There was no missing the intricate tree-branch teepee in the Evaluation Garden at Heritage Farm last summer. Sure, it towered high above the garden, which showcased an intriguing mix of flower, vegetable, and grain varieties from the Seed Savers Exchange collection. But that wasn’t the main reason the teepee captured the rapt attention of so many visitors—and, yes, birds and butterflies too.
It was, instead, the quick-growing vines with eye-catching red flowers—a hallmark of the rare ‘Lillibridge (Kettle Family)’ runner bean—that inspired so many lingering glances. The sight of those flowers was remarkable enough, but even more remarkable was the fact that the exquisite runner bean was “resurrected” by the expert Seed Savers Exchange Preservation Team, who each year grow out a selection of the varieties entrusted to our collection to refresh stock and ensure continued seed viability. Still more remarkable yet? The ‘Lillibridge (Kettle Family)’ runner bean is but one of three rare varieties recently revived by our Preservation Team, who also worked their magic on ‘Harry Strom’ black oats and ‘Corn Husk Doll’ corn.
‘Harry Strom’ Black Oats
Harry Strom, for whom this rare variety of oats is named, was a bird breeder whose Norwegian family used the oats as bird feed in the early 1900s. Harry passed on his treasured seed to Ray Frostad of Frosty Winds Farm in Kimball, Minnesota, who then passed it on to Seed Savers Exchange for safekeeping and preservation.
In 2017 SSE conducted a germination test on its inventory of the black oat seeds. (A seed-germination test helps determine if seeds will grow before you go to the trouble of planting them.) While not a single seed germinated, that didn’t stop the ever-optimistic Preservation Team. “It probably sounds a bit crazy, but we went ahead and sowed 16,200 seeds in the greenhouse anyway,” says Philip Kauth, director of preservation. Their efforts did not go unrewarded—nine seeds germinated, and almost 2,000 seeds were eventually harvested from that 2017 grow out. In 2018, the preservation team again grew out ‘Harry Strom,’ and their efforts paid off in spades: a harvest of 58,000 seeds—more than enough to ensure the continued existence of the variety for years to come.
‘Corn Husk Doll’ Corn
This seed was donated to Seed Savers Exchange in 1991 by Joyce Grimes of West Union, Iowa, who grew and selected it to make corn husk dolls. (The Fayette County (Iowa) Historical Society has preserved a collection of Joyce’s dolls, which were featured in Midwest Living in 1990.)
In 2018, the Preservation Team tested two inventory packets dating from 1990. Both tested “dead” (in other words, zero germination), but, once again, that result didn’t stop the team. “We sowed 2,464 seeds in our high-tunnel greenhouse and had three germinate before deer peeked in and began munching on them,” says Phil. “Luckily, we were still able to harvest three corn ears that yielded a total of 1,177 seeds.” This year, Seed Savers Exchange will once again grow the ‘Corn Husk Doll’ variety of corn to ensure there is sufficient viable seed to keep it around for future generations.
‘Lillibridge (Kettle Family)’ Runner Bean
This gorgeous purple-and-black bean was donated to Seed Savers Exchange in 1981 by John Withee, a well-known bean collector from Massachusetts, and has been kept in our seed bank since that time. During a standard inventory germination test in 2016, the seeds of several seed packs proved lifeless. But the Preservation Team (of course!) kept testing—and eventually found life in two packs that had been sealed 26 years earlier. One pack containing 83 seeds produced a 10-percent germination rate, while another pack of 35 seeds yielded a 20-percent germination rate.
Four plants grew from the packet of 35 seeds and ultimately provided 46 seeds. In 2017, the Preservation Team successfully grew the runner bean again; 18 of the 23 seeds sown produced seedlings. Those 18 plants yielded about 1,200 seeds, and it was those seeds that produced the beautiful flowers that graced last year’s Evaluation Garden teepee.
This incredible work is all part of Seed Savers Exchange’s two-pronged participatory (and mission-driven) approach to preserving seed diversity for generations to come. Ex situ preservation involves the long-term care and storage of the heirloom and open-pollinated varieties entrusted by members and supporters to our gene bank, while in situ preservation involves sharing seeds of these varieties with gardeners and farmers who help preserve them by growing them.