Saving Culturally Significant Seeds

Preserve traditional practices and foodways by cultivating crops that carry a legacy.

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by Amyrose Foll

Planting a seed is a sacred way for a hungry soul to walk the path back to their ancestors and reconnect with the Earth. Each seed is a gift in our hands, given to us by the generations of farmers before us who held the ancestors of that seed. As modern seed keepers, we stand upon the shoulders of those farmers, and we must ensure future generations will know these seeds. Our gardens are the legacy of those farmers — their seed song. These seeds are our ancestors’ ecological knowledge that we’re tasked with holding at this moment in time.

When you begin your journey by saving the seeds from plants you’ve grown and planting them again in subsequent years, you become part of a ritual that’s thousands of years old. That ritual gave us the bounty through which each and every one of the world’s unique culinary traditions was born; and it developed all the food we eat, passed down from the plants’ wild ancestors. When we look to the past, none of us, from any heritage or walk of life, has to go back many generations to find a farmer in the family and a connection to seeds. By saving seeds, you’re living your farming ancestors’ legacy of strength and resilience, and protecting that sense of place that grows out of our shared traditions.

It’s never too late to begin saving seeds. Starting with something easy, such as squash, can be delightful and fulfilling. Seeds make a wonderful gift, and you may just light the seed-saving fire in a fellow gardener. When we save seeds, we’re not only preserving the past for future generations, we’re also keeping money in our pockets. Saving seeds is inexpensive, and if you locate a seed library or seed swap, you can procure additional cultivars while also depositing your own seeds into the collective system.

N’tongwezid Nebizokikonek  (‘Welcome to Our Garden’)

As a native seed keeper and member of the Abenaki tribe, I occupy that liminal place between the present-day world and the sedulous care and reverent safeguarding of our ancient foodways. Keeping an endangered culture (or cultivar) alive for future generations is a great honor that I don’t take lightly. The balance between keeping the old ways relevant and living a practical daily life in modernity can be challenging.

Abenaki ceremony is closely intertwined with our agricultural calendars. All major observances revolve around the binding of food and family. When North America was first colonized, we weren’t crude savages simply wresting life from the wilderness in constant struggle. In fact, we had a sophisticated agricultural system in place that saved the lives of those who came to this nation as colonizers, settlers, and religious refugees. Our verdant food forest had already been carefully stewarded and curated by generations of farming mothers, feeding millions. Our neigh­boring Hau­denosaunee siblings were also well-documented as supreme masters of food storage and preservation, with years of food and seed stores in their cache.

In today’s society, we must redefine Indigenous gardens, agriculture, and food sovereignty by our new standards of modernity. In some cases, it may be necessary to research and rediscover traditional practices that have been absent in our lives, because they were forcibly taken from many of our ancestors through acculturation practices and policies.

I’ve met many Native Americans who, woefully, weren’t intimately connected with their cultural traditions in childhood. I assert that the garden, and our sacred seeds, can be a gentle calling back of sorts. Our gardens can be a vehicle for all those beloved members of the diaspora with any measure of Indigenous blood whom we affirm as our family to come home to us, and an adept teacher of cultivating a reverent culture of place. Saving seeds is not simply a hobby for me; it’s something I’m passionate about, and I wish to share it with all those willing to try their hand at it. I’ve begun to see this as part of my life’s work.

Corn Mother, or First Mother, is the first woman in the Wabanaki people’s creation story. The story varies between Wabanaki tribes, but generally, all people are born from corn, and Corn Mother sacrificed herself to feed them by turning her body into the first garden.

So, let’s see what’s in our garden.

“The Great Spirit is in all things; he is in the air we breathe. The Great Spirit is our Father, but the Earth is our Mother. She nourishes us–that which we put into the ground, she returns to us.”–Big Thunder Bedagi, Wabanaki

Tbawz Nidoupsoak  (‘Seven Sisters’)

The Three Sisters have attained a holy triumvirate-like status in the typical Indigenous garden, but let’s dig a little deeper into what else could be found in a Wabanaki Confederacy grower’s cache during the late woodland period (A.D. 300 to 1000). This isn’t a comprehensive list, but it does represent what would’ve been typical in a family band’s garden prior to colonization in New England and the Maritime Provinces of Canada.

Skamon (sister corn). The ancestor of modern-day corn is a wild grass called “teosinte.” The stalks, leaves, and tassels are similar to modern corn, but it produces only a few hard seeds. Over the course of 10,000 years, corn has been manipulated and selected by the original peoples of the Americas to grow in nearly all elevations and conditions. It’s unquestionably the most important crop, both practically and spiritually, to the people of Turtle Island (North America).

Arguably, one of the most universal and important agricultural rituals common among Indigenous communities in North America is the Green Corn Ceremony. It’s a time to mark the moment when the harvest of corn is a surety, signaling that there will be food to carry us through winter. While each nation is unique, with its own traditions and customs for the Green Corn Ceremony, singing, dancing, and feasting are fairly universal. Green Corn Ceremonies generally happen at the first harvest, anywhere from late June to early August, depending on the location.

