As American as Heirloom Seeds: Buying local foods is part of a rich green tradition

seedsWalk in to your local chain organic market and you may be fooled by the fluorescent lights and sleek modern atmosphere. Though stores like Whole Foods do their best to show the connections between the food on their shelves and where it came from, the environmentally-conscious supermarket's very existence may seem like a modern phenomenon, a hybrid of convenience and conscience that has cropped up in recent years. The sheer number of eco-minded shoppers that flock to these "green" grocers testifies to their widespread appeal. Those browsing through the fresh vegetables, some proudly emblazoned "locally grown," may not realize that they are part of an American tradition taking pride in produce that goes back to our earliest colonial beginnings.

Organic gardener Jimmy Williams traces his heirloom tomato, the Goose Creek, to his family's Gullah-Geechee roots.

The seeds of this sublime fruit have been passed down through generations since the 1800's when Jimmy's great-great grandmother, a young Caribbean slave, smuggled them with her aboard ship. When the ship docked at Charleston near Goose Creek, South Carolina, she had the treasured seeds with her, hidden deep in her skirt pocket and planted them that first spring. Jimmy's grandmother, Elouise Watson, shared this precious heirloom with him more than 45 years ago.1

Beyond family lore, okra, black eyed peas and rice are a few of the crops known to have come to the United States along with the African Diaspora, in what has been called the Diaspora of Food. The Atlantic food trade during the slave era was more than a one-way street, however, according to slave trade researcher Dr. James D. La Fleur. While plants of African origin made their way to the New World, crops native to the Americas such as peanuts and pumpkins traveled to West Africa.2

Seeds also traveled with settlers to and from Europe. Crops have always migrated along with human populations, often being adopted so wholeheartedly by a culture that it is difficult to imagine them as originating elsewhere--as the potato, an American vegetable, was in Ireland. "Vegetable Travelers," a National Geographic article about using archaeological evidence and language clues to trace "seed immigrants," follows crop sharing back to agriculture's beginnings in the Stone Age.

Johnny Appleseed is perhaps the best-known American example of conscious seed dissemination on a large scale. He planted apple tree nurseries across the country, leaving representatives to care for and sell or barter for the trees. Like the two-way street on which plants traveled across the Atlantic to Africa, Michael Pollan, the author of The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World, sees plants and humans as working symbiotically to adapt to an ever-widening environment:

The image of John Chapman and his heap of apple seeds riding together down the Ohio has stayed with me: The scene, for me, has the resonance of myth-a myth about how plants and people learned to use each other, each doing for the other things they could not do for themselves, in the bargain changing each other and improving their common lot.

Henry David Thoreau once wrote that "it is remarkable how closely the history of the apple tree is connected with that of man," and much of the American chapter of that story can be teased out of Chapman's story.3

In today's post-frontier America we have a different idea of our landscape than Johnny Appleseed did, but what would he have thought of modern faming techniques that have reduced biodiversity to the extent that only 5% of apple varieties from his time still exist? Bred for durability rather than taste or nutrition, the much-bemoaned supermarket tomato is an example of the pyrrhic victory that that sometimes results from modern science applied to nature. It is not only concerns about genetically modified (GMO) produce, then, that are driving consumers to find locally-grown vegetables: produce from local farms is not grown to go the distance, but to taste better.

Whether you buy your local produce at the farmer's market or a chain, you are supporting biodiversity and local farmers. And believe it or not, you may be standing in the produce aisle with one foot in America's past and another in our future.

1 Heirloom Tomato Plants

2 Seeds of influence: Doctoral student’s research finds slave trade flavored foods on both sides of Atlantic

3 From the WNYC Book Review, "The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World"

Tags: Green traditions, History, Legacy seeds

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