Seeds of Place, Rooted in Tradition
Heirloom seeds are a cultural inheritance gifted to us and worthy of our stewardship. The lives of our ancestors are reflected each time we sow a seed, and every time we gather around a table. Connections to our shoreline, fields, and waterways are daily reminders of our reliance upon our landscapes for food cultivated from a sense of place.
With the resurgence of farmers markets, we are once again able to enjoy the freshness and flavor of locally grown food. New generations of local farmers and fishermen are rebuilding age old systems which fed the Seacoast from the waters and the soils. In the process, we have created vibrant new communities, healthier environments, and strong local economies.
People are relearning how to live with respect for our ecosystem. When we eat seasonally, we are reminded of a time when our ancestors lived closer to the land, in greater harmony with the rhythms of place and time of year. In winter, they ate foods that they had carefully stored and preserved to insure survival during the cold months. In spring, they knew thousands of perennial plants and cold tolerant annuals that could sustain them before warm weather crops came in. During the summer, their diet was rich in produce. In autumn, household traditions were deeply rooted in preserving the harvest and putting by the abundance for winter.
Eating from the land is not new to Seacoast residents. Once the glaciers receded along this coastal landscape indigenous people foraged, hunted, and fished. Well over 1,000 years ago, Piscataqua Band tribes of Native Americans took up the practice of agriculture. Archaeobotanical evidence, historical documentation, and living collections help us understand how these communities fed and nourished their families. The early agricultural pattern of planting corn, beans, and squash or pumpkin together, known as three sisters planting, is widely recognized as one which offers the highest yield, pound for pound, of any agricultural method known in the world today. Together they create a nutritionally balanced diet that can be eaten fresh or stored throughout the winter. Strains of the varieties kept alive by backyard gardeners and local farmers exist today, including cranberry bean, long pie pumpkin (also known as Algonquian squash) and Roy’s Calais Flint corn. Like beans that were understood to provide valuable dietary protein, generations found free harvest and winter sustenance in the black walnuts, chestnuts, and hickory nuts that dropped from the trees. Spice was once again added to life, and the medicinal attributes of plants like wintergreen, teaberry, bee balm, mint, rose, sassafras, sumac, spruce and sarsaparilla were common.
From these first nations, settlers learned how to make local sweetener by tapping trees for syrup in spring and gathering watercress from springs in the mid-winter. Foraging for spring fiddleheads and summer fruits like strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, blueberry, elderberry, currants, gooseberry, wild cherry, beach plum, grape, and cranberry was learned to accompany the fall harvest. The centuries have taught seacoast residents the best seasons to harvest wild foods like wild allium (garlic, leeks, onions, chives), and the right times of year to harvest roots like Jerusalem artichokes and ground nuts. They even foraged for sea vegetables, like kelp, laver, dulse and saltwort.
By the 17th century, the first immigrants to the region settled in Portsmouth (then called Strawberry Bank) and began to plant the seeds of their European cultural inheritance. They quickly adopted the native crops of the region and made regular attempts to grow old-world field corns like peas, wheat, barley, wheat and rye for making the familiar bread, beer, and pottages that they consumed in Europe. They brought orchard fruits like apples, pears, and a range of small summer fruits like currants, gooseberry, cherry, plum and quince to sweeten life until the fall harvest. They brought perennial crops like skirret, salsify, sorrel and asparagus, as well as hardy crops like cabbage, onion, parsnip, turnip, beet, leek, collards, kale, and cauliflower. Heirloom varieties of greens like orach, purslane, corn sallet (mache), sorrel, chive, endive, chicory, and good King Henry were also introduced. They carried seeds of familiar greens like lettuce, spinach, chard and arugula (which they called rocket or roquette). All told, over 170 documented culinary and medicinal plants were introduced to our area within the first 100 years of European colonization.
Historically, we know nearly 20,000 food plants that were relied upon around the world. For the ease and profit of agribusiness distribution channels, we have reduced our staple crops to fewer than two dozen. This does not mean that we are eating the best or most delicious, it means that it is easier to ship a head of iceberg lettuce, a stone hard tomato, unripe green peppers, and bananas to market all year round. With the resurgence of backyard gardening and local farming, we are once again able to enjoy seasonal, local produce. Food miles and our reliance on petroleum-based chemicals and shipping are reduced when we harvest kale from our own backyard or purchase melons from a local farmer. Nutritional value and food safety are improved when our crops are ripened to full maturity in the sun and soil. Above all, the freshness and flavor of a backyard tomato, fully ripened on the vine, is unparalleled by anything that can be purchased in a grocery store.
Whether by a Thanksgiving feast, a can of baked beans, a local brew, or a family excursion to forage for blueberries, we are reminded of our historical roots each day at the table. Just as your parents taught you that there was nothing so sweet as a strawberry found in nature, we must make an effort to share the wild side and cultivate the uncommon in the next generation. Each time we recreate an old family recipe, we keep these connections to culture and place alive. Each time we opt to plant an heirloom seed, buy a traditional crop from a local farmer, brew our own beer, or throw a fishing line in the water, we keep memories alive. The roots we tap into may well be those of the Native Americans who cultivated the land before us, or those brought by our grandparents from their homeland.
Today, as we are confronted by unlabeled GMO’s, chemically-infused “food-like substances,” and unsustainable agricultural practices, we are all empowered to make a difference. By reconnecting to our roots, imbibing a sense of place, and performing an important role as environmental stewards, it is with the littlest seed that we can hold in the palm of our hand that we can sow a culture of change.
Wendell Berry suggests that “eating is an agricultural act. What seeds will you plant with your family this year? What traditions will you keep alive? And how will you help others in this region sustain themselves long into the future?
In my work locally and globally with Slow Food, museums and botanical gardens, we like to say, “eat it to preserve it.” In my experience, I find that life is more digestible when we savor the fruits of our own labor, when we invest in our own communities, and when we remember that the quality of our food and water is only as good as the environment that we safeguard.
It all begins with a seed. Throughout our history, community has been built and celebrated from the landscape and around the table. Our local food movement today has sustainable roots. Through food culture we are crafting a regional quality of life that is helping our vibrant, edible, seacoast community spring back to its roots.
John co-founded and served as the board chair for Slow Food Seacoast. He serves on the biodiversity committee for Slow Food USA and is the governor for Slow Food chapters throughout the state of Massachusetts. He also serves as chair of the board for the Herb Society of America’s New England Unit, and won the 2014 Award for Excellence in Horticulture from the national office.
Thousands on Facebook follow his posts where he blogs as The Heirloom Gardener - John Forti.
John Forti is a nationally recognized lecturer, garden historian, ethnobotanist, and garden writer. He is the Director of Horticulture for the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, the oldest horticultural society in the nation. Before taking on this new position, he was the Curator/Director of Historic Landscapes at Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, NH. He previously served as the Director of Horticulture at Plimoth Plantation Museum where the gardens and seed program he created brought international attention to the preservation of Pilgrim and Wampanoag heirloom crops.