Heirloom seeds are treasure troves of genetic diversity and hold stories that span generations and help us understand food cultures around the world. My guest this week, Adam Alexander, aka The Seed Detective, does the important work of identifying and saving rare and remarkable vegetable seeds and uncovering their stories.
Adam is a producer of gardening and food programs in the United Kingdom and has been collecting, growing and sharing the seeds of endangered and culturally important crops for more than three decades. He’s also a board member of Garden Organic, a U.K. organic growing charity, and writes and lectures about conserving genetic diversity in edible crops. He grows 100 varieties of vegetables annually and saves seeds for Garden Organic’s Heritage Seed Library.
Adam’s new book is “The Seed Detective: Uncovering the Secret Histories of Remarkable Vegetables,” and it’s all about our cultural relationship with garden crops. It’s written from Adam’s personal perspective, which makes it a fun and engaging read as he brings readers along on his adventures to uncover the history of 14 vegetables and how they have become embedded in food cultures. He also shares what saving rare and endangered seed varieties means to the future of our food supply.
In his travels, Adam visits local markets where he finds growers selling produce grown from seeds that have been in their families for generations. He reports making his most exciting discoveries in Myanmar, Laos, Rajasthan and Syria.
I learned so much by chatting with Adam and reading his book. Not many of us stop to pay attention to where our most-beloved crops came from and how long they’ve been around — which is mind-blowing. Adam really knows how to source out a story and pursue it until he gets to the end of it, leaving no stone unturned.
Before proceeding with my conversation with Adam, I want to take a second to remind you that my new book is available now. It’s titled “The Vegetable Gardening Book: Your complete guide to growing an edible organic garden from seed to harvest” and can be found both online and at local bookstores.
And on tap for 2023 is my new Online Gardening Academy™ premium course, Organic Vegetable Gardening. Sign up for the waitlist here.
Becoming the Seed Detective
Adam says he has his mother to thank — or blame — for his obsession. He calls himself a “vegeholic.” His mother took a stick-and-carrot approach to grow his enthusiasm for gardening. He recalls, as a 6-year-old kid, having to go into the prickly gooseberry bushes to pick berries. That was the stick. The carrot was he was given his own area to garden in where he raised carrots and beans. And he just loved doing it. There hasn’t been a year since that he hasn’t grown something.
Adam attended a Rudolf Steiner school where he says they take their horticulture very seriously. He adds that, as a true child of the ’60s, he spent a lot of time in detention. Fortunately for him, detention involved working with the school gardener. “I always used to quite look forward to detention,” he says.
He didn’t think about a career in horticulture because he was interested in photography and filmmaking, so he went to film school and then worked in media. By the mid to late ’70s, he decided that working in commercials was not for him. His family had just bought a farm in Devon, England, where he was born, so he moved back there to launch a horticultural business as a market gardener. Back then, being an organic gardener meant he was viewed with great suspicion and considered a hippie, he says.
Adam, more than anything, was interested in growing crops for their flavor. He hunted down old English varieties, Italian zucchini, etc., but yellow zucchini and red Brussels sprouts were considered inedible then. He ultimately decided to grow food only for the love of it, and to return to filmmaking as a career.
Working in film meant he got to travel often and broadly. In the late ’80s, he found himself in Donetsk, Ukraine, and encountered a remarkable, unusual sweet pepper. He brought some seeds home because he wondered if he could grow it himself. He’s been growing it ever since. As he continued to travel for work or recreation, he stayed on the hunt for rare or unusual vegetables.
Adams notes that the United Kingdom has a culture of growing running beans, what we in the United States call scarlet runners. “There’s been this thing that I think is quintessentially British about growing the longest runner beans,” he says. He too saved runner bean seeds from when he was very young but with no idea about how pollination works, how varieties change and adapt, and how new varieties are developed.
Eating that sweet pepper in another part of his world blew his mind and was the trigger that truly got him interested in saving seeds, he explains.
Adam Alexander’s Vegetable Garden
Adam says his vegetable garden, in many respects, looks like anybody else’s, though he is polite toward everything he grows, saying good morning to all the plants in his greenhouse each day. “I’m always trying to charm the garden by being nice, telling them how fabulous they are,” he says.
Another big difference is that everything he grows is about memory. In his garden, 75% of the crops come from seeds he saved himself. When he looks at a row of peas, for instance, he remembers the place they came from, the local cuisine in which the peas had a starring role and the person who gave him the seeds. “That is completely impossible to do when you just go to a seed catalog and buy a pack of seeds,” he says.
