Seeds aren’t always what we think they are. They are part of our world, which is always changing, so it is logical to think that seeds change over time, also. We can take great care to keep seed varieties pure, or mostly so, and then find out things happened that we didn’t expect. That’s life.
We can’t always tell by just looking at seeds how they will express themselves. Here are seeds for three varieties of tomatoes I am planting this year. One is a cherry tomato that is large by today’s cherry tomato standards, red, and has a real tomato taste, not sweet like the newer varieties. I used to grow these for restaurant sales more than 20 years ago. One variety is for Long Tom tomatoes. Long Tom is a very meaty variety that grows to an oblong shape weighing about 4 ounces. It is great for drying and has few seeds.
The third variety is for a tomato I call Barnes Mountain Red. It is a large red meaty tomato with great taste and good for all uses. A few years ago my daughter, Betsy, received seeds for Barnes Mountain Pink to grow out for a seed company. Unbeknownst to the seed company, the variety wasn’t stable and the seeds produced yellow, pink, and red tomatoes. The seeds for the pinks went back to the seed company with the instability noted. Betsy loved the yellows and saved the seed, wanting to work with it when time allowed. I am not big on off-colored tomatoes, but loved the red ones, so I saved the seed from some of those. I was happy they produced red tomatoes for me. (Many of the varieties in my garden have some sort of story connected to them.) Each of these tomato varieties is much different than the others, but you can’t tell that by looking at their seeds, except that there are always fewer seeds from the Long Toms and in this photo they look a bit darker.
You know that I have been working with cotton, specifically Nankeen Brown and Erlene’s Green. Betsy grows seeds for four seed companies and this year the seeds she agreed to grow for Southern Exposure Seed Exchange included Nankeen Brown cotton. I happened to be around when she opened the box of seeds she had received from Southern Exposure and had the opportunity to take a peek at the cotton, expecting to see dark seeds with no lint, otherwise known as naked seeds. To my surprise, they were fuzzy!
I first grew what I know as Nankeen Brown in my garden in 2005 and saved the seed. I still have the seed container labeled 2005 in my stash. I didn’t grow them out again until 2011 when I also grew Erlene’s Green. There was eventually some crossing that I will tell you about when I write about my Cotton Project. Every year since, the darkest brown fiber had seeds that were naked. If the fiber was lighter brown, it had crossed with the green and the seeds were fuzzy. To my best recollection, I bought the seeds from Southern Exposure and even remember there was a story about a Nankeen shirt connected with that variety.
The folks at Southern Exposure are friends of mine, so I contacted them questioning what they had sent. Anything they could find on Nankeen Brown indicated it had fuzzy seeds. They didn’t start working with Sea Island Brown, which has naked seeds, until 2008, so I wouldn’t have gotten those seeds. Although I keep many records, including seed invoices, I can’t seem to find the file from 2005. What a conundrum! Until now I would have sworn I was working with Nankeen Brown and it had naked seeds. I don’t know what happened there, but life goes on. I am renaming my brown cotton Sunfield Brown, since Sunfield is the name of our very small farm.
Most varieties don’t expose themselves like cotton does. Visual inspection doesn’t reveal differences. Seed companies do their best to make sure the seeds you receive are what they say they are. I have heard stories about gardeners having ordered seeds that grew out to be different than advertised. It doesn’t happen a lot, but it happens. The companies are dependent on their growers, who farm in a variety of areas, most likely with different soils and more or less a different climate than you are gardening in. I’m sure the growers work to ensure cross pollination doesn’t happen. However, anything can happen from seed, to plant, to seed that is distributed—and it does. Of course, this doesn’t explain what happened in the cotton mix-up. What a conundrum about that cotton.
We can get tied up in names of varieties, complete with detailed descriptions of what they will look and taste like and how they will grow. Personally, I don’t think the same variety of anything would grow the same in different climates and different soils, even within the same region. What matters most is how it grows in your garden. Discover what you want to produce, and experiment with varieties until you come close. Then save the seeds each year to have a strain of that variety that is acclimated to your soil, weather, and gardening habits. Seeds contain a whole history in their genes and you can bring out what works best for you. Then name it what you want. However it came to be that you grew that variety is your story and now you can give it a name.
So as not to be too far from what you started with, you might include the name of the original variety in your new name. The Southern Exposure Seed Exchange catalog carries a tomato variety called Roma VF Virginia Select, a strain of Roma VF that Pam Dawling developed at Twin Oaks Community near Louisa, Virginia. You probably know that peppers like warm conditions to germinate, but I have two pepper varieties that germinate well in the cooler soil of a coldframe—Ruffled Hungarian and Corno di Toro. I have not renamed them, but have been saving my own seeds and growing them in the coldframe for years. I donated seeds to my local seed library. I would love to see seed libraries stocked with varieties of seeds that are acclimated to their area and contain descriptions of what the local growers experienced. No matter what you call it, if it grows well in your garden, that is all that matters.