in the garden

Home Field Advantage: Seeds Thrive Best When Bred for Their Locality

By Jeneen Wiche | February 01, 2016
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dried seeds in jars

Seeds thrive best when bred for their locality

Today we certainly have choice but I am not so certain we really have diversity when it comes to our food choices. Imagine all the foods that have been lost in the last century due to so-called “improvements.” I would argue that one woman’s “improvement” is another woman’s culture lost when it comes to time-honored foodways. Contemporary plant and animal breeding has lost sight of the old technologies that used open-pollinated seed exchanges and local knowledge that build plant biodiversity, human community and food security.


Gary Paul Nabhan defines “foodways” as the “entire chain of cultural practices, from the praying for and the sowing of seeds or the casting of nets to the cleaning, storing, preparation, serving and storytelling surrounding our most cherished foods.” That is a tall order in the industrialized market for food where uniformity, anonymity and shelf life set the standard. The majority of our cherished foods, and indeed foodways, started with seed. Seed represents culture in many regards. In Costa Rica heirloom seeds that have been passed down through families are called Semillas criollas, or Creole seeds. “Creole,” of course, suggests the mixing of many cultures, where accommodations are made by all to find a new simpatico.


To describe seed that has landrace (local viability) due to generations of people from a certain locale makes perfect sense to me. The mixing of many cultures in the context of seed means biodiversity. But it also means cultural continuity and survival in many parts of the world. Access to seed that has a history with the land and with the people who cultivate it could very well be the simplest answer to feeding more people with local inputs and outputs.

Take for example the tepary bean, known by the Tohono O’odham people as bawĭ. This highly nutritious, heat and drought-tolerant bean was widely cultivated in the Southwest by native peoples prior to the 1920s. Once dry farming was replaced by water-intensive farming other food crops replaced this once-life-sustaining crop in a place where alkaline, sandy soils and desert temperatures required fast-maturing crops that could take the pressure.

The tepary bean is, in fact, higher in protein and fiber than other beans and has a lower glycemic index. These factors would have given the bean high marks as a staple food in a desert diet. This seed would have been culturally important because of its ability to sustain life in an arid agricultural environment. It is seed that turns into food that sustains life and the perpetuation of culture; to be saved again to reproduce in another year.

We don’t think about seed in this way much anymore. The bean is so treasured by the Tohono O’odham that they attribute the Milky Way to white tepary beans scattered throughout the night sky.

So, if we say that those who control the seed control everything, as many indigenous people believe, we can better understand the power of place when it comes to plant cultivation. Back to the tepary bean, for a moment: Today there are about 20 varieties of the tepary bean in limited cultivation, which is a recovery from about only five varieties 10 years ago.

According to Native Seeds/ SEARCH, a seed bank located in Tucson, Arizona, this bean once had about 45 different varieties in cultivation. And, with names like Paiute white, Kickapoo white and Hopi white the bean clearly likes the Southwest but its character and appearance goes even deeper. This is what we call landrace. Biodiversity is the traditional technology that infuses a crop with the best chance of survival in any given place during any given year.

For example, an open-pollinated plant, one that is pollinated by a light breeze or an insect transferring pollen from one plant’s flower to another, will reproduce seed that is genetically very similar to its parents. Here’s where landrace comes into practice. Over time these generations of plants slowly develop traits that make them dutifully productive in that locale.

When plants are allowed to cross pollinate and grow in the same area year after year they will accumulate new traits (some good and some bad) that keeps a world of opportunities alive. Biodiversity is a natural insurance policy that, no matter what the challenge in a growing season, part of the field would surely survive to feed the community— and to live on in the next generation of seed.

Landrace may just be what we need as we face uncertain climatic changes due to global warming. Growing things that know the place where they put their roots may require that you start saving seed from your favorite crops, but if you do so be sure to mix your selection up for true landrace selection. Heirloom plant breeders save the best ½ of the patch and keep the seed isolated from other varieties; landrace breeders only save ⅓ of the best of the patch and plant these seeds alongside a crazy mix of other like species. They call it mob planting.

This is precisely why Costa Rican farmers exchange seeds with one another in order to maintain their “Creole” nature. Seeds that are farmer selected are the most trusted; mix them with your neighbor’s and you are sure to get a good mix ready for anything nature may deliver. “Manufactured” seed that maintains uniformity is probably the riskiest seed there is. Consider the Irish potato famine of the 1850s or the fungal disease that is currently ravishing the Cavendish banana. There are thousands of varieties of potatoes and hundreds of bananas, all with landrace, yet we rely on very few only to have disease win over maintaining biodiversity.

We used to have some fabulous garlic at the farm that I swore had landrace. We have grown and saved seed from it for over 20 years. It tolerated clayey soils, grew big and plump and stored well. It seems I will have to start all over again, however, because the rains of spring and early summer 2015 turned it to mush. But here is the lesson in action. Any seed saved from a plant that otherwise survived the deluge will have just the genes you want for that next generation of seed. Mix it with one that survived a drought or the humidity of Kentuckiana and you are on your way.

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