Once Upon a Seed: Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa
On a plot in northeast Iowa, heirloom seeds flourish. The 7-foot 'Reid's Yellow Dent' sweet corn won a prize in the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. It was developed in 1846 from seeds brought from Ohio. Nearby dangle tan string beans ('Lina Sisco's Bird Egg') mottled with maroon; they come from a family who hauled them to Missouri in a covered wagon in the 1880s.
"There's a connection to older plants," says Diane Ott Whealy, cofounder of Seed Savers Exchange, one of the country's largest nonprofit seed banks. She runs it from Heritage Farm, the 890-acre headquarters 6 miles north of Decorah. "There's a flavorful memory, especially with the tomatoes. We don't separate the seeds from the people. There's a history and a story to them."
Click ahead to read more about Seed Savers. Slides 4 to 12 feature a sampler of heirloom plants. Slide 13 has information on some of our other favorite stops in Decorah.
Saving heritage seeds
Diane's seed story began in 1975 when she began saving and sharing heritage seeds—those passed down through families for generations. Inspiration came in part from a morning glory vine given to her by her grandfather and still clambering up her barn. Now the passion blooms all around Heritage Farms.
The main drive opens to display gardens, a visitors center and gift shop, which includes garden supplies and a buffet of seed packets. Sunflowers. Borage. Coneflower. Prairie blazing star. Bunny tails.
Trails wend through the woods to other garden areas, greenhouses, a herd of rare white cattle, and an apple orchard of thick, scraggly trees ancient in feel. They bear in a proliferation of red, orange, purple, green and brown. The array brings home the point of how intriguing variety can be. Only about 700 varieties of apples remain of an estimated 8,000 in 1900.
Since Seed Savers began, more than 25,000 plants have been collected and more than 1 million seeds shared. Diane tells of her experiences in her book, Gathering: Memoir of a Seed Saver.
Part of Diane's mission is to get seeds into new hands and to grow an appreciation for them. She gardens casually and warmly, treating plants like family. Herbs, flowers and vegetables intermingle as though they happened to wander in and find a spot wherever. "Have you ever seen two flowers that don't look good together?" she says.
Seed Savers Exchange is open free to visitors seasonally. (563) 382-5990; seedsavers.org The seed catalog—available online or by mail—includes a bounty of vegetables, herbs, and fruits. Click ahead for a sampler of old favorites.
A sampler of old favorites: 'Five Color Silverbeet' Swiss Chard
Crisp stalks grow in an impressively clean, bright rainbow of hues.
Old favorites sampler: 'Grandpa Ott's' Morning Glory
The inspiration for Diane Ott Whealy to start Seed Savers, this plant is a self-seeding annual with purple petals and red inner star.
Old favorites sampler: 'Mammoth Red Rock' Cabbage
From 1889, these 8-inch red-veined heads are solid, can weigh 7 pounds, and consistently work well for cooking and salads.
Old favorites sampler: 'Amish Pie' Squash
From an Amish family in Maryland, the 5-inch produce is "one of the best processing pumpkins we have ever grown," Diane says. It's great for baking.
Old favorites sampler: 'Wenk's Yellow Hots' Pepper
Three-inch medium-hot wax peppers ripen from yellow to orange to red. They're good for canning.
Old favorites sampler: Snail Flower
This fragrant, annual tropical vine with corkscrew flowers can grow in containers.
Old favorites sampler: Yellow Onion
Seed Savers offers two heirloom Italian yellows: 'Borettana', which grows sweet, 4-inch, flat bulbs (good for kabobs); and 'Yellow of Parma', with large 1-pound globe-shape produce.
Old favorites sampler: 'Rattlesnake' Bean
This drought-resistant vine bean has purple-streaked 7-inch beans and exceptional flavor.
More heirloom edibles worth a taste
1. 'Queensland Blue' squash
2. 'Alma Paprika' pepper
3. 'Dragon' carrot
4. 'Bogatyr' garlic
5. 'Applegreen' eggplant
6. 'Bull's Blood' beet
7. 'American Tonda' squash
8. 'Black Hungarian' pepper
9. 'Jimmy Nardello's' pepper
10. 'Tolli's sweet Italian' pepper
11. 'Stupice' tomatoes
12. Thai sweet basil
13. 'Long Red Florence' onion
14. 'La Ratte' fingerling potato
15. 'Kerr's Pink' potato
16. 'Red Burgundy' okra
While you're in Decorah
In addition to beautiful bike trails, Decorah has memorable architecture and great restaurants. For information, contact the Winneshiek County Convention and Visitors Bureau. (800) 463-4692; visitdecorah.com Some of our favorites include:
Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum With more than 24,000 artifacts and 16 historic buildings, as well as a farmstead and country church, Vesterheim offers an engaging history lesson. (563) 382-9681; vesterheim.org
Rubaiyat A seasonal menu, huge wine list and sophisticated entrees like citrus-rubbed salmon draw patrons to this 1865 downtown storefront. (563) 382-9463; rubaiyatrestaurant.com
B&B on Broadway Victorian charm and modern-day luxury blend for a charming experience. (563) 382-1420; bandbonbroadway.com