The Seed Detective: Uncovering the secret histories of remarkable vegetables
by Adam Alexander
book review by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch
When I was first getting started with farming and gardening someone gave me a couple of handfuls of dry beans. They were speckled in the earth tone palette of Navajo rug colors. I planted those beans for a couple of years and would be doing so still if they hadn’t fallen from my care as victims of a family breakup. I remember feeling slightly cheated by my naivety in those early years. I know now I had possession, if only for a short time, of something rare, valuable and precious. I did not have a name for the variety and cannot tell you who gave them to me. I haven’t found those exact same beans again since. Their flavor was wild and various; as if you mixed adzuki, mung, lentils, northern white, kidney and black beans together. But then, I have lived long enough to understand how the brightest spots in our memories keep dusting themselves off and reorganizing until they have solidified their shining character in the parallel universe of life’s maybes.
All of that and more went into my absorption with Adam Alexander’s splendid ‘mystery’ and ‘travel’ book researching the origins of vegetable seeds, The Seed Detective. The author, a film maker by trade, is an avid gardener and seed collector who chronicles his travels in search of the beginnings and heritage of vegetable varieties. The travels and the history uncovered are worth the price of this gem of a book.
It was a long but magnificent drive to the magisterial Canyon de Chelly, deep in the heart of the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona. In the bottom of the canyon, with its precipitous red cliffs and ancient cave dwellings, farmers have been growing a wide variety of crops for centuries. Famous for their peaches and other stone fruits cultivated from stock introduced by the Spanish in the seventeenth century, the Navajo of Canyon de Chelly had seen their orchards almost completely destroyed by the US Army in 1864, one assumes in an attempt by the invaders to starve out the locals.
Along with information about where vegetable varieties originated, Alexander offers asides throughout of how and why we might know vegetables better.
The carrot stores and travels well, yet just a few short hours after being harvested much of the richness of its wonderful flavor is lost. I suggest to anyone who is contemplating growing a few vegetables to find a corner of their garden for carrots because once you have eaten a homegrown specimen, you will never want to buy a carrot again, for nothing beats the flavor of a freshly pulled carrot and that, dear reader, is a fact.
…indigenous Mexican farmers have been employing this method of growing lots of different varieties of beans together for at least the last thousand years… Growing multiple varieties of beans together is done for some important reasons. Firstly, these farmers all agree they get better crops when different beans are grown together and, secondly, because they don’t cross-pollinate with each other, each variety’s distinct traits are preserved.
This book is intriguing, entertaining and informative. This book is important. We have already given it to others as a most suitable present.
We give Adam Alexander the parting shot:
Today… quality, nutritional value and provenance are among the key factors driving a change in public opinion. We are now relearning traditional ways to produce our food, which were developed over millenia by farmers across the globe. Ignored and denigrated in the last century, a sustainable, holistic and inclusive model for growing our food is no longer a choice; it is a necessity.
The Seed Detective by Adam Alexander, published by Chelsea Green and with a foreword by Tim Lang, Professor Emeritus of Food Policy, City University of London. ISBN 978-1-91529-408-1, 306 pages