelon that was grown that was so profitable that, and I think there were also other things like sweet potatoes, but this particular watermelon was one that they made so much money on that the girls were able to stay home.
Now you probably know that throughout the South, that African American girls had to go out of the home to work as maids. And so if a family could be successful in growing a crop that was able to have the family be able to keep those girls at home, they could have work for home. My aunts and my cousins, all of them had their own bakery. They baked things, but they didn’t have to leave home to work. And that provided a safe haven for girls. Life was dangerous and still is dangerous for women who are out and about.
So from the stories, I never heard about a particular variety, but I had a wonderful meeting with some growers, some wonderful people from Seed Savers, and they said, “Well Bonnetta, we have rematriation project going with Native Americans. We can bring that project to Ujamaa and help growers find the things that are culturally meaningful for their families.”
And so we set about this journey, we had about 26 growers initially involved, and I had to start with my own story [laughter]. So it’s like, well, what was important in my family? So I started by interviewing the elders, the oldest members. I have a cousin that’s 104 and several very high up in their 90s. And it turned out that I have some cousins that are still on the land in Williamsboro, South Carolina, that my family was able to buy after slavery. And so I’m in conversations with these elderly farmers and I’m saying, “Well, what was that watermelon that you grew?” And they were like, “How am I supposed to remember what I grew?” [Laughter.] That was the story I got.
So I’ve learned some tricks from doing these interviews with elders by asking them to go back into their memories about the kitchen life and family life: What did it smell like? What was going on?
Bonnetta: And so what I found is that by talking about smells and taste and helping them to envision those childhood memories, I can coax memories. And so from this conversation with my elderly cousin Leon, I asked him, “What shape was it? What color was the flesh? Was it large? Was it round?” And from this, it just popped in his memory. He said: “It was the ‘Stone Mountain’ watermelon. That’s what I grew.”
And then he began to tell me the story of this watermelon, and why it was so important to the family. That the success of this melon allowed them to send their boys and the children to college. And it was just another example of the importance in being an experienced and successful farmer, and how you could raise the status of yourself and your family by sending those children to college to get that education. So that was really, really exciting.
Margaret: That’s an interesting… It’s an alternate version of genealogical research, do you know what I mean? It’s really fascinating. And you used the senses, you asked for sensory memories to get at the answer, that’s brilliant.
I want to talk about some of the… So ‘Stone Mountain’ watermelon, that’s a big watermelon. That’s a big round watermelon I think.
Bonnetta: It is.
Bonnetta: It’s big. It’s round. And it’s a picnic means it could feed multiple people. So the more you learn about watermelon, the more you learn about some of the mythology, some of the racism and stereotypes that arose around Black people eating watermelons. Some of the vilification of Black folks grow in eating watermelon. So it’s a bittersweet story. It’s sweet and we all know the reason why it is such a delicious [laughter]-
Margaret: We know the sweet part. Yes.
Bonnetta: So I have cousins that collect Black memorabilia, and so many of those pieces negatively depict Black people eating watermelon. As you go further, and as we research for our current catalog, we found out those things are African varieties. They come from Africa just, just like African peas and okra. And they were used for hydration. They had a very important role initially-
Bonnetta: They came, and the first ones were yellow, and as watermelon grew. So the story of watermelon is complex and it’s deep.
Margaret: Yeah. And you have some great ones in the catalog. In Ujamaa. Yeah.
Bonnetta: Right. So that’s why those seeds are kind of rare. We didn’t have a lot of them, but we felt that this story as we go trace our roots backward, literally [laughter], and as we look toward the past, we find this tremendous implications for future. Because with a drought, with all the problems related to weather, food that provides hydration is going to be super-important in the future.
Margaret: Very important. Very important. Yes.
