Living most of my adult life in the same geographical region used to embarrass me. While worldly friends and acquaintances reminisced about far-off abodes, I envied their adventures, missed inhaling fragrant smells of exotic flowers, listening to night songs of unfamiliar insects, and savoring flavors of fruits and vegetables that do not exist in my corner of the world. However, as I enter that realm of past mid-life, I appreciate how geography connects me to my ancestors, their determined work to survive, sometimes despite harsh conditions, in western North Carolina, and the common bonds that tie me to those European immigrants. Like many of my generation, I possess tangible heirlooms passed through several generations that not only feed my body, but sustain my soul. Heirloom seeds, packed safely among the belongings of ancestors five generations removed, continue to reproduce in my rich soil and their strong life force, suspended each year to rejuvenate the next, awes me when I see a seed germinate into a plant, echoing the same pattern observed by my fifth-great-grandmother, Polly Schmidt.
Granny’s summer squash, like other heirlooms, often produce unusual offspring.
Typically, when family gathered at our small formica table, my father’s eyes would scan the assembled bowls, platters and plates. The recital would begin.“Your grandmother grew those beans. I killed that deer. The tomatoes and cucumbers came from our garden. Your mama made the biscuits. Our bees gave us the honey.” He continued the litany until every dish was designated. Often, as I served my plate with an ingredient, I recalled how that vegetable or fruit looked when I helped harvest it from the garden. Cleaned, prepared and cooked, it retained its fresh state in my mind and, although I hate to admit it now, I took that food for granted. Only as an adult did I realize how special those everyday meals were, how flavorful freshly harvested backyard garden ingredients colored my childhood. It is now, as I look back on those evenings, that I can fully appreciate Daddy’s acknowledgements. Knowing the source of food we enjoy today not only gives a visceral connection, it provides a powerful link to our past.
Not until 2008 did I begin to realize the power of heirloom plants when my parents shared seeds my grandmothers saved. Perhaps that inheritance would not be remarkable, but since my maternal grandmother died in 1986 and my paternal grandmother in 1995, it came as a surprise when almost every seed I planted from the stash stored in my parents’ freezer not only germinated, but thrived to produce an abundant bounty of beautiful fruits and vegetables.
I picked bushels of ‘White Mountain Half-Runner’ beans, filled quart Mason jars with them, and processed them in my grandmother’s pressure canner, a 1966 workhorse I use many times throughout the year. Pumpkins, summer squash, cucumbers, ‘Whippoorwill’ peas and other crops flourished at Heart & Sole Gardens, the name we bestowed on our small farm. With each harvest, childhood memories surfaced and I often smiled through tears as I recalled stories I heard as a child. It was a surprising comfort to realize my grandparents’ voices lived in my memory bank.
Gardening connects humans to food through a uniquely visceral quality. Planting seeds requires a leap of faith, a hope that, despite Mother Nature’s unpredictable weather, attacks from insects and four-legged pests, and weeds that threaten to choke life from seedlings, seeds will become mature plants that produce fruits and vegetables to feed the body. Observing complete life-cycles each year, from seed to plant to reproduction to death, reminds the gardener of his or her own mortality and instills an appreciation for all life.
Not all gardeners are lucky enough to inherit family heirloom seeds, but fortunately, these treasures are available through catalogs, online sources, friends, and local seed swap events. Heirloom seeds provide an opportunity for grateful growers to establish a connection to future generations. I believe preserving these special life forces not only will keep alive stories about those who grew and saved them, but will allow future gardeners to enjoy the same aesthetic beauty, unique offspring and delicious flavor of these plants.
Heirloom seeds? Inherited treasures, indeed.