BERLIN — When you purchase heirloom vegetables from Assateague Coastal Trust’s 18th Annual Native Plant Sale on May 6, from 8 a.m.-1 p.m., you’ll not only be stocking your garden with delicious produce, you’ll also be helping to preserve and propagate special seeds and bolster biodiversity to boot.
This year, for the first time, ACT purchased its vegetable seeds from the Seed Savers Exchange, a Missouri-based nonprofit dedicated to saving and sharing seeds. They maintain a collection of more than 20,000 heirloom and open-pollinated vegetable, herb and plant varieties and are committed to ensuring the health and viability of the collection for generations of growers to come. They preserve most of their seeds in an underground freezer vault at their historic farm.
Why all the fuss about saving seeds? Over the last 100 years, the world has lost about 75% of its edible plant varieties. A food system that is dependent on such a limited variety of crops is frighteningly fragile. Just ask the Irish who lost a million and a half people to famine when their single variety potato crop was wiped out by a fungus. The increasingly industrialized agricultural system is also a major culprit, as the chemicals and machines that it requires have led farmers and scientists to breed for uniformity in plants and animals.
The good news is vegetables and fruits grown from heirloom seeds often produce more colorful and tasty treats, many with intriguing names and fascinating lineages.
Interesting to us on the Eastern Shore is the Fish Pepper, a derivative of serrano or cayenne peppers. These seeds were brought by slaves from the Caribbean and then planted by African American farmers in the Chesapeake region. The Fish Peppers flourished in the second half of the 19th century when they became the secret ingredient in sauces used by crab and oyster houses throughout the region. After disappearing in the early 20th century, the seeds resurfaced in the 1940s when an African American folk painter in Pennsylvania traded some for honeybees, thinking their stings would cure his arthritis. Passed down through the beekeeper’s family, the Fish Pepper seeds were eventually made available to the public again in 1995 through the Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook.
Now the Fish Pepper and many other delicious descendants of storied seeds are available for you to plant in your garden through the ACT Native Plant Sale. You may also want to consider the smooth and velvety Winter Luxury Squash that makes the best pumpkin pie in the land or the luxurious Noir des Carmes Melon, whose seeds came to us via Carmelite monks in France.
Check out the complete selection on ACT’s website at www,ActForBays.org where you can also pre-order before they sell out. The sale will be held at the ACT office on 9842 Main Street in Berlin.