Gifted storyteller, seed enthusiast, and longtime Seed Savers Exchange member John Coykendall grew up in Tennessee, home of national treasures like the Grand Ole Opry, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and, yes, the rare Tennessee Sweet Potato Pumpkin.
The cream-colored, pear-shaped squash may be less famous than the Opry’s revered music stage or the park’s breathtaking landscapes, but, as John—a master gardener at Blackberry Farm retreat—would no doubt tell you, it’s every bit as important a contribution to the nation’s landscape and culture.
Now 73, John was just 16 when a keen sense of adventure led him to Ebenezer Station, a long-abandoned railroad terminal outside of Knoxville. There, amid the station’s dirt, detritus, and general decay, he discovered an also long-abandoned catalog.
The pages were dog-eared, the cover torn, but the colorful lithographs and detailed engravings of that 1913 Henry Maule seed catalog nonetheless captivated the inquisitive teen that hot summer day in 1959. As he perused the catalog, John noticed countless fruit, vegetable, and flower varieties that he had never before seen, despite having spent many hours on his grandfather’s farm and around seed savers. “I wondered,” he told Matthew Dillon, director of Seed Matters, during a 2012 interview, “what ever happened to all these seeds.”
One seed variety, in particular, caught his fancy: the Tennessee Sweet Potato Pumpkin. Why had he never seen this squash, despite its apparent origins in his native state? And where (if anywhere) might he find it?
It was in that moment, in that long-abandoned railroad station, that his passionate and painstaking search for old-time varieties began. Over the years, John traveled the South on countless seed-hunting missions, fearing the loss of many historic varieties once carried by seed companies. And wherever he went, he kept his eyes peeled for the Tennessee Sweet Potato Pumpkin. As the years passed without a sighting, he began to think—indeed, worry—that perhaps the squash had disappeared from the American landscape.
But all that changed the year (1990) he joined Seed Savers Exchange after reading about the organization in Organic Gardening magazine. More precisely, it changed the exact moment he received that year’s Seed Exchange Yearbook and—lo and behold!—saw it listed not once but four separate times. “I immediately wrote and got all four,” he says.
For John, the Seed Exchange has been exactly that. Just as he has received seed, so too has he sent it. (He has 90 total varieties of vegetables listed in the 2017 Yearbook alone, some acquired on seed-finding trips to Austria, Hungary, and Romania.) Beyond that, he has also put seed “in the bank”—in other words, sent seed to Seed Savers Exchange’s curated collections—each and every year since becoming a member. “This stuff can’t be lost, not on my watch,” he says.
And it won’t be, as long as organizations like Seed Savers Exchange are able to carry on their mission to save and share rare heirloom seeds. Every year, plant varieties—like the Tennessee Sweet Potato Pumpkin—previously thought lost are both found and shared via the work of Seed Savers Exchange.