Courtesy Seed Savers Exchange
Today, the person who is responsible for choosing the 500 to 700 varieties to “grow out” each year is collection curator and ­self-professed “plant geek” Jenna Sicuranza.­ “The goal of our collection is to preserve those varieties that represent the gardening heritage of the United States. We’re measuring leaf sizes, petal sizes, fruit weight, fruit length and fruit diameter. We have a very complex database. That data gives us the information that we need to make curatorial decisions.”

Keeping a high germination rate — 80 to 90 percent — is part of the process. “At a high germination rate, the seed has been properly dried and it’s going into ideal storage conditions,” Sicuranza says. “Most of the crop types we grow have the ­ability to stay viable for decades, but obviously, over time — even under perfect conditions — the germination rate will decrease. The idea is that every five years or so we are taking a small sample and testing it to see how fast the rate is decreasing. If it gets below a critical germination rate, we’ll regenerate it.”

Seed historian (or “seed sleuth” as she is informally called) Sara Straate is responsible for sifting through a vast treasure trove of correspondence in her quest to learn the ­stories behind the seed collection.­ It’s a perfect fit for the Waukon, Iowa, native whose love of horticulture and history came together at SSE. Recently, the seed bank launched its Collection Origins Research ­Effort to compile the histories of the thousands of records in the collection. Straate spends much of her time sifting through correspondence, looking for clues as to how a particular seed came to be part of the collection.

Those clues can also contain vital growing traits and descriptions of the plant. Phebe Vinson’s letter mentioned that her brown-and-purple-colored limas produced a higher quantity of beans than the more popular white limas. Thus, in this year’s catalog, Phebe Vinson’s limas are described as having a “beautiful beige and purple-mottled seed coat; very good flavor and eating qualities.”

“When you talk with [people] who have been maintaining a particular garden variety in their family, you start to learn about different migration patterns across the United­ States,” Straate says. “You find out how these families traveled from the East Coast to the Midwest or to the West Coast — and you learn about events that may have been going on that influenced those decisions to migrate to other regions of the country.”

In 2002, 92-year-old Bernice Hagan ­Mobley of Athens, Ala., contributed seeds from the small yellow tomatoes (Hagan Little Yellow) that were grown by “my mama and papa” as far back as 1893 in Tennessee. Bernice, who passed away in 2007, grew them beginning in 1961. She ended her handwritten letter with some words of advice: “They do come up voluntarily, but I plant some in case they don’t. They are delicious. Keep a bowl on your counter.” 

Journalist and author STEPHEN J. LYONS is a frequent contributor to American Way. He wrote about the S.S. Badger in the April 15 issue.