Bonnetta: And so that’s what’s so exciting about the work, Margaret, because the past informs the future, and the technologies to strengthen knowledge of how to grow these things and produce them. And not just that, but also breed varieties that are transportable. That watermelon one that has the handle on it, the ‘Art Combe’ watermelon, also, that one that was protected and held by the Hopi, the yellow ‘Early Moonbeam’ [photo above]. I have a whole family crying over these stories, I mean this is-
Margaret: Well, and like I said, that’s what gets me when I go into a seed catalog. Those are the ones that resonate with me. And I’m a greens lover, so I want to talk about some of the other things in the catalog. And I love to eat greens. And because of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange decades ago, their catalog, I bought my first collard greens. I’m a Northern person, but I bought my first collard greens seeds a million years ago, and grew them, and came to love them long before the kale thing happened [laughter] or whatever.
But I think what gardeners… One little pocket of stuff I noticed in the current Ujamaa catalog that maybe some gardeners have overlooked are some of the traditional nutritious and delicious (and often beautiful, on beautiful plants, sources of greens that you offer seed from things in the Amaranth family that are good, that the leaves can be eaten like callaloo, which is a green amaranth, or the Lagos spinach [photo above], which is a Celosia. We know it as a flower, an annual flower, but the leaves. And I mean, that’s what gets me is I read about these things and I know the plant, but I don’t think of it as a edible. And yet it’s been an edible traditionally through all these cultures that just blows me away. I love that.
Bonnetta: So, Margaret, I think that this is the story of greens is so important. I think that greens are completely tied to the identity of Ujamaa because the story of those collards is a story of one of the reasons why Africans ended up in this country in the first place is because of their knowledge of farming, their skills, and growing in all kinds of climates and conditions. And so when we hear the stories of how peas were braided into the hair and put in people’s garments, amulets around their neck. So we got okra, and peas came across also on slave ships with African people, because they needed food that they could recognize.
And for the life of me, as I learned more about collards, and we began this Heirloom Collard Project, it was like, “Oh, why didn’t greens come with the Africans?” I think you mentioned it’s the size of the seed. [Above, Yellow Cabbage Collards, from Ujamaa.]
I mean, amaranth seeds are so fine. They’re like sand. And they were difficult to transport. So because African people were not able to find their traditional seeds, they looked at wild greens, they looked at available greens and collards that are a throw off of kale and cabbage were available, and they bred them to be used in the same way that traditional greens are used, collard, mustard and turnip. And then some wild greens, like cress and dandelion and other things, shepherd’s purse, are used.
So what I’ve come to believe in, I’m on this journey, if you can help me, is finding out more about why the traditional African greens didn’t make it. So as I am presenting at conferences, I’m a vagabond traveling from conference to conference.
So many, particularly the experienced southern Black growers, want to know, well, what are the African greens? If it’s not turnip, mustard and collard, then what were the greens that people sought to replicate as they began to look for varieties and develop varieties in their enslaved farms and on their Sunday farms? People were not allowed to grow every day of the week, just after dark at night and then on Sundays.
So I think that being able to put a package of Celosia or molokhia or amaranth or nightshade greens from Kenya, or like you said, the sokoyokoto, the Lagos spinach [photo below]. I mean, to hand that to somebody, and it’s such an emotional and loving thing to do. What a gift, to give somebody something they thought that was lost to them.
Margaret: And I just want to encourage people, regardless of where they’re gardening, to give some of these different greens a try. Because I know for me, I didn’t know anything about collards 30 or 35 years ago, and there I was growing them, and they’re amazing and productive and cold-tolerant toward the end of the season. They stand, even in my northern area. I mean, they don’t do as well over the whole winter like they would in a fairer climate, but you know what I mean? You learn so much in the deliciousness and the different tastes within “greens.”
So I don’t want to run out of time, so I want to make sure that we have a minute to talk about you. And by the way, you mentioned the Heirloom Collard Project, and people can learn more about that. But we can’t not talk briefly about okra. And I’m especially interested in this ‘Ultracross’ okra that you have some interesting okras in the catalog at Ujamaa right now. But I wanted to ask you about that as well.
