Have you ever planted a seed and watched it grow into a plant? It’s an incredible feeling to see a tiny little seed turn into a fruit or a vegetable. Did you know that some of the seeds we use to grow our food today come from seeds harvested by cultures that existed thousands of years ago? These ancient seeds are called heirloom seeds and they’ve been passed down from generation to generation. They produce some of the most delicious fresh fruits and vegetables of all varieties.
Here’s what one expert, Kent Whealy, executive director of the Seed Savers Exchange, had to say about these extraordinary seeds:
“The seeds planted each year by gardeners and farmers are living links in an unbroken chain reaching back into antiquity. We cannot possibly comprehend the magnitude of the history contained in these seeds, in terms of what has gone before and what may potentially come after our brief involvement. Our Neolithic ancestors began domesticating plants 10,000 years ago with the simple act of replanting seeds that had been gathered for food. Whenever gardeners begin to save their own seeds, they also become part of this ancient tradition.”
Around 12,000 years ago humans began changing from a lifestyle of hunting and gathering their food into one in which they settled down and planted crops and raised animals. This was called the Neolithic Revolution. Eventually humans began saving seeds from plants that could survive the best. They also chose the seeds of plants that tasted good and produced a lot of other seeds. Today we call this process selective breeding. Thousands of years ago it led to stable crops that could be counted on to produce the food for entire villages.
Although the first domestication or farming of plants and animals by humans is believed to have taken place in the Middle East, it took place independently in civilizations all over the world during roughly the same time period (10,000-5,000 BCE). All of these civilizations ended up growing their own unique set of plants. Check out the chart below to see these different foods. Do you eat any of these foods?
maize, beans, squash
Families passed these seeds down from one generation to the next for centuries, and when people began moving to other parts of the world, including the Americas, they brought their precious seeds with them. In fact, these seeds were so important that their owners often sewed them into clothing so that they would not be taken from them by immigration authorities, such as those on Ellis Island in New York City where millions of immigrants pass through its buildings in the 19th and 20th centuries. These seeds would feed them and their families in an unfamiliar new world and serve as reminders of the past.. According to gardening columnist, Jim McLain, by the 19thcentury, the seeds had become “their heirlooms just as much as the family Bible and family photos” were. The names of the seeds came from the seeds’ histories and some of them were really unusual. Names such as Aunt Ruby’s German Green tomatoes, Dragon’s Tongue green beans, Moon and Stars watermelon, Garden Peach tomatoes, Cherokee Trail of Tears beans and Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter tomato set each crop apart.
When the Industrial Revolution began (click here to learn more about the Industrial Revolution), many farmers left the fields and moved into the cities in search of a different and better life. They brought their seeds with them and planted backyard gardens. These gardens were very important during the World Wars because food and supplies were limited and families needed to find ways to feed themselves since they couldn’t just go to the grocery store as we do today. According to Michael Pollan in his New York Times article, ”Farmer in Chief,” more than 20 million home gardens were supplying 40 percent of the produce consumed in America by the end of WWII.”
After World War II, people started making money and food was back on the shelves. Families could once again purchase their food from stores and they didn’t need backyard gardening anymore. However, they kept their heirloom seeds because these seeds had so much emotional value.
Today, heirloom fruits and vegetables can be found everywhere. They produce very tasty crops with lots of flavor and a resistance to diseases. They connect us to our past and remind us that we are not so different from our ancestors.
Plant Your Own Heirloom Seeds!:
Seed Savers Exchange Program is a nonprofit organization that saves and shares heirloom seeds. You can buy lots of different kinds of seeds on their website. Ask your parents to help you choose a flower, a vegetable, a fruit or even an herb, order a packet and you can grow a piece of history right in your own backyard! Their website will even tell you how to take care of your new plant.
Draw and Color:
Click here to see images of different kinds of heirloom crops. Pick out your favorites and make a drawing with all of the colorful heirloom fruits and vegetables.
What is your favorite fruit or vegetable? Does it have an heirloom variety? Can you find a new recipe using that fruit or vegetable in a dish you’ve never tried before? Maybe you and your parents can make the dish for dinner.
Look up the following words in a dictionary and/or encyclopedia and use them in a sentence.
4.McLain, Jim, “McLain: Heirloom seeds are full of history”, Yakima Herald, June 14, 2013. http://www.yakimaherald.com/valleylife/homeandgarden/latesthomeandgarden/1310026-8/mclain-heirloom-seeds-are-full-of-history