Heirloom Seeds and the Witch's Garden

Last week someone called to ask me if the seeds I sell are heirloom seeds. For folks who don’t know, “heirloom” has come to have a particular meaning in the gardening world: a seed variety that has been saved and passed down in a family, usually for at least 50 years. This means that hybrid seeds, which are a cross between two varieties, are pretty much ruled out, since few people go to the trouble of producing their own hybrids. This definition started with the Seed Savers Exchange, I think, but it has gradually been picked up by large seed companies as a marketing ploy, so that even Burpee, a major purveyor of hybrids, markets heirloom seeds. It’s basically come to mean any open-pollinated (not hybrid) variety that has some distinctive traits.

The good thing about heirlooms is that they have been selected for particular human uses or places, like Blacktail Mountain watermelon, a variety that a fellow who lived in Montana developed, or yellow tomatoes, which were developed in the Victorian period for their mildness so they would make good jams and “figs.”

Hybrids are not evil and can be very helpful. They are not at all the same as genetically modified organisms, which are developed by completely artificial means. To make hybrids, human beings take the pollen from one plant and put it on the flower or another. The seeds of a hybrid plant are not sterile (they don’t have “Terminator” seeds); they will produce plants of the different varieties in their parentage rather than copies of themselves (as is the case more-or-less with an open pollinated plant). However, often you can collect seeds from a hybrid and select for the qualities that made the hybrid desirable and end up with an open-pollinated version after just a few generations. This happened recently with a sweet grape tomato. Hybrids tend to be more vigorous than open pollinated plants and often have been bred to have resistance to popular plant diseases. If you’re growing in an edgy place for peppers, for instance, you might have better luck with a hybrid pepper. Heirlooms often taste better, but not always, and hybrids tend to produce stronger, healthier plants with larger and more fruits.

Avoiding GMO seeds

The other side of the heirloom coin is that because large seed companies have made much more money by developing hybrids, they have let the purity of their open-pollinated seeds decrease. I have bought heirloom broccoli seeds, for instance, that produced nothing but what is called “off-types”–things that have only tiny heads or none at all, stuff that looks like kale, etc. Maintaining good seed stock means paying attention to roguing out oddballs, but that costs money. Big companies have just harvested the whole field and called it OP. So as much as an heirloom can be a good thing, it has to be from seed lines that have been well maintained.

Typical male witch saving seeds

Further, I have occasionally seed varieties being marketed as heirlooms when yes, they were heirlooms, but were developed for feeding cattle, not for human beings to eat–turnips that get big and woody, for instance. So heirloom is not a quarantee of quality eating.

I myself grow mostly open-pollinated seeds. I don’t use the term heirloom, since it implies a family tradition that rarely actually exists. I do grow some hybrids, though, like hybrid pickling cucumbers developed by an ag school in the early sixties to resist diseases. Disease resistance means not only increasing the likelihood you will get a crop in a bad year, but it means less spraying, and even if you only spray with neem, like I do, less spraying is good!

Some people like to go around the internet posting scare stories about how Monsanto is going to outlaw (or already has outlawed) private gardens and the collection of any seeds. This is just not true. Evil as Monsanto is, it does not give a damn about gardeners because little serious money is to be made from us in comparison to agriculture. It has focused its GMO technology on the money makers like rice, wheat, corn, and soybeans. So being financially insignificant, like most of us are, has its advantages. Btw, worried about GMO soybeans? Eat organic soybeans. They are tested not to have GMOs.

"Priapus" Variety Heirloom Corn

That said, if you are growing corn and are concerned about consuming GMOs (I sure am), you are well advised to grow colored varieties. Pretty much all the yellow or white corn in the US is contaminated with GMO genes. The good thing about corn is that each kernel is the result of wind-borne pollen and will show immediately if the pollen has come from yellow corn if it’s a colored corn, like the heirloom Bloody Butcher or  Oaxacan Green (just remember that typically, these are flour or parching corns rather than sweet or corn-on-the-cob corns). You can also just buy colored cornmeal (I’ve seen blue and red available), colored corn chips, and colored taco shells.:) Using corn as a grain instead of wheat will also get you around the contamination of wheat with GMOs–and if you want to grow your own grains, with corn you won’t have to deal with deep plowing, threshing, heavy duty grain mills, and so forth, all of which is necessary for raising the popular grains. Another good grain substitute is potatoes: lots of wonderful heirloom varieties of those at Fedco Seeds, a seed co-op in Maine.

With some plants, tomatoes or beans, for instance, it’s easy to save seeds, because these plants are naturally self-pollinating. Once you have selected plants with particular traits over several generations and from a good number of plants, you can pretty much keep that variety stable, growing it out year after year and further selecting and refining for those traits. This is how many small farmers used to grow crops. You can learn more about the ins and outs of saving seed of various typical garden plants in Seed to Seed or go a step farther and learn how to develop your own veggie varieties in Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties. Nobody has really written about saving seeds from herbs.

