Dr. Robert Rhoades, a professor of Anthropology and Dr. Virginia Nazarea, director of the Ethnoecology and Biodiversity Laboratory in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Georgia began the Southern Seed Legacy in 1996. They felt the need to address what they felt was the lack of diversity and cultural awareness of modern Southern gardeners and farmers. The goal was to encourage local seed exchanges – and to create a means in which people could meet to exchange those seeds. They began a small seed bank called PASS (Pass along Southern Seed), to ensure that the seeds being exchanged would never be lost.
Farmers and seed savers that want to participate officially in PASS must commit to a contractual agreement and pay annual “dues”. However, the Old Timey Seed Swap still provides the homeowner or small grower the ability to obtain seed and grow as they please. This in itself was the initial attraction I had in going to the seed swap. Plus I wanted to pass along some of the heirloom flower seeds I save, to the vegetable farmers who would be giving me their seeds. However, during the drive to the swap, my friend Debbie informed me that there was a far more valuable reason that we should be attending – for the stories.
If any of you know a Southerner, you know that there are stories. Botanically obsessed seed saving Southerners are no different – it’s just their stories revolve around their “field”. I soon learned that “field” is a very apt term for these seedsmen, for they most often ‘specialize’ in a particular area of interest. For example, one middle-aged farmer from South Carolina saves only bean seeds. He can tell you the year he started to grow them, and how well they did. And you should see the look on his face when you ask kindly for some of his seeds! Euphoria! Someone WANTS to grow his crop of black seeded lima beans – more beautiful than any other and cultivated since sometime in the 1700s.
This day we also met Rodger Winn, who gardens in South Carolina and who sold us gorgeous $1 tomato plants with names the likes of 'Tennessee Britches' (who could resist!!), and gave us the fabulous 'Zelma Zesta' bean. Randy explained that his wife Karen’s great uncle JC Metze developed this beautiful and flavorful pole bean, which was eventually marketed by Park Seeds.
Mr. Metze was from Little Mountain, South Carolina and was a dedicated seed saver. He developed the bean in the 1940s and '50s by careful selection from his crops. In the '60s he approached Parks with his final selection, which then went to trial in Selma, Alabama. Parks bought the rights to market the bean, and it appeared in several catalogs in the early 1960s as the Selma Zester, however, Rodger says “Mr. JC always referred to the name as the Zelma Zesta and that is how he presented it to me in the early '80s”. Mr. Metze and his wife have now passed on, and his one surviving brother cannot remember any details on the bean. Rodger did contact Park Seed, who told him that all their beans from the '60s into the '70s had the name Selma as they were grown out for production in the same fields in Alabama. Rodger states, about the name “…we kept the name Zelma Zesta as written on the original seed Mr. JC Metze gave me and most folks around here who have this bean or knew of it just referred to it as Mr. JC’s Greenbean”.
This year I am growing the Zelma Zesta, and I love it! The beans themselves are pretty, an olive green speckled with purple. However, it is the taste that has won my heart (and tastebuds). The stringless pods are tasty at any stage – even when very large and rather overgrown. You see, the seeds remain fairly small inside the pods for a long period of time, and it is the “meat” of the bean that thickens, given you a real mouthful. Small beans are excellent and delicate eaten raw, and the old thicker beans make a great meat substitute in vegetarian meals. Such a pleasing vegetable, as are many heirlooms, you wonder why they were “lost”?
Many heirloom seed savers such as Rodger, proudly display their gorgeous beans in vintage canning jars. This seems to add to the aura of history, and mystique of vegetables unknown to us. When you request some seeds, or a trade, they will dip out a portion and package it for you on the spot – very reminiscent of the way seeds were purchased in days of old, the way some Feed stores still sell their seeds today.
Rodger obtained the Tennessee Britches tomato seed in October 2006 at the Appalachian Heirloom Seed Conservancy conference in Berea KY from Gary Millwood. “…It is one big tomato. I had two that weighted in at 3lbs, and I have attached a picture from the tomato tasting I hosted on the 21st of July (2007) – this tomato was a favorite”. I can attest to its flavor. This is a sweet and very meaty tomato with few seeds relative to its size. Rodger explained that Gary received the seeds from Craig LeHoullier in Raliegh, NC. Craig is a tomato enthusiast and introduced the Cherokee Purple, and he obtained the Tennessee Britches seen in an online trade from a man who stated the seed came from a family saved tomato. Craig has passed the seed along to Victory Seeds, and they began selling it for the 2007 growing year.
Seeds are not just about growing, they are not just about food – they are about a heritage of people and the rich history of family. We are very lucky that so many people have begun to realize the value of these foods in our culture and have tried to document their beginnings, have cultivated and saved their seed. So many are now available in a variety of seed catalogues. However, there are still many waiting to be discovered, and an heirloom seed swap is a great way to learn a little history, and to try a little something new.
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on September 27, 2007. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)