Seed catalogs and the promise of sunny days to come

As I sat here on this cloudy, overcast first Friday in February with the temperature hovering around 25 degrees and snow flurries possible, my mind wandered to power outages, school closings and such from years past. Then I began to remember spending those days looking at seed catalogs. Scanning those catalogs and thinking of warm, sunny days has brightened, and shortened, many a dreary winter’s day for me and for others in Arkansas and America. There’s little so soothing to another winter blast than looking at seed catalogs and anticipating warm breezes and summer gardens.

When I decided to investigate the history of seed companies, I was delighted to see that the history of seed catalogs is long and colorful and that many of the original companies are still “around”. For example, the first mail-order seed catalog was printed in 1784 by the David Landreth Seed Company of Philadelphia, Pa. Mr. Landreth was an Englishman who migrated to Montreal, Canada, before moving to Philadelphia to ply his trade.  

His company introduced the first zinnia in 1798, the first white potato in 1811 and the first garden tomato, named the “Love Apple”, in 1820. Mr. Landreth also founded the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society in 1828. He was also a participant in a group called the Columbian Exchange that imported and exported quality and desired seeds among other countries. Today the David Landreth Seed Co. still exists and is the fifth oldest corporation in America.  

Other popular, and historical, mail order seed companies still in operation include Boston’s Joseph Breck and Co. (1818), R. H. Shumway (1820 in Illinois), Ferry-Morse Seed Co, (1856), Park Seed Co. (1868), Burpee Seed Co. (1876), Stokes (1881), Gurney Seed Co., Henry Field Seed Co. and Annie’s Heirloom Seeds (Beaver Island, Mich.). There is a myriad of other well-known companies too.    

Interestingly, Burpee was the first company to hybridize vegetable seeds. Annie’s Heirloom Seeds advertises only heirloom varieties and no hybrids. 

Interest in heirloom seeds seems to be growing in most recent years. The heirloom tomatoes grown at/for UAM are a great local example of this revived interest. If you haven’t sampled these tomatoes, you have missed a treat. 

My own home gardener experimented with 10 varieties this past summer. We did see differences and did select three varieties to cultivate this spring, based on taste, quality and quantity produced and heat-resistance. You’d be surprised which we favored! 

Now you might ask, “What is an heirloom plant?”  While some say they must have been in cultivation before 1951, heirlooms are generally older varieties of non-hybrid, or open-pollinated, plants and seeds that are still being cultivated. Although plants can be either determinate (not intended to grow indefinitely) or indeterminate (keep growing all season), most heirloom plants are indeterminate. Our own tomatoes grew and produced until a killing frost. They were kept fertilized and watered too.  

This renewed interest in heirloom tomatoes in particular is thought to be stimulated by (1) a wider variety, (2) a perceived “better” flavor, (3) nostalgia, (4) their biogenetic diversity and (5) frugality. (You can save your own seed year after year.)

Many species have heirloom varieties and interest in many of these is awakening. There are “boocoodles” of seed catalog sites on the internet that have wide varieties of plants. Another emerging trend is websites that have seed “swaps”. “Customers” can find rare seeds and buy, or swap, their own varieties of seeds or plants for “starts” of other heirloom varieties. It could get to be a fascinating search!

Moving forward to the “newest” varieties of plants, have you heard of edamame? The first time I heard anyone say “ed-a-ma-me”, I thought “ed-a-what”? I have since learned that edamame is a type of “edible legume” similar to a green (unripe) soybean. It is popular in Asian food and gaining in America as a snack food. 

However, one of the most interesting things about edamame is its commercial growth on 12 small farms near Mulberry, Arkansas. It is becoming a cash crop there and a processing plant has been built in Mulberry for the crop. It is sold in many venues, but I first saw it in Sam’s Club in LR. If you go near Mulberry, seek a farm out and have a look! 

I’d like to see it grown in southeast Arkansas. A hundred years from now historians could talk about edamame fields in Drew County!

Next week: Drew County’s seeds man. Scan those catalogs and keep warm! Planting time is coming!

The Advance-Monticellonian

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