But some plants are not heirlooms because they have never had named varieties. I have never heard of named varieties of belladonna, mandrake, or henbane, for instance. They simply have not been that widely grown and remain closer to the wild.There are a few named varieties of black nightshade (numbered rather than named, since these are varieties developed by ag schools), but these have been developed for food production in tropical climates. Could individual witches have developed named varieties? I don’t see that as very likely, since a lot of plants would have to be grown over many plant generations to do this, and belladonna and mandrake, for instance, are pollinated by insects rather than being self-pollinated, like a tomato, which means that individual plants would have to be isolated, etc. Landraces might be possible, and certainly with black nightshade, landraces abound. But that is a selection that just happens and is not directed by people.

All this is to explain why, for the most part, I am not selling heirloom seeds. They simply don’t exist for many of the plants that have traditionally had a place in the witch’s garden. Instead, each seed remains a repository of a huge variety of genetics. These plants, although still very close to the wild, have chosen to dwell near human beings. That says a lot.

10 comments to Heirloom Seeds & the Witch’s Garden

  • faustianbargain

    i love this post! (and the pictures too..) i am pretty sure it was here that i saw a link to daughter of the soil blog. maybe i am mistaken..i dont see it now? anyways.. the woman who writes it has some of the coolest writings on heirloom vegetables. she also breeds peas, potatoes and tomato hybrids at home in england. i learnt a lot about hybrids and breeding/cross breeding plant varieties at home from there.

    • Alchemist in Charge

      Yeah, that was a cool blog, but it appeared she had abandoned it. Nothing had been posted for more than six months, so I deleted the link.

  • I also think that you will not really see a lot of “Cultivars” of Witch-plants… because that would require nudging and manipulating the plant. And that, suffice it to say, could backfire.

    I know that our local Datura is a landrace. She has natural qualities which are different, she exhibits WAY more purple than your average datura, but way less than Burgimansia. If I were to get her leave to cross-pollinate her to another local with a more friendly personality, those seeds may be a GREAT contribution to poison-work. However, they may also be ferocious like their mother, and diminutive like their father – making them mean little ankle-biters. That’s a crapshoot I’m not at yet.

    • Alchemist in Charge

      Ankle-biter daturas is pretty scary–make me think of piranhas, lol! Seriously, it would be interesting if you could figure out why the plant developed along those lines there. I thought immediately of stuff I’ve read about how natives cultivated wild plants, leaving them where they found them but encouraging them with ferts, pruning, weeding, etc. Maybe they were using them for ritual purposes. Here, the spineless datura was apparently the variety that was used by a tribe locally for initiations. I have noticed with another plant family (poppy) that often the seed color coincides with flower color. And I have noticed that amongst petunias, the white flowers have the strongest scent. So a datura flower with more purple than usual makes me wonder what about its alkaloids–or the ratio of the alkaloids–might be different and whether the scent might be different from a “stock” datura. I do think that scent is used by plants not only to attract insects but people as well–to communicate with us.

      • I’ve found something of a family tree of these plants, descended from Ol’Teasel.
        A neighbor collected seed and grew a plant from it – “Daughter” – who is all white, has an extremely high, flowery, tuberose-like scent and almost none of that bitter, green, alkaloidal quality to it. She’s in a flower bed with mulch and miriacle-gro.

        “Daughter”‘s seeds appear to have spread to a nearby patch of woodland where a very tiny plant (“Lil’Guy”), with the same characteristics (but almost “dwarf” in stature) is now growing. He’s in some pretty deep woodland loam, and in fairly damp soil year round.

        Meanwhile, Ol’Teasel is INCREDIBLY purple, has a knock-you-in-the-face scent of alkaloids from her -greenery-. The flowers, especially mid-summer when they get hot, can almost choke you. A brief few seconds of skin contact with the sap knocked me on my butt for several hours. Due to her location I know she gets a lot of urates in the soil, and a lot of iron. But she is not “cared for”, and often gets little to no water.

        • Alchemist in Charge

          It does sound like the coloration has something to do with alkaloid content. I read years ago that tobacco plants grown in the sun with little irrigation made much higher alkaloids than those grown in prime conditions. That would make sense of the daughter having a white flower, if the flower color is in some sense connected to alkaloid content. Does Ol’Teasel’s greenery smell like peanut butter? Or is it different?

  • faustianbargain

    i was wondering…if you can grow fennel in your zone?

  • Doc_Voodoo

    Just rained for ten days down here in Texas and I now have some Wild Tobacco growing on the property. Whish I knew where to get the seed from it…any suggestions ?

    • Alchemist in Charge

      Doc, when the flowers die back, on each spot where a flower was a small pod will form, about the size of a small kernel of corn, only round. Eventually the pods will turn brown and start to crack open. What I do is wait until a bunch of the pods are brown and then I cut off the top and turn it upside down in a paper bag until the seeds (mostly) fall out. Sometimes you have to press the pods open, but wear gloves because this plant is very sticky and I am sure that the stickiness contains nicotine alkaloids. You’ll see how the seeds that have tumbled from opened pods get stuck to the stem and so forth. ~Harold

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