Inside a Rare Cache of Heirloom Seeds – Garden & Gun


Carold Wicker lived in the Dutch Fork area of ​​central South Carolina for 84 years and was not only an avid gardener. The auto repair shop owner has preserved the heirloom seeds that his family and nearby relatives have preferred for generations.

That’s why Dr. David Shields, a professor of English at the University of South Carolina who is serious about preserving the diet and ingredients of the South, received word that Wicker had drastically cut back on his gardening pursuits due to his poor eyesight. I enthusiastically accepted the invitation this November. Take a peek at our collection.

“Saved seeds can have limited viability, and Carold can only save a few new seeds each year, so we wanted to make sure we knew what was in there,” Shields said. says.

In this case, the “collection” was a battered Montgomery Ward chest freezer filled with thousands of plastic bags filled with seeds. What the presentation lacked, it made up for in an easy-to-understand organization with species names and years of preservation. As with any archaeological excavation, each layer is a journey into the past, with the seeds at the bottom dating back to his late 1960s. The categorized finds were astonishing, including varieties of beans, melons and collards thought to be extremely rare or even lost.(See some of the top searches below.) .)

“In the mid-20th century, agronomy replaced plant development, and factors such as disease resistance took precedence over flavor,” says Shields. “Fortunately, throughout the South, there were guardians of the classic breeds that have stood the test of time. Old heirlooms were designed to be delicious.”

Shields has acquired some of Wicker’s newest growths of these seeds, repackaged them into glass vials, and transferred them to Clemson University’s Heirloom Collection. (Yes, USC and Clemson scholars are even allowed to converse and collaborate.) From there, the most important varieties are provided to experienced local growers to produce new crops. At the same time, we select the most cold-hardy plants to produce more heat-tolerant future varieties. and pests. “These old plants can be more adaptable than you think,” says Shields. “They may survive where modern, genetically less diverse breeds may all die out.”

Photo: Dr. David Shields

Butter beans and butter peas from Wicker’s collection.

Best of all, once viability is established in a few years, seeds are available to even the average home gardener through the Clemson Program and heirloom-focused seed catalogs.

Some highlights from Wicker’s collection:

rattlesnake watermelon: Originally bred in Augusta, Georgia in the 1850s by crossing extinct Lawson and Mountain Sprout watermelons, this 20-pound picnic melon is oblong with vertical stripes that undulate like a snake. The red meat inside has an elegant taste.

african melon: Wicker grew this pink-fleshed melon from seeds brought back from North Africa by his brother who served there during World War II. He says it has a hint of nutmeg and provides the most distinctive flavor of any cantaloupe he’s eaten.

dutch fork pumpkin: A tawny, lobed squash grown in the Dutch Fork area around Newbury, South Carolina since the early 19th century. Circumstantial evidence suggests that it is descended from ancient Cherokee pumpkins of native origin.

early flame pea: As the name suggests, this earliest maturing classic English garden pea is planted in cold frame in mid-December and transplanted in mid-March. The growth of this seed in his 2022 shows that it is the same pea that Thomas Jefferson once planted in Monticello and was thought to be extinct.

Photo: Dr. David Shields

Seeds of early peas.

black butter pea: This tender string bean forms compact pods and is a favorite in Dutch forks as a summer side dish. Soft, dark red beans are boiled and tossed with melted butter. “I think this has commercial potential,” says Shields.

small coastal cowpea: This hardy grower from the Carolina Lowcountry was known in the early 20th century to thrive in moist, salty environments. It was mainly used as a fodder crop.

heading collard: An interesting variety related to cabbage collards. This is a German he cabbage that lost its clumpy head when grown in southern Germany. The heading collard is a further adaptation that retains some of its genetic diversity to form a smaller analogue of the head again.

Little August Peanuts: A unique peanut that has the size and seed composition of the Carolina African Peanut restored several years ago, but matures earlier. “If you plant in August, you can harvest by December,” says Shields.



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