Nestled in a small Seed Savers Exchange evaluation garden past tall vines bowed by ripe tomatoes lie two long rows of celery plants, closely bunched and rising just inches from the ground. So inconspicuous are these leafy green plants that odds are good you’d walk right past them to all those bright-red tomatoes without pausing for a glance.
But pause you should, for these 200 young celery plants represent a concerted effort by Seed Savers Exchange to preserve the rare ‘Utah No. 15’ variety of ‘Utah’ celery, today considered one of the most important celery cultivar groups in the United States.
The original ‘Utah’ cultivar dates back nearly a century—to at least the 1920s—notes T.H. Abell in the 1922 work Celery Culture for Utah: “With the growth in celery culture came the trial of many varieties and...the introduction of a variety or varieties of superior quality variously known as ‘Chinese’ or ‘Salt Lake,’ popularly supposed to be sports of ‘Giant Pascal.’ ...Recently the State Horticultural Society of Utah gave one of these sports the name of ‘Utah.’”
Crisp, white, and characterized by a sweet, "nutty" flavor, ‘Utah’ celery quickly developed a passionate fan base. The variety, grown primarily by Japanese immigrants, was celebrated during Utah Celery Week in the 1940s and purportedly enjoyed by Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. Over the years, several other varieties were developed from the original ‘Utah’ celery, including ‘Utah No. 15,’ released in 1941.
‘Utah No. 15’ celery is hard to find today, but its seed was thankfully preserved by the USDA years ago. In 2017, Seed Savers Exchange acquired seed for ‘Utah No. 15’ and two other ‘Utah’ celery varieties from the USDA to bolster its own ‘Utah’ celery collection as well as that of the USDA. “Even though their inventory was limited, the USDA shared these seeds with us in a cooperative agreement whereby we will return a portion of our seed harvest to USDA,” says Tor Janson, SSE collection curator. While the other two ‘Utah’ varieties failed to germinate successfully at Heritage Farm, ‘Utah No. 15’ is well on its way to providing seed for both Seed Savers Exchange and the USDA in 2018.
‘Utah No. 15’ celery is just one of thousands of seed success stories cultivated through Seed Savers Exchange since its founding in 1975. From the start, members have played a key role in growing our collection of rare varieties like ‘Utah No. 15.’ Today, largely thanks to our members, Seed Savers Exchange maintains more than 25,000 open-pollinated varieties in its seed bank at Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa.