Seeding Our Heritage

Credit: Sylvie Michaud

Although I can hardly trace my own roots further back than my grandmother, I can grow peas from a seed whose history can be traced back to the year 1898 – thanks to the efforts of those who preserve the riches of our gardening past. Planting “heritage seeds” – open-pollinated, cultivated seeds that are in danger of disappearing – can ensure that we all have access to a wide variety of tasty vegetables and old-fashioned flowers of our choosing, both now and in the years to come. And these days, given the speed of biotechnology and the trend toward patenting seeds by multinational corporations, it can be reassuring to know exactly what our food is composed of and where it originated.

On a past trip to Italy, I had the pleasure of tasting the most flavourful tomatoes of my life. I ate them the way I would apples. The experience reminded of the vast distinction between heritage and commercial varieties, in both taste and appearance. Carolyn Herriot of The Garden Path nursery in Victoria is very familiar with such differences. “I grow over 35 varieties of tomato and each one has a distinctive flavour,” she points out. “Last year, I grew the Green Zebra tomato, which is a golden-green variety with forest-green stripes. When I sampled one, I was blown away by its sweetness. A thin-skinned, juicy variety called the Black tomato is so bizarre-looking that one of my customers brought the tomato to me and asked what was wrong with it.” Unlike their traditional counterparts, commercial seeds are engineered to produce vegetables with greater yields and uniform shapes, not to delight our taste buds or our visual sense.

On a global scale, multinational seed companies, such as Monsanto, have monopolized the agricultural products industry, limiting the variety of crop seed available to farmers. Herb Barbolet, founder and executive director of Farm Folk/City Folk in Vancouver, has been following this trend. “In order to be viable, these companies need to operate on an enormous scale,” he explains. “They concentrate on a few seed products that travel well and don’t over-ripen. This means a loss of biodiversity, which, on a larger scale, could potentially lead to crop wipeout.” Even more disturbing is the development of terminator seed, a product that does not reproduce, so farmers are continually forced to buy their seed from the same company.

On the other hand, heritage seeds are untouched by such concerns. “Heritage seeds are all about genetic diversity,” says Carolyn. “They are more resistant to unpredictable conditions, disease and drought because every seed’s DNA is slightly different, ensuring the survival of the species. Within one batch of seed some plants will be ready one week, others the following week. Who wants all of their zucchini at the same time?”

The thought of losing control over food production has resulted in an explosion of seed-saving networks worldwide. Seeds of Diversity, a Canadian seed-saving organization with 1,700 members from coast to coast, is a living gene bank offering over 1,500 varieties of vegetable and flower seeds through an annual seed-exchange program.

As valued by gardeners as fruits and vegetables, heritage flowers do double duty by making gardens historically significant and aesthetically beautiful at the same. In Victoria, Point Ellice House, a 19th-century house that is the former home of Peter and Caroline O’Reilly, has been a provincial historic site since 1974 and still retains many of the original rose, lilac and hardy fuchsia plantings from the late 1800s. Recently, the home’s staff discovered a pre-1920 hollyhock flowerbed when ivy that had overgrown the bed was cleared and seeds that had been lying dormant since the early part of the century spontaneously germinated and grew up to four metres in height.

Theresa Molinaro, curator of the site, stresses the importance of the garden’s history: “We can document so much about the O’Reillys’ lifestyle and compare it to life today. Just as we have preserved the furniture in the house, we have saved the family’s history in the flowers they grew. I can read Caroline’s garden diary as she talks about the new roses and fuchsias she planted, then step into the garden and see the living memory of her designs.”

Over on Bowen Island, restoration of one of the earliest orchards in B.C., that of William Davies, a settler in the late 1880s, has been the goal of the Bowen Island Heritage Preservation Association since 1991. Only 26 of the plum, apple, pear and cherry trees remain from the original 100 planted, but those that survive are an important living record of our agricultural heritage and of varieties that are now uncommon or rare.

Taking action to preserve our seed history and diversity can be as simple as planting a few varieties of heritage vegetable and flower seeds in next year’s garden. If you’re ready to experience a seed extravaganza, drop by a “Seedy Saturday” event. These Canada-wide seed exchanges bring together home gardeners, seed-savers, conservation groups and local seed companies to sell and swap vegetable, fruit, flower, grain and herb seeds. Visit for event dates or, if none are scheduled in your area, check the web site for information about organizing a seed exchange.

The ultimate step in continuing genetic diversity is to save, swap and plant your own seeds. Rather than fastidiously dead-heading, watch the full life cycle of a plant from seedling to seed producer. Some flowers, such as love-in-the-mist (Nigella damascena), produce seed-heads that rival the beauty of the flower itself. Although seed gene banks play an important role in saving plant genetic stock for food and medicine, it’s crucial that seeds do more than sit on the shelf.

“The climate is changing so rapidly that seeds need to be planted yearly so that they can adapt to the unpredictable changes in temperature and weather,” says Carolyn. “Otherwise, we may find that, when we’re ready to plant them, our carefully preserved seeds won’t thrive in the new conditions.”

Saving our garden heritage all comes down to maximizing our choices, giving us the freedom to
express our own tastes and preferences. And isn’t that the pleasure of gardening anyway?

Aurora Biodynamic Farm Creston, 250-428-4404;
Celebration Seeds Enderby, 250-838-9785 email:;
Full Circle Seeds Sooke, 250-642-3671 email:;
Howe Sound Seeds Bowen Island, 604-947-0016;
OSC Seeds, Waterloo, Ont., 519-886-0557;
Salt Spring Seeds Salt Spring Island, 250-537-5269;
Seeds of Diversity Canada Toronto, 905-623-0353;
Seeds of Victoria (The Garden Path Nursery), Victoria, 250-881-1555;
Seedy Saturday (The VanDusen Seed Collectors), Vancouver, 604-257-8664;
Stellar Seeds Ltd., Sorrento, 250-675-3309,;
Veseys Seeds Ltd., Charlottetown, P.E.I. 1-800-363-7333,;
West Coast Seeds, Delta, 604-952-8820,;

Farm Folk/City Folk, Vancouver, 604-730-0450,,
Bowen Island Heritage Preservation Association, Bowen Island, 604-947-2150,
Point Ellice House, Victoria, 250-380-6506,