The Impact of a Simple Seed

Conner Prairie Garden

Some of my earliest memories of family revolve around gardening.  I remember dancing” in the seeds as I followed behind my dad as he planted; snapping green beans for the quarts of beans my mom canned each year. I would dig for the buried treasure that was homegrown potatoes and harvest sweet corn that went into the boiling water within minutes of being picked. I shelled peas with my grandma and loved perusing the colorful seed catalogs that began to arrive shortly after the excitement of the winter holidays died down. Those seed catalogs were (and are) full of wondrous treasures. We never knew what new thing dad might try to grow each year. Often it was things that pushed the boundaries in an Indiana garden, like when we grew peanuts for a few years. Did you know that after the peanut plant blooms, that flower stalk dives below the ground to then produce the peanut?

Flowers blooming in the garden

The Importance of Heirloom Plants

When I started my job at Conner Prairie, a whole new world of plants opened up. I learned about the heirloom plants that we nurture in our gardens. Plants are considered heirlooms if the variety has been around for at least 50 years. They are also open-pollinated, meaning you can save seeds, replant them and get the same kind of plant in future years. I find that growing your own heirloom vegetables opens up so many options with different flavors and colors of vegetables than you have ever imagined.

These heirloom plants help preserve important genetic traits that may be useful in the future. Having a wide variety of tomatoes, peppers, or potatoes also helps protect our food supply from some diseases. In 1970, Southern Corn Leaf Blight hit the United States. At that time, 80% of the field corn was the same variety, making it all susceptible to the blight. Corn yields dropped that year due to the blight. The same thing happened in the 1840s in Ireland as nearly all the potatoes in the country, all the same variety, were affected by the potato blight, now known as the ‘Irish Potato Famine’. It’s said that 1/3 of the Irish people died of starvation due to the blight, 1/3 emigrated and 1/3 remained in Ireland, giving the famine its other name of ‘The Great Hunger’. These famines show the importance of farming diverse genetic traits in heirloom plants. Today, if we look at the seed catalogs of 1900 versus the catalogs of 2021, over 85% of the varieties of seeds in those early catalogs are gone. Some of those varieties are gone for good. Some are still maintained by small seed companies or home gardeners.

Conner Prairie interpreters in the garden

Maintaining Indiana’s Foodways History

At Conner Prairie, we have designed our gardens to represent the people and time of Hoosiers in the mid-1800s. When designing these gardens, we can sometimes find the old seed varieties used at the same time and sometimes we have to go with the closest approximation we can find due to many seeds that are lost throughout history. Just like I did with my family when I was young, today my colleagues and I scour the seed catalogs, always looking for new sources of seeds. We have found some rare seeds through the Seed Savers Exchange and even accessed seeds from the USDA seed banks. We’ve even participated in seed swaps that have added bountiful varieties in our heirloom collection. 

Our Red Bush Limas are a prime example of a new seed added to our current collection of seeds. Years ago, a Conner Prairie interpreter bought a small packet of Red Bush Lima seeds from an Amish woman in Pennsylvania through an ad in the Amish newspaper, The Budget. Our interpreter grew those seeds and saved every one to grow again. This process continued for a few more years until we finally had enough lima beans to cook that had great flavor.  If you’re not a lima bean fan, these might change your mind! They have a wonderful, nutty flavor. They also have the primitive trait of ‘shattering’ which is when the pod splits to spread the seeds which happens if the seeds are left on the plant too long. In 2016, the menu at our winter Hearthside Suppers included a succotash that contained these red lima beans.

Early Jalapeno plants

Our white Lenape corn, called Puhwem, from the Lenape tribe of Indians, is a seed in our current collection that is not commercially available. Our seed came directly from the freezer of Mike Pace, our Delaware/Lenape staff member. Puhwem will grow as tall as 18 feet. Unlike modern field corn with its ears all at the same level, Puhwem carries its ears at different levels. This is a great corn for making hominy and for grinding into cornmeal. In addition to the white Lenape corn, we also grow a blue/black Lenape corn, called Sehsapsing, along with a few varieties of Lenape beans. The search continues for more Lenape varieties along with those from other native people who made what is now Indiana their home.

One seed that we nurture is just approaching heirloom status is our Broad Ripple Yellow Currant tomato. The original seed was purchased from John Hartman, an Indianapolis seed saver and gardener. In the early 1980s, John found a tomato growing in a crack in the sidewalk in Broad Ripple, an Indianapolis neighborhood. He took it home and grew it out. Searching all his sources, he couldn’t find another tomato exactly like it. This small, yellow tomato is sweet and juicy with wonderful tomato flavor. We grow it each year at Conner Prairie, saving seeds that go on to be some of the most in-demand plants at our annual Mother’s Day plant sale. We have people who return year after year to get these tomato plants for their own garden.

Young girl watering flowers

Conner Prairie’s Annual Plant Sale

Whether you are someone who grows a single plant in a pot, someone with a half-acre garden or one of nearly 20 million Americans who started gardening for the first time in 2020, know that there is always more to learn and new plants to try out. Each spring,  Conner Prairie hosts our annual plant sale full of new additions to add to your garden. We’ve got lots more fascinating stories of these plants to share with you!

We’ll also be following the Conner Prairie gardens through the season in a new video series. Learn some gardening basics and more about the heirloom plants at Conner Prairie. As you come out for a visit to Conner Prairie, you might even get a chance to help put some seeds in the ground or help harvest things as the gardens grow. Whether at Conner Prairie, in a community garden, or your home garden, get out there, get dirty, and get growing!

Michelle Evans, the Domestic Trades Manager at Conner Prairie, oversees Foodways and Gardens.

About the Author

Michelle Evans began work at Conner Prairie in 1984 as Mrs. Curtis, the blacksmith’s wife. After having more different job titles than she kept track of, she is currently the Domestic Trades manager, overseeing Foodways, Gardens and Textiles.

One of her favorite Covid projects was spinning wool from rare sheep breeds as part of the Livestock Conservancy’s Shave ‘Em to Save ‘Em project. Of the 23 listed breeds, she has currently spun 18 of them.