As soon as you grow something, there is a connection between you and something you’re eating, Adam says. “It’s not like going into that supermarket and buying that packet of frozen peas — which is just peas.”
In addition to being a memory, the garden is also an arc: seeing plants flower, then be visited by pollinators, ripen and produce seeds that can be saved.
“Some of those varieties, if you don’t look after them and grow them out and share them with other people, they can be lost, and they have been lost forever,” Adam says.
Saving Food Heritage by Saving Seeds
He says 90% of our food heritage has been lost, and peas are a classic example of that. A book from the end of the 19th century named “The Vegetables of New York” was an incredible catalog of everything that was being grown in the United States, he says, and it contained more than a thousand named varieties of peas. Now, most of those pea varieties are lost to history.
While there were cases of seed distributors stealing other companies’ products and giving them a new name and inventing stories around them, what Adam takes away from the book is that society cared about what was growing in their neighborhoods. “It had a name and it had a story,” he says.
“When we bring them back into our culture, through recognizing them, through enjoying them, through celebrating them, our lives are enriched, and actually they taste great and they’re fun to grow,” Adam says. “What more could you want to do?”
The seeds that are most precious to Adam are the seeds someone else has given him. They could be farmers but are sometimes just someone else like him who really loves what they grow and want to share. Some of the people he’s never met but he received their seeds in the mail via networks he belongs to.
“The act of sewing them triggers that memory, and it just keeps one in the world. That’s what keeps me in the world,” Adam says.
Finding a Unique Pea in a Town Known for Its Bean
While on vacation in Catalonia, Spain, Adam stayed in a little town called Santa Pau, which is famous for its bean, fesol de Santa Pau.
“It’s a brilliant example of how you preserve your food culture, because the fesol de Santa Pau, everybody grows it, they sell it, their cuisine is centered around it,” Adam says.
He asked around for something else the town had to offer that was not as well known. He was directed to Jesus Vargas, a local farmer and seed saver in an idyllic valley. There was a jungle of peas everywhere, with 9-foot-tall vines and big pods of unimpeachably sweet and delicious peas.
Jesus explained to Adam that his wife’s grandfather had bred the pea variety and named it Ave Juan after his wife’s grandmother. Jesus fell in love with the pea and loved it ever since. He agreed to share seeds with Adam, and asked who else grows this variety. Adam was shocked to hear that Jesus was the only person still growing this pea, with no plans for a successor. But Jesus was delighted to hear that Adam was interested in preserving it.
Adam grew out more seeds, shared them with others and got the variety into a seed library.
The Disappearance of the Mathania Chile
Adam was working with a horticultural research department at a university in Rajasthan in northwest India, where researchers bemoaned the loss of the Mathania chile pepper. The chile had been at the heart of Indian cuisine in the region, but it changed. “What was called ‘Mathania chile’ today was not, because it had been cross-pollinated with modern cultivars that the farmers were now growing rather than the traditional varieties,” Adam says.
He says that he sympathizes with farmers who want to grow varieties that will have greater yields and make more money, but as soon as farmers stop growing crops using the seeds that they save themselves, that variety can be lost — just like that.
“The story of the loss of Mathania chile is something that’s been repeated all over the world,” Adam says.
Adam told his guide, who was also a farmer, that he could not believe that the Mathania chile was not being grown in some remote corner of the Mathania region. They agreed to go looking.
“So I remember sitting in the back of a clapped-out old Jeep bouncing across this barren terrain where you kind of thought nothing would grow and coming across this little farm,” Adam recalls. “And there were these round sort of mud huts with thatch, and there was a wonderful herd of Rajasthan sheep in an enclosure.”
There was a woman there, Mrs. Davi, and as he chatted with her, he noticed some chiles growing in a corner of her garden and a pile of them on the ground.
Adam and his guide wondered if it could be what they were looking for.
“This chile, it’s spicy, but it’s not stupidly hot — but it’s incredibly fruity and flavorsome,” Adam says. “Anyway, my guide bites into a chile, and he bursts into tears. And he said, ‘This is it. I haven’t tasted one of these for 10 years.’”
Mrs. Davi shared seeds, which went back to the research station for genetic testing. And Adam took some seeds home to Wales, where they love to grow.