Bonnetta: So ‘Ultracross’ [photo below] is a phrase that was established by…[laughter]... It’s like “extra,” it’s a whole lot of different varieties of okra, 85 varieties in that mix. We have ‘Ultracross’ collard also that has started out with 21 varieties.
And so in the effort to teach people how to grow, how to observe for the beautiful things you mentioned—the color, the cold tolerance, the taste; it’s sweet, it is a little bit bitter. A lot of people love bitters; cabbage is a bitter taste. For tenderness, for size. And in my case, I really love the collard, the beautiful range of color that you could show.
But what you get with the okra is this beautiful array of sizes and flowers and tenderness, and the color ranges are amazing. So we’re working with Chris Smith from Utopian Seeds to use this as the first African crop that we introduce to people in their journey to learn how to seed breed again.
And it’s so beautiful because every plant is going to be different. In order for you to see the full array, you probably need 500 plants. You could do it with 100 [laughter], or you could just have a few plants in your yard to begin to make these observations and understand that for most of these African varieties, the leaves are the primary crop. So we have varieties of okra, the ‘Motherland’ okra, and there’s a whole slew of African varieties where the leaf is as edible as the pod.
Also, the size and the shape of the pods are so interesting, and the colors. So most people, when they think of okra, they think of one variety, I think something that looks like a ‘Clemson Spineless.’ But when I show them there’s white, there’s pink, there’s striped, there’s just all this beautiful color, purples and pinks and pink and green stripes. I mean, it’s there.
So I equate the growout, a full growout of the ‘Ultracross’ as resembling the people of the African diaspora. Everything comes from Africa. The tallest people, the shortest people, the thinnest people, the whitest people, everything.
People get surprised, but they see people with blue eyes and brown eyes and gray eyes. So the ‘Ultracross’ okra represents, it’s a metaphor for African-American people and how broad we are, especially as we travel around the world and we mix and join with other societies. And you have this full range of the Chinese African-American communities in Jamaica, or we have Appalachia that’s a mixture of slaves and indentured servantry and the beautiful color and society and music that comes out of bluegrass, the Piedmont blues and the wonderful songs and cultural traditions that come out of that.
So as we grow, as we move into Native American communities, and we talk about the three sisters, now we are talking about what we call African cousins that are symbiotic as the three sisters are.
And we let people know that a lot of things were given to us by the Native Americans. I mean, everybody claims a pepper, but those peppers all came from the Americas. The tomatoes, the ‘San Marzano’ tomato. But that was cultivated by Aztecs in the Americas. And so potatoes, the Irish potato that was cultivated from wild varieties in the mountains of South America.
So as we began to examine the great variety of foods, I asked everyone, no matter where they’re from, to look to Granny, ask Granny, “What should I be growing in my garden? What was traditional?”
I was in a restaurant yesterday that was from the Republic of Georgia. We did the same thing: What were the things that you ate that define your culture and who you are? And wouldn’t you like to see that continue to be available for future generations?
Biodiversity, I believe, is the secret to where we’re going in the future. If we can bring back, do more than just those 20 vegetables we’re currently eating, expand that and help to develop varieties that can save us and save the planet from certain doom from climate change, we can play a better role and be a better steward and be better children to Mother Earth. More respectful.
Margaret: Well said, Bonnetta. Well said. Well, we’ve run out of time, but I’m so glad to talk to you, and I will be buying my greens [laughter], looking through some of those greens in the Ujamaa Seeds catalog. And thank you. Just thank you so much for making time today. I know it’s a busy time with all the conferences and everything, but I hope I’ll talk to you again soon.
Bonnetta: Thanks so much for giving us this opportunity to share our dreams with the world, Margaret, we appreciate you so much.
Margaret: I appreciate you, too. Thank you.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 13th year in March 2022. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the February 13, 2023 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).