Seed saving as a living legacy
A straightforward question asked of William Woys Weaver is met with a delightfully meandering reply. Overlapping tales featuring historical Pennsylvanians of renown trip into recipes for vintage delicacies, which morph into lessons on ancient Indigenous corn varieties. This seems of a piece with the lilting neoclassical-style tavern that’s home to the 76-year-old food scholar and James Beard Award-winning author — himself an historical Pennsylvanian of renown — which features few right angles, surfaces chock-a-block with Chinese porcelain antiques and, everywhere, evidence of Weaver’s abiding passion for seeds.
“These are stinking hot — these are Borie’s yellow Scotch bonnets,” says Weaver, standing over a kitchen table still-life of offerings from his garden, in response to no question at all. “They were introduced to Philadelphia in 1805 from Haiti. A family brought them with them, and they continue to make pepper sherry here…It’s a Philadelphia thing. You can tell who’s local and who isn’t because if you mention pepper sherry, the locals know what you mean.”
A gardener can find seeds for these peppers for sale through Weaver’s online catalog (along with more history about the Beauveau family, who shepherded them to Pennsylvania). But the catalog is more than a commercial enterprise: It’s an offshoot of Weaver’s Roughwood Center for Heritage Seedways, home to over 5,000 species of rare heirloom seeds from around the country and the world, which started with a collection belonging to Weaver’s grandfather. Today, the vast majority of seeds for agriculture are grown and sold by large multinational corporations that often own seed patents — an exertion of control over seeds’ genetic traits that researchers warn threatens global food security. In this context, highly personal seed collections such as Weaver’s, which are unpatented, un-owned and available for use to one and all, represent a critical way to safeguard biodiversity and conceive of the future of our food.
More than anything, though, Weaver’s collection is a storytelling repository — one that Weaver dips into over and over again as his mind travels through time and space, tracking the role that seeds, and the meals they eventually engender, have played in the lives of humans.
Around the table
If all goes according to plan, Weaver will begin to expand the audience for his stories sometime within the next few years. He’s planning to restore and transform his home into a culinary center where he envisions hosting meals prepared from things like the Kenyan zebra pole beans and Gaspé flint corn and wild muskmelons that populate his catalog.
“There will definitely be a narrative,” Weaver says. “People will have their menus explained to them course by course. I like stories about food: Why do we eat this? What’s the reason behind it? That really opens up the whole human element. It’s about the people, not about the seeds.” (Though he admits there will also be a building to house the seed collection, and sell packets of seeds, too.)
Many seed keepers discuss the importance of linking seeds to their original stewards — like Mohawk farmer Rowen White, founder of Sierra Seeds and the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network, who is on a mission to help Native communities reclaim and save their ancestral crops. There’s also much talk about the necessity of linking seeds to place, not just storing them in gene banks like Svalbard but also growing them out within local foodsheds to build up their resilience to local climate stressors.
All this can make Weaver’s collection, and his story-centric rationale for its cultural sprawl, seem anachronistic, leaping around as it does from foods of the African diaspora, various Indigenous groups, the Middle East, Western Europe. But those stories, and Weaver’s skill in identifying, preserving and distributing all sorts of seeds, have also inspired a long list of apprentices over the years. And they’ve gone on to interpret Weaver’s teachings to suit their own narratives and purposes.
Passing the baton
Some of Weaver’s mentees, like Truelove Seeds founder Owen Taylor, once worked with him at Roughwood. On a warm autumn afternoon recently, Taylor and his crew could be found sitting in the sunshine beside his 2-acre plot, collecting seeds from an Odell’s large white watermelon the old fashioned way: eating the sweet, cool flesh and spitting the seeds into a container.
Taylor started Truelove from a place of deep interest in his own southern Italian and Irish heritage; in the “Italian collection” on the website you’ll find wild arugula, cardoons, frying peppers and San Marzano tomatoes, some of which originated in the Campania region of Italy, where Taylor’s great-grandmother was born. But it was equally important to Taylor that everyone working for and with him — and there are 70 growers around the country who help fill out his inventory — contribute at least one seed variety connected to their own roots.
“The focus really is on people preserving their own culturally important seeds, in order to make them available for their diasporas,” Taylor says. That makes Truelove “pretty popular with immigrant and refugee communities who are seeking their traditional foods and on their land. These foods are really important to people, still, in real life.”
Mentees become mentors
The Odell’s watermelon was brought to Truelove by an apprentice and mentee of Taylor’s, Amirah Mitchell. She founded Sistah Seeds in 2021 to grow seeds from African, African American and Afro-Caribbean communities, thereby continuing to reinterpret the meaning and importance of seeds through personal connection. Della sorghum was grown by former Truelove apprentice Chris Keeve of the Fugitive Seed Project. Ewedu, aka Nigerian jute leaf, was introduced to Truelove by Halima Salazar of Justevia tea company.
Says Taylor of Salazar, “She used to have to travel hours to West African stores to get her traditional foods just to make a meal. She had never considered actually growing these things, and now she has so much excitement and joy from being able to attend to [things like] an Egusi melon.”
Moving through his farm, with its shell bean pods gone crispy and squashes overgrown to gargantuan size in preparation for seed extraction, Taylor reflects on intergenerational knowledge-sharing when it comes to what he calls the “art and science” seed saving. “Truelove wouldn’t have happened without Dr. Weaver, who was able to learn from his grandfather,” he says. Over the course of four growing seasons at Roughwood, “I learned about seed production and seed keeping and seed saving from him, and I feel very grateful to have been able to sit at his feet.”
But at a certain point, Taylor says, “I realized I really had a different mission that was connected to…food justice work, where I really wanted to be in community with farmers and gardeners who were doing cultural preservation. And I was like, Okay, I feel like I’m at the point where I have this mentorship I can offer.”
Seven years into Truelove, Taylor has had more than 20 apprentices come and go. Many of them, like Mitchell, have started their own seed projects; others, like Keeve, grow for the Truelove catalog in addition to their other seed-related pursuits. “It’s awesome to me to see the ways that our apprentices are able to glean what I have gleaned from people before me and translate it into meaningful work for them in their communities,” Taylor says.
Still, “You can’t save every seed in the world, and the ark, so to speak, can only be so big,” says Weaver. But what seeds he and others choose to save “are part of our living culture. That’s the whole idea behind Roughwood, to use seeds to do missionary work with food as the message that brings us together. It’s commensality at the table.”
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Top photo of Owen Taylor in the Truelove Seeds farm. Photo credit: Jerusha Klemperer.