Lauterbach: Exploring the world for seeds of edibles

Special to The Idaho StatesmanJanuary 10, 2014 

Cracking the Egg

ERIC RISBERG — AP

Plant explorers have roamed the world gathering interesting ornamental plants that grow in exotic and remote locations, importing them to the U.S., and now there are some explorers looking for new edibles for home gardeners.

Concern for the future of food is driving this exploration and expanded seed offering. Burgeoning subdivisions covering the best agricultural lands, diminishing water supplies, and soils toxified by pesticides and salts squeeze Earth’s capacity to feed its humans and animals. What this means for us gardeners is that there are new flavors and new textures of natural food awaiting our gardens. Explorers and those selling those rare seeds hope that home gardeners will grow and preserve these foods, adding to the planet’s diversity of human food. As zoos preserve animal species, gardeners could preserve rare edible plants.

This is a project only for those with licenses to import seeds or plant materials after approval by USDA. We don’t need any more cheatgrass, kudzu, field bindweed or Russian thistle in our country. Do NOT try this yourself, for you may get into serious trouble with the law.

There are perils for gardeners, though: Information is usually sparse about growth habits and season length, and that can foul garden planning. If you plant beans in a row for bush beans and they turn out to grow as pole beans, your bed may become a tangled mess. Some suggest you stick a pole in the ground next to a bean plant that looks like it’s going to climb. This may shade other plants that need full sun, however, so plan for that possibility if you plant some of these rare beans.

Other problems include length of growing season, such as plants from seeds gathered from tropical locations might not even start to blossom until our first frost in October, so there’s no chance of fruit development here. Or you could suffer an allergic response to a new type of food.

I’ve grown plants new to me every year for more than 40 years, and I haven’t run out of new known ones to try yet, but some of these newly discovered foods are now on my list.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds lists new discoveries as “Explorer Seeds.” They include coyote and buffalo gourds, the latter credited by “Wild Plants of the Pueblo Provinces” as containing cucurbitacins, perhaps the “bitterest natural substances known to mankind,” soaked in water by natives of the American Southwest, and then that water was used for insect repellant, including squash bugs. Yes, I’ll try this.

These Explorer Seeds are listed online at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds’ website (www.rareseeds.com). Other seeds in this series are from Hawaii, India, Nigeria, Armenia, China, Italy, Madagascar, Peru and North America. The owners of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Jere and Emilee Gettle, also traveled to Europe and Southeast Asia gathering seeds for trial growing and eventual offering. Their travels have enriched their seed catalog offerings.

Richters, a seed and plant purveyor in Ontario, Canada, also has sent explorers to remote locations to ferret out new edible plantlife. Their catalog claims there are 7,000 edible plants on our planet, but humans cultivate only about 140 of them. Most of the world’s food supply depends on only 12 plant types (i.e., sugar cane, corn, wheat, rice, etc.). Richter’s new offerings are located at www.seedzoo.com. Their regular catalog at www.richters.com contains many other exotic culinary, medicinal and dye offerings.

Some of the new food plants found by explorers are landraces (varieties adapted to that location) common to a single village, not a country. Joseph Simcox is the main plant explorer for both Baker Creek and Richters, although the seed companies show different offerings of his group’s finds. Packets usually contain few seeds, and they might sell out quickly.

Send garden questions to melauter@earthlink.net or Gardening, The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.

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