Corn has become a dominating force in the world of agriculture and food consumption. In the Maritime Provinces and New England, where my ancestors are from, there are remarkable miniature cultivars, such as ‘Gaspé’ and ‘Koas,’ which have evolved to need a mere 60 days to mature. This was an ingenious way to ensure an early frost wouldn’t interfere with farmers growing out stores for the harsh, long winters of the region. Across the continent, other wonderful short-season cultivars exist as well, such as ‘Pima White.’ These plants are small in size, and very water-thrifty. These corn cultivars, which also flourish in dry heat, may be part of the agricultural adaptation to climate change.

Adebakwal (sister bean). Their array of wildly different markings makes beans one of my favorite crops to save and share. I never tire of prying open dry pods to reveal the breathtaking colors of ‘Bear Paw’ or ‘Potawatomi.’

An interesting fact about green beans — one of North America’s most common vegetables– is that we wouldn’t have green bean casserole, or any other presentation of the crop, without the contributions of Indigenous farmers. This simple vegetable has garnered attention in recent years after being fashionably revived to en vogue status, often labeled by its French name, haricots vert. Referring to green beans as such is somewhat misleading, however, because the crop comes directly from the ancient fields of Indigenous farmers in South, Central, and North America. Green beans were introduced to Europeans when they arrived on these shores, after which they became a quintessential American food crop known worldwide. By saving your seeds, not only are you preserving and improving your crops and adding a measure of self-sovereignty, you’re also preserving food culture. Heirloom crops wouldn’t be here for us to enjoy without the participation of gardeners like you and me.

Wassawa (sister squash). Squash is a wonderfully versatile vegetable, and I believe she deserves more credit in our pantries. Despite the challenges that come with canning it, squash can easily be dehydrated and stored safely for a long time — the traditional method of squash preservation.

In recent years, Indigenous gardeners have been growing traditional squash cultivars that aren’t commonly found in supermarkets. These cultivars, which are grown in great quantities in an effort to save them and revive traditional foodways, include ‘Hopi Pale Gray,’ ‘White Scallop,’ and ‘Candy Roaster.’

Gizos kogan (sister sunflower). Sunflowers are great for myriad reasons. Not only are they beautiful to look at and an excellent source of oil, they’re also a method for natural pest control. When planted around the perimeter of a garden, they make great perches for songbirds that feed on garden pests. Sunflowers also attract pollinators, and a strong pollinator population can noticeably increase gard­en yi­elds. Plus, sunflowers pro­duce protein-filled seeds that make a great snack. (When the seeds are young and soft, the seed heads can be roasted and eaten whole.)

Sister Jerusalem artichoke. This is one of my favorite native plants. Comically referred to by some as “fartichokes,” Jerusalem artichokes are delicious and easy to grow. We don’t have a word for them in Abenaki, but they’ve been jokingly described by other First Nations Algonquian language group speakers as something that roughly translates to “potatoes everywhere.” If you’ve ever grown Jerusalem artichokes, you’ll understand the meaning perfectly.

Jerusalem artichokes are very high in fiber, including inulin, a fiber that’s currently being studied for its potential to increase insulin sensitivity — an effect that might assist in the prevention of Type 2 diabetes.

Kiiadebimen (sister ground cherry). This unique edible is as useful as it is fascinating to grow. This past January, I had an experience that drove home why this crop was such an important part of traditional gardening. I was in the barn cleaning and organizing to prepare for the volunteers at Virginia Free Farm. I knew we would soon be busy planting and prepping. In my cleaning, I found a dozen or so ground cherries tucked away in a basket, still in their lantern-like husks, perfectly adequate for consumption. In that moment, I truly understood the value of this crop to my ancestors, and how useful it would’ve been in the days before modern refrigeration.

Odamo (sister wild tobacco). This isn’t one of the commercial tobac­co va­r­ieties that are commonly grown for cigars, pipes, and chew. This wild tobacco has a higher nicotine content than commercial types. Wild tobacco is used in ceremony and as a natural pest control, and it was a staple in our ancient gardens.

Amyrose Foll is a fervent advocate for food sovereignty, earth and pe­ople care, and resource sharing. She’s a U.S. Army veteran, former nurse, and an enrolled Abenaki tribe member. She continues her duty to protect and care for others through Virginia Free Farm. Learn more at Virginia Free Farm.

Learn the Best Techniques for Keeping Seeds

In Saving Our Seeds, seed activist Bevin Cohen takes a deep dive into the “how” and “why” of the modern seed-saving movement. This book is a great how-to guide, leading readers step-by-step through the process of saving seeds from 43 different crops, including beans and wheat. Seed savers of all levels will benefit from Bevin’s easy-to-follow explanations on important techniques, such as hand-pollination, isolation, vernalization, and basic flower structure. This title is available at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store or by calling 800-234-3368. Item #9960