Watching a seed cotyledon (sprout) pop through the soil is heaven on earth. I am especially interested in flower and tree seeds, but Rose and I collect a few seeds from our small vegetable garden, as well. We are indebted to seed savants.

The Sower, Jean-Francois Millet

“He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor.” Corinthians 3:8

I have been collecting and sowing seeds from gardens, parks, neighborhoods, cemeteries, and the wild for over 40 years. (This isn’t the first time I’ve written about sowing seeds.) If I were unexpectedly swept away to my heavenly reward this month, left behind would be mysterious clues of very random seed choices, scattered around my office. My loved ones would find seed samples of annuals, perennials, vegetables, trees, and even one hardy palm—all collected in envelopes and brown paper sandwich bags.

Small potatoes

My token effort with seeds is small potatoes compared to the legacy of early seed savants who began domesticating plants and seeds thousands of years ago. Their homes are referred to as the five world hearths of plant domestication. South America gave us potatoes. (Bolivians, by one account, still maintain over 1500 different spud varieties.) Mexico provided the world with corn. Africa gifted us soybeans and millet. The Middle East chipped in wheat and barley. And Southeast Asia, of course, gets credit for rice.

Pen and ink drawing by my great-grandfather, Sam Stone Bush

Kentucky figures into this—in a small way. Neither horses nor tobacco, nor hemp, nor fried chicken come close to a pumpkin relative’s historic significance in Kentucky agriculture. An important clue to one of the possible ancient pumpkin’s kissin’ cousins—the gourd—if not a direct progenitor to the pumpkin, was found in Kentucky. Seeds of an ancient gourd-like squash were found in the Red River Gorge in Powell County, Kentucky, fortuitously preserved in the dry environment of a rock shelter. (Cucurbita pepo, a New World species, includes squash, and pumpkins. Cucurbita pepo subspecies ovifera is the hard-shelled pepo squash; Cucurbita pepo subspecies pepo is the pumpkin.)

Is Kentucky a possible sixth hearth of plant domestication?

Thousands of years ago, indigenous people in Kentucky were selecting and growing seeds of early pepo squashes and chenopods (lamb’s-quarters!) for larger seeds and thinner seed coats for better germination.

It was first presumed those seeds found in Kentucky had been domesticated, selected over millennia for improved performance, by indigenous people. But according to research published in the Journal of Ethnobiology by C. Wesley Cowan and Bruce D. Smith (1993), these were wild seed and represented one of the most eastern U.S. locations of subspecies var. ozarkana. Carbon dating tests confirmed that the Kentucky discovery of the Red River Gorge material was 4,500 years old.

(The Trail of Pepos diverges here: More recent mitochondrial DNA studies suggest the possibility that subspecies ozarkana may have been the progenitor for subspecies ovifera. And subspecies ovifera, according to mitochondrial DNA, could have given rise to the pumpkin. It’s all a guessing game of haplotypes. In all likelihood, there were two probably distinct genetic lines.)

Wes Cowan and Allen Bush stand at the opening of a rockshelter in the Red River Gorge in the summer of 1977.

Wes Cowan, archaeologist, founder of Cowan Auctions, a PBS History Detective, and my college roommate, emailed and said Kentucky is not quite the sixth hearth of plant domestication.

 “I think this pattern of cultivation was widespread, and archaeologically, evidence has been found in the lower Illinois River Valley, and as far south as the White River drainage of Arkansas.  Kentucky is only important because evidence is well preserved there because of the rock shelters—the microclimate created by the overhangs preserved the seeds, etc. Same pattern of preservation has been found in Eastern Tennessee, the Mammoth Cave system in Kentucky and the rock shelters of the Ozarks. If there was a ‘hearth’ where the eastern domesticates first emerged, it has not yet been identified.”

So, we don’t quite rank up there with South America, Mesoamerica, Africa, and Southeast Asia, but Kentucky is a seed player—archaeologically and in the preservation of heirloom strains. There is an abundance of stories about many of Kentucky passalong vegetable seed strains.

Bill Best is a modern-day Kentucky seed sleuth

Bill Best and Dobree Adams, a fiber artist and photographer, released Kentucky Heirloom Seeds—Growing, Eating and Saving last year. Not only are there dozens of delicious regional seed strains mentioned, but the storytelling behind the origins of many of these, and the people behind them, are astonishing.

Bill Best has spent a long time looking to the past to save the future. He was a professor, coach, and an administrator at Kentucky’s Berea College for 40 years and co-founded the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center there. “The high price of cheap food kicked flavor to the curb,” Bill Best told me in an interview in 2016.

Best realized that it was time to look back to a period when heirloom strains of beans were shared in a community simply because they tasted good.

The Best Quest: Search for the most flavorful homegrown regional vegetables. As a child growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Haywood County, North Carolina, he had savored the taste of heirloom green beans and tomatoes.

The more popular green bean seed strains lacked the taste that he remembered from his youth. Newer hybrids were bred for mechanical harvesting. “I couldn’t believe how bad the Blue Lake bean was.”

Best started the non-profit Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center in the 1990s to prove that “products this region can produce can compete with large-scale farms based on quality… We want to use our skills and information base (developed over many decades) to bring to the forefront the importance of quality heirloom fruits and vegetables. It is our hope that this Center will go far toward making mountain agriculture sustainable.”

‘Lazy Daisy’ greasy, pole beans, given to Bill Best’s mother, by his father’s first cousin, Luther Best.

Bill Best is disturbed over the monopolization of modern agricultural seed. He’s doing his best to increase options, not minimize them. He has collected over 700 different bean seed strains to preserve for future generations.

Jelitto Perennial Seeds

My seed collecting is very modest. I buy seeds, also. And my former employee, Jelitto Seeds (The Perennial Seed Savants), in lieu of a gold watch upon retirement, gifted me all the seeds I want—for life.

I am blessed with seeds.