“If only we cared more about the provenance of what we grow and what we eat, we would have fewer instances of these things all but disappearing,” Adam says. “And that to me is why sharing these stories …. is what gets me out of bed in the morning.”
Cheeses, wine, beer and fruit all have names, he points out. “You know, the name of the apple coming off the tree,” he says. “Well, should be the same with a carrot in my view.”
The Donetsk Pepper
Toward the end of the communist period, Adam was in Ukraine making a television series about Donetsk, a city that tells the history of the Soviet Union all in one place. Some of the hotel staff objected to foreigners like him staying in their hotel, and they walked out. Adam took over the hotel kitchen, but there was no place to buy food to stock the kitchen.
“The supermarkets were empty,” he says. “Actually, it was a terrible, terrible time to be a Ukrainian or a citizen of the then-Soviet Union.”
The interpreter Adam worked with took him to a market where people fortunate enough to have money could buy food. He found a woman who was offering potatoes, onions, garlic and peppers that she had grown in her back garden.
“Peppers are a very important part of Ukrainian cuisine, and they stuff them and they do lots of things with them,” Adam says. “If you go to a Ukrainian restaurant, there will be peppers on the menu.”
When Adam tried the peppers, he was impressed by the lovely bite they had to them, with a little bit of heat and tang. He went back the next day to buy more and scooped out the seeds. He dried the seeds out on a windowsill and brought them back home — and the rest is history.
The woman he met in the market became an archetype for the type of person he would seek out on his travels. “They’re everywhere,” he says. “They’re all over the world and they’re all growing veggies and they’re all saving seeds themselves. And they’re very, very important in my life.”
The Inspiration and Purpose Behind ‘The Seed Detective’ Book
When Adam conceived of telling the histories of popular vegetable crops, he envisioned a television series. However, the industry view was that nobody would be interested. So Adam decided to do a book instead.
He wanted to draw a connection between what we grow and eat today and when humans first settled the land as neolithic farmers.
When he delved into how crops were domesticated in the Old World or the New World, he realized what amazing people the neolithic farmers were. “They were incredibly observant and curious,” he says. “And so this process of selection, which really enabled us to move from being hunter-gatherers into growing crops, was something that I felt a very human connection to.”
He also found it fascinating to explore the stories of something as prosaic as a carrot. “Where did it start its life? How did it end up being the color that it is? How important has it been to my forebearers, my ancestors, all those civilizations going back thousands of years?”
His hope in writing the book is to reconnect people to their distant ancestors.
“The act of what I call ‘sowing, savoring, saving and sharing seeds’ completes this circle,” Adam says. “We, as gardeners, are part of a continuum, and the act of saving seeds and building relationships with other people who have grown vegetables, which have a particular meaning to them, is part of reinforcing this continuum.”
On the Old World side, the history spans the Mesopotamia civilizations and the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans. And in the New World, Adam says Indigenous people from the Americas had that same curiosity and observational skills that enabled us to end up with this unbelievable diversity of foods.
That diversity is diminished, he says, and now it’s incumbent upon us to save what’s left and celebrate it.
Another of Adam’s seed saving stories involves Hopi blue maize, an heirloom corn variety from the Native American Hopi tribe, and a chance encounter with a woman, Janice, in Second Mesa, Arizona.
“She gave me seeds of her maize from her fields in the Hopi nation,” Adam says. “And blue maze means everything to the Hopi people. It’s such an important symbolic crop, and for me to be given seed, which I could then grow at home and I can grind it out and make my own blue polenta, it’s such a privilege.”
I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Adam Alexander, the Seed Detective, on seed saving. If you haven’t listened yet, you can do so now by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title.
Do you save a seed variety with a meaningful story? Share your seed detective story in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Organic Vegetable Gardening: My new premium online course membership opens in 2023. Sign up for the waitlist here.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Seed Starting: Everything you need to know to start your own plants from seed — indoors and out.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Learn how to grow epic tomatoes with Joe Lamp’l and Craig LeHoullier.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Pests, Diseases & Weeds: Learn the proactive steps to take to manage pests, diseases and weeds for a more successful garden with a lot less frustration. Just $47 for lifetime access!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.
“The Seed Detective: Uncovering the Secret Histories of Remarkable Vegetables” by Adam Alexander
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, AeroGarden, Milorganite, Soil3, Greenhouse Megastore, PittMoss, Territorial Seed Company, Earth’s Ally, National Wildlife Federation and TerraThrive. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.