When local historians invited 80-year old gardener Erma Jackson to sample produce grown from a local seed exchange, she stunned them all with her first bite. “Oh that’s Mr. Dave’s lima,” she recalled easily. “I haven’t had that bean since he died in 1955.” Using little more than a fork and her memory, Erma and dozens of others in the local community sampled, identified, shared, cultivated, collected, told and retold the story of hundreds of local heirloom plants, ultimately forming a crucial historical connection between Winston-Salem, North Carolina and the peoples, cultures and culinary traditions of Africa.
To think it all started with a handful of seeds.
Officially launched for visitors in 2013, the practice of saving and exchanging seeds is as old as the dozens of heirloom gardens dotting the historic Winston-Salem district known as Old Salem Museums & Gardens. As a working historical district, Old Salem maintains dozens of heirloom gardens that are open to the public. Part of their preservation involved upholding the Moravian tradition of saving seeds from one harvest to replant for the next.
“We’ve been saving and replanting seeds at Old Salem for hundreds of years,” explained Old Salem landscape preservationist Eric Johnson. “What’s interesting is how much history we’ve uncovered just from the plants themselves.”
Old Salem expanded on their seed saving program to explore the influence of African American culture and the impact of slavery on which crops grew where. The program was named Homowo, which is a word from Ghana that translates roughly as ‘hooting at hunger.’ The reference gives a nod to the African American heritage in each collection, as well as the joy of connecting people and cultures through food.
According to Martha Hartley, Director of Moravian History at Old Salem, “Homowo is the story of American history, southern history, Colonial history, the legacy of slavery and the specific local history of Winston-Salem all rolled into one.”
Seed saving became another way to honor the heritage of the gardens, tell the local history of the town, understand the legacy of slavery and illuminate the complex cultural influences at the heart of our most beloved Southern cuisine.
Saving seeds strengthens local cultivars over time by reinforcing positive attributes (drought resistance, cold hardiness, fruit color, abundance or shape). It also ensures the survival of less popular plants, which would be lost if not propagated here.
Just as they do throughout the museums, heirloom gardeners at Old Salem use all aspects of their historic property to tell the story of Moravian life in Colonial times. For gardeners, that meant tilling, planting crops, harvesting, storing produce, saving seeds. Visitors listened with interest as interpreters shared the African connections to various beans, peas, watermelon, sesame, cabbage, okra, peanuts or peppers.
Enlisting the help of culinary historian and James Beard Book Award-winning author Michael Twitty, Old Salem expanded the seed saving program to engage visitors, describing each plant in context and offering annual seed collections for visitors to plant in their own gardens. Old Salem also engaged the help of dozens of members of the local African American community, including avid gardeners like Erma. Their first-hand experience and direct regional knowledge proved invaluable as historians weeded through the collection until landing on the perfect mix.
What’s In a Name?
Almost like a history lesson, seed saving and seed exchanges do more than preserve regional strains of plants for future gardens. They connect people and cultures to history through food in a way few other experiences can.
Generations ago, long before garden centers and click-to-order web sites, farmers saved seeds after each harvest to ensure they had something to plant the following year. There simply was no other way to regrow a particular plant the next season. Over time, farmers began swapping seeds with each other, sharing the best of what they grew with neighboring communities and incorporating a little variety into their own crops. Favorites flourished. Rarities diminished. And portrait of regional tastes, cultures and preferences emerged.
That all this history should grow from plants is no surprise to the historical garden preservationists, who often use plant names as shorthand for promoting a particular variety.
Coded in each name is a rich tapestry of historical detail: how it grows, what it looks like, where it comes from, who it’s for. These clues help each generation of gardeners predict which plants will succeed in their climate, and in turn, help guide the palates — and the cultures — of the communities who grow them. Some of our favorites include:
Lazy Wife’s Greasy Pole Bean
known for hairless pods that grow in clusters, making them easier to pick
a milder mutation of African Serrano pepper popularized along the coast
Carolina African Runner Peanut
rare black-skinned peanut grown as a substitute for African black Bambarra
Georgia Rattlesnake Melon
a popular alternative to the Moon and Stars watermelon developed in the 1830s
African Iron and Clay Cowpea
mentioned by George Washington Carver as a particularly hardy strain of field pea
Dragon’s Claw Finger Millet
Ethiopian grain used for cakes, porridge and beer
hardy heirloom bush bean used for soups and baking
Black Amber Cane Sorghum
bicolor sorghum originating from the savanna
To learn more, visit Old Salem Museums and Gardens online at OldSalem.org. Or visit the Seeds with Stories page at https://www.oldsalem.org/core-initiatives/seeds-with-stories/ .