Adam Alexander, whose curiosity prompted travel all over the world collecting endangered vegetable seeds to grow and share, writes that “Crammed into two fridges in the garage behind my study are jars and boxes filled with envelopes containing – at the time of writing – 499 varieties of vegetable seeds, sadly most no longer commercially available.” Alexander grows some 70 varieties a year for food and seed-saving, something he started doing in the 1970s, although back then it was only about producing vegetables.
The seed-saving part of his book The Seed Detective, Uncovering the Secret Histories of Remarkable Vegetables (Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, Vermont, 2022) starts in 1988, with a pepper. The author discovered it (more than 30 years ago) in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk; more specifically, in a farmers’ market stall, grown by a granny too poor to buy seeds and thus in the habit of saving them.
He doesn’t identify the woman except as a generic type, but notes that he “would always seek out this individual when scouring food markets around the world.” He’s extolling a generic grower, of course, but a grower of very specific produce: Vegetables that sprout from seeds uncorrupted by the chemical processes that have allowed Big Ag to copyright what once was a gift from Nature.
The “tennis-ball-sized sweet pepper with a fiery heart” kicked off Alexander’s search for other heritage and heirloom seeds around the world, many of which he then grows in his garden in eastern Wales. It’s a proving ground for his research as well, as he studies these vegetables to discover exactly what the word “heritage” means in relation to each.
Take the pea, for example. The earliest evidence of its domestication dates back some 8,500 years, as found in settlements in the Near East. Pisum syriacum, which is the pea we usually enjoy, was first identified in Syria, hence its name, and “grew as far west as Greece, across Anatolia and the southern Balkans, and east as far as Jordan, modern-day Israel, Syria, and parts of the Nile delta.” And they’re interfertile, which is garden-speak for promiscuous, cross-breeding to create new hybrids when left to their own devices.
But Alexander doesn’t stop with that variety. He’s introduced to a 19th-century Irish pea from County Cork named Daniel O’Rourke that had been collected and protected by a St. Petersburg collector but turned out to have been bred in Massachusetts and named for the Derby winner of 1853. And the story continues to twist and turn from there, which is much of the fun of this book. His sleuthing combines lab work where he studies the DNA of various strains of seed, with relentless international travel.
We meet the fava bean in Syria, but it leads us on a pursuit with no discernible beginning that winds through time and place. There’s a stop in Myanmar, where Alexander discovers a cache of fava beans that are almost black, grown by the shopkeeper but headed for the bin because they were considered out of fashion. He takes them home and successfully cultivates them, musing that they originated in China or India at a time – centuries ago – when that color was more common.
Carrots are another vegetable whose color has changed over the years. Its domestication began in Afghanistan, when it was purple or red, while the variety we enjoy “was first grown across a wide region from Anatolia in the eastern Mediterranean, throughout Iran, Pakistan, southern Russia, and as far east as northern India.”
Similar research is conducted on leeks, various types of cabbage, asparagus, and lettuce, before moving on to tomatoes, corn, chili peppers, and varieties of squash and bean. And one of my favorite foods, one that populates my own garden, gets a biography as well. The pursuit of garlic begins in Jebel Akhdar, a mountainous area of Oman, where Alexander spots it growing in terraces that turn out to be owned by his host, who later sends him cloves deliciously unlike what he’s used to, thus spreading the wealth in true seed-saver style.
Garlic’s origin seems to have been “on the northwestern side of the Tien Shan Mountains of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.” The oldest evidence of garlic was found in a cave near the Dead Sea, dating to the fourth millennium BCE. It was fed to the pyramid-builders of Egypt. It was found in King Tut’s tomb. Its health benefits are extolled in the Talmud, where it is also assigned aphrodisiacal qualities (but this is true of many vegetables, especially if they’re phallically shaped). India and China also have long histories with garlic.
That aromatic bulb was regarded as peasant food until France’s Henry IV gave it his imprimatur in 1553, seeking protection from evil spirits. He had a point, if somewhat misguided. “Of all the vegetables in this book,” writes Alexander, “ garlic probably lays claim to more health benefits than any other.” And he goes on to note that garlic “is nature’s greatest superfood and one of the most important weapons in the herbalist’s arsenal.”
This book is another, very different weapon. The reason for tracing all this vegetative lineage is the corruption wreaked upon the garden by an industry that feeds on what we feed on. “We are today paying the price for a binary approach to feeding ourselves: increase yields at all costs and as cheaply as possible without any regard for the environment.”
Which is why the food we eat today is nutritionally bankrupt and not nearly as flavorful as what our grandparents ate. As Alexander points out, healthier, tastier foods are available, but they usually come at a price that puts them out of reach of many. He lauds a new generation of grower that is seeking to change that, growers for whom seed banks are a necessity, keeping them out of the tight-fisted grip of those who produce seeds that won’t regenerate.
It’s the simplest thing in the world: Seeds are designed to produce plants that produce more seeds. The Seed Detective is a fascinating look at where the ones we eat may have come from, with a hopeful coda describing where he hopes we’re headed.
(B. A. Nilsson, 4/6/23)