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Saving our seed heritage

For as long as humans have been gardening, saving seeds has been the next season's insurance and also ensured plants were disseminated throughout the world.

When the Spaniards arrived in the New World, among the treasures they found were the seeds of beans, peppers and squash cultivated by Native Americans. Soon, those crops were being grown in Europe, while European cultivars of the cabbage family, lettuce and greens made their way to the Americas.

Seeds were important to pioneers settling the West. The seeds of grains, vegetables, fruits and flowers were passed down from generation to generation, neighbor to neighbor, and the success of these annual crops was crucial to a family's survival.

Today, a new generation of gardeners have become seed savers, growing heirloom varieties from yesteryear with flavors far superior to most modern hybrids.

The Brandywine tomato is a perfect example: It's an 1885, Amish, potato-leafed variety yielding misshapen fruit that taste extraordinary. Seeds saved from the best plants year after year — literally passed down through horticultural history for 127 years — are the sources of today's tomatoes.

Saving seeds begins with open-pollinated varieties. These are varieties that breed true from generation to generation. Slight changes may occur over time as the variety becomes more adapted to a particular growing environment through selection. But for the most part, plants grown from open-pollination varieties breed true.

Certain types of plants, because of their flower structures, make for easier seed-saving. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, peas, beans and lettuce have both male and female parts on the same flower, so they are called "complete" flowers and are self-pollinating.

"Incomplete" flowers present a greater challenge. These plants, such as squash, melons and cucumbers, have separate male and female flowers, and pollination is done primarily by bees and other pollinating insects. If the bee, while out pollinating, visits both the zucchini and winter squash, cross-pollination between the varieties occurs. The zucchini still looks like a zucchini, but saving seeds from it will result in a squash plant with an unusual fruit. These are the squash that come up in the compost pile. Because of cross-pollination, plants with incomplete flowers must be isolated from similar varieties for the seed to breed true.

Gardeners can save small amounts of squash, cuke and melon seeds by hand-pollinating the flower when it first opens. Brush pollen from a male flower onto the center of the female flower, then gently tape the flower shut so visiting bees won't be able to enter the bloom. Allow the fruit to mature on the vine and harvest seeds in late summer/early fall.

When choosing a specific plant for seed collection, evaluate the group and choose the best plant to be your seed producer. Look at a variety of characteristics, including vigor, disease resistance, flavor and early maturity. Allow the fruit to become overly ripe on the plant. When it's harvested, remove the seeds and air-dry them.

With tomatoes, slice and squeeze the pulp and seeds into a bowl, then cover and allow the mix to begin to ferment indoors. Stir daily and, after four or five days, wash the pulp away using a screen sieve. The tomato seeds separate easily and are ready to be air-dried on waxed paper.

With beans and peas, let the seeds ripen on the bush and harvest the pods just as they naturally start to open. Allow the seed to continue to air-dry in an unsealed container.

While a variety of seed companies sell heirloom seeds, one in particular, Native Seeds/SEARCH, takes seed-saving to a different level. The nonprofit based in Tucson, Ariz., operates a seed bank containing more than 1,900 Native American plant varieties used for food, fiber and dye. Specializing in American Indian and pioneer varieties, its seed catalog offers more than 350 varieties of beans, squash, chillies, corn, gourds and tobacco.

The catalog can be requested at www.nativeseeds.org or by calling 520-622-0830. The catalog is exceptional, offering a variety of rare seeds, along with specific instructions on hand-pollination, seed extraction and some tricks of the trade for a variety of different crops. It's a must for the serious seed-saving enthusiast. The nonprofit also offers a seed-saving school where students learn the art of selection, breeding techniques and seed harvest and storage techniques.

Other specialty, heirloom seed savers worth investigating are:

Seed Saver's Exchange, www.seedsavers.org, 563-382-5990

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, www.rareseeds.com, 417-924-8917

Seeds from Italy, www.growitalian.com, 785-748-0959

David James has been writing gardening stories in Southern Oregon for 35 years. Contact him at djames@oigp.net.

Saving our seed heritage