Forty years later, one ‘wonder’-ful bean finds its way home through Seed Savers Exchange.
On the morning of May 23, 1977, Deborah Abbott of rural New Hampshire pulled out a typewriter, inserted a sheet of paper, set the typewriter’s carriage, and began banging away on its keys.
“Dear Mr. Withee,” she typed in salutation to John Withee, the seed-saving “bean man” about whom she had recently read in Yankee magazine, “I have enclosed some family heirloom beans…developed by my grandfather in about 1919. ….He has always called them Connecticut Wonder and maintains that they surpass the Kentucky Wonder for flavor.”
Deborah went on to share the well-founded concern that her grandfather, Frank Abbott, had expressed for the preservation of his prized bean, which he had stewarded so carefully for decades: “One problem that he has had…is preserving the true variety of the bean. The bees that pollinate don’t observe garden fence lines or differentiate between varieties.”
As the years passed, the bees in Deborah’s rural New Hampshire garden proved equally inattentive to boundaries when it came to the Connecticut Wonder. Eventually cross-pollination so contaminated the family’s treasured seed that the tasty climbing variety—likely a cross between the aforementioned Kentucky Wonder Wax and Cranberry Pole beans—was lost to them. Unbeknownst to Deborah, however, the Connecticut Wonder had not been lost to the larger gardening community.
The bean she had so carefully packaged and mailed to John Withee and his Wanigan Associates bean-saving enterprise in 1977 had, in fact, found its way to Seed Savers Exchange when John donated his extensive bean collection to the organization in 1981. But while it had been disseminated across the United States by Seed Savers Exchange members in the years that followed, as of late 2016, the Connecticut Wonder bean had not found its way back home.
A very happy homecoming
Serendipity combined with fast action facilitated that long-overdue homecoming last November. While conducting research for an online exhibit about John Withee last May, Seed Savers Exchange preservation staff discovered that the Abbott family had long ago lost its beloved bean. Staff quickly grew out the Connecticut Wonder last summer at Heritage Farm, its Decorah headquarters, to procure a pure seed sample. They then mailed that sample to Deborah last fall. “It was the only bean that I remember my grandfather ever growing,” she says fondly, “and it will be the only variety that I will grow in my garden going forward.”
This coming spring, the seed will once again be sown in the fields of Heritage Farm. If this “lot check” planting confirms the variety’s purity, Seed Savers will offer the Connecticut Wonder bean in its 2018 Yearbook Exchange, through which all members will be able to obtain it. It may also make an appearance in a future Seed Savers Exchange catalog. (No guarantees!)
Preservation starts with you
The Connecticut Wonder bean is just one of more than 20,000 heirloom and open-pollinated seeds preserved in the organization’s seed vault. And while the seed bank is an important part of ensuring agricultural diversity for future generations, it isn’t nearly enough to get the job done. Like Deborah Abbott and her Grandpa Frank before her, you too can play a big role in seed preservation. How? Grow out heirloom varieties in your garden. Save their seeds (using isolation distancing, hand pollination, and other techniques to prevent unwanted cross-pollination). And don’t forget to share your seed story.