Burst of Bloom

Seed saving supporters ensure future for flora

If you stop to think about it, seeds are really tiny embryonic plants enclosed in a protective outer coating—fledglings awaiting their moment to be called into service.

And the more, the merrier, according to American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson:

"Vegetable life does not content itself with casting a single seed, but fills the earth with a prodigality of seeds that, even if thousands perish, thousands more may plant themselves, hundreds may come up, tens may live to maturity, and at least one may replace the parent."

Environmental crusader Michael Pollan, writing in "Second Nature: A Gardener's Education" wrote: "Seeds have the power to preserve species, enhance cultural (and) genetic diversity, counter economic monopoly, and check the advance of conformity on all its many fronts."

That said, a whole bunch of these seeds are waiting to be discovered in the Pima County Public Library Seed Savers Program and at Native Seeds/SEARCH.

"The heirloom seeds we work with are meant to grow in this area's environment where other seeds won't," said Liz Fairchild, distribution coordinator at Native Seeds. "They are climatized to our alkaline soils, our bright sun, scorching heat and lack of rain, and yet they still produce."

Open-pollinated heirloom seed collections are also available at eight library branches (see library.pima.gov/faq/seed-library for locations). Seeds can be borrowed, planted and grown at home, with an anticipation that some harvested seeds might be returned so others can enjoy the same process.

Now in their second season of One Seed Pima County, the libraries' 2017 highlighted seed is the Tohono O'odham cowpea, a legume that has been cultivated for generations for its heartiness, as well as its nutritional properties and culinary attributes.

"Cowpeas thrive in sandy soil and embody all the best of a desert crop," according to library publicity.

The native connection with regional seed production is a solid one, for both Tohono O'odham and the Pascua Yaqui tribes, as demonstrated in this century-old quote: "To scratch a bit of ground with a hoe, to plant seeds and watch the renewal of life is the commonest delight of our race, the most satisfactory thing a man can do."

That was the feeling in 1983, when four Tucsonans worried that seed stock for future crops was starting to disappear. They kicked in a few bucks each to locate 40 varieties of endangered seed to ensure the specific strains wouldn't permanently disappear. Now, nearly 35 years later, close to 2,000 varieties of seed have been saved by Native Seeds/SEARCH.

"These seeds represent cultures that have survived for thousands of years in the Southwest as ancient farmers figured out how to be successful in pretty marginal growing conditions," said Kevin Dahl, a former executive director of NS/S. "We steward these precious seeds, true links to the past. This is a living heritage, and we need to maintain this palate of genetic material."

"In 2016, we distributed 70,000 packets of seed, cleaned and sorted by hundreds of volunteers," Fairchild said, pointing to a Native Seeds status board at their River Road location. "We rely on volunteers and couldn't do the volume we do without their invaluable assistance in helping us process and package the wide variety of seeds sold at our retail store on Campbell Avenue."

Opened in early 2012, the NS/S seed library was Arizona's first to deal with locally-adapted seeds.

Should your interest be sparked, visit the NS/S store or grab your library card and check out a packet of seeds at the aforementioned locations (or reserve a packet through the online catalog by typing in "seed library" or the plants common name in the keyword search box). You can check out up to 10 packets of seeds per month using the same process as you would a book, DVD or any other library materials.

Volunteers at both projects are always welcome. For information on Pima County's Seed Library outreach programs, call 791-4010. For NS/S Seed Processing Workday information, call 622-0830. For those ready to jump into the subject with both feet, NS/S presents classes on the Basics of Seed Saving (Aug. 12, $35) or a two-day detailed Introduction to Seed Saving (Sept. 9-10, $145).