The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Our Heritage Of Seeds

By Carol Maureen McCormick © 1986

Issue: April, 1986

Here in the Shenandoah Mountains there are countless old homesteads long abandoned that are reminiscent of a self-sufficient day and age with their lovely old apple, pear, cherry, plum and nut trees. In this Bergton/Criders community where I live, the German tomato, a lovely orange and red tomato has been preserved for generations, its seeds saved and planted year after year. And there is a "Candy-stripe" apple near here that has a red and white skin that makes the prettiest, pinkest applesauce. And I've heard tell of a "Hardgraft" apple that would keep for up to two years in a cellar. But that tree is gone from these parts, does anyone know where one can be found?

In the old day seeds were always saved for the next year's planting. They were kept year after year and passed on from one generation to the next. Seeds were chosen from the plants that were the best producers, bore the choice fruit or the ones that were the most resistant to frost, drought, insects or disease. Over the centuries, varieties have been developed and refined with their own unique qualities and characteristics.

These days people are depending on the seed companies to supply their seeds. In the past small family owned companies took pride in producing seeds that were well adapted to the gardener's and farmer's needs and favorite old varieties of seeds were easy to find. But the small companies are being bought out by huge corporations and the old timey varieties of seeds are gradually being discontinued. A favorite old variety may no longer be available at the seed store next year. New and "better" seeds are being introduced and hybrids are becoming very common. But many of these new seeds are dependent upon pesticides to keep them growing well and hybrids, because they are a cross between two varieties of a plant will either be sterile or will not produce offspring true to the parent qualities. The seeds are being bred for the commercial farmers so that they can be easily harvested by machine or shipped cross-country, but these are characteristics that the home gardener does not need. Many of the old varieties of seeds with their unique characteristics are in danger of becoming extinct unless we make an effort to preserve them.

Elwood Fisher, a professor at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA., began collecting old timey varieties of fruits when he returned to his West Virginia homeplace and found that many of his favorite old fruit trees were gone. He now has over 860 varieties of apples, over 200 pears, and currents, gooseberries, cherries and fruits adding up to 2,000 varieties, 90% of which are old timey or antiques varieties, on his half acre of land in Harrisonburg. "It's like walking into an apple encyclopedia!" one friend said of his garden. His trees, vines and shrubs are espaliered, trained and pruned to grow on wire trellises with numerous varieties of a fruit on a single tree. He's knocked on many a door in his search for old timey fruit and tells one story of a couple in their mid-nineties in West Virginia. They were talking about the old Ben Davis apple, commenting on how some folks don't care for them, but the old fellow told Elwood, "Well, I can tell you, they're better than snowballs in February!"

Elwood continues to search for old varieties of fruits, so if anyone knows the whereabouts or has leads to finding rare and unique old varieties of fruits he can be contacted through the University. The following are only a few of the apple varieties which he continues to search for: the Starkey and Sine-Qua-Non which were once found in and around Carroll County. The Gloucester and Robertson's White, Yellow, juicy apples of medium size. The Loudon Pippin or Lady Washington as it is also known. The Tallafero, a white and red striped apple of medium size with an acidic flavor. The Pryor or Red Russet, and the Virginia Greening or Green Mountain Pippin, a large, firm and crisp, yellow-green apple.

Kent and Diane Whealy have done a lot to preserve old seeds. In 1973 Diane's grandfather gave three varieties of seeds to Kent which had been brought from Bavaria five generations before. When her grandfather died the next year Kent realized the importance of the heritage he held in his keeping and began seeking out other gardeners who were keeping old varieties of seeds and thus The Seed Savers Exchange was created. There are now over 600 members throughout the United States and Canada who are exchanging seeds in order to preserve and multiply rare and endangered varieties of seeds. For more information send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to: The Seed Savers Exchange, 3094 North Winn Road, Decorah, Iowa, 52101.

Here in Virginia, Stephen and Jane Cain have founded The Center for the Study of the American Family Farm (Rt. 2, Box 44, New Market, VA, 22844) and have begun a Grower's Network for this mid-Atlantic and mountain region. The Grower's Network wants to bring people together "who are interested in growing and/or preserving those vegetable, fruit, nut and plant varieties that are in danger of disappearing." They are designed to help people learn about, grow, identify and locate endangered varieties and serve as a trading post where people can trade seeds, bulbs, scions, saplings and cuttings with other members.

There is a vast heritage of seeds in these mountains and we need to be sure to save the seeds that have been passed on in our families and in our communities and pass them on to the younger generations so that our good old varieties of seeds will be preserved for the future generations.