635 pages of treasure: the Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook

I joined Seed Savers Exchange because I support their mission to conserve and promote America’s diverse food crop heritage. I do get a little discount when I order from their catalog (you can also order if you’re not a member), and it’s beautiful to look through, but the real fun – and the real membership benefit, even if you never take advantage of it – comes with the arrival of the Yearbook.

This is the listing of all the seeds that SSE members are offering for sale, the “Exchange” part of the organization’s name. These are all open-pollinated, mostly heirloom seeds that gardeners across the country (and in other countries as well) have saved from plants grown in controlled conditions so they stay true to type. No pretty photos in this inexpensively-printed paperback, just 635 pages of seeds listed by category, plus instructions for ordering. (The Exchange now also has an online version.)

I don’t actually order from the Yearbook frequently. It arrives in mid-February when I’ve already made my seed orders for the year, have been to a couple of seed swaps, and have realized that even given I’m collecting for two gardens, I have way too many seeds in stock. And since I’m not a “listing member” (though maybe someday I’ll save enough seed for that to happen) the small packets cost $4-5 each. But it’s still tempting – and it’s also the way to find that one offbeat variety of seed that you’ve been searching for since your grandmother grew it, or else just to acquire something for your garden that none of your friends and neighbors will have.

Since it’s the Year of Beans and Peas, let’s peek at a few legume descriptions. I’m leaving out the quaintly coded information showing who is offering the seed and where they got it from in the first place, but both of those are an essential part of SSE parlance. If I listed I would be “MD SM E.”

  • MOLASSES FACE. 90+ days. First dry pods in 95 days. Viney sprawling plants. Rounded green pods produce plump oval white seeds with a large yellow circular patch around the eye.
  • GOLDEN LIMA. 119 days to first dry pods. Plants climb to about 6 feet. Although it has lima in its name, it is not a lima. Flattened seeds of pinkish orange speckled and streaked with a darker orange color.
  • ZONA UPCHURCH GOOSE. Similar to Ohio Pole (both Appalachian) but seeds smaller and pod skinnier. Fine purple speckles concentrated at one end of the cream seed. Very late to mature but fairly productive. 60 seeds per plant, in full sun planted late. Not all ripe by frost. Hard to shell, tough and leathery. Lots of size variation in that some seed are twice the size of others. Might do better in a longer hotter summer.
  • BAGUETTE. 55 days, a great filet bean, excellent flavor, very prolific in 2005, were served at several dinner parties and universally acclaimed, also prolific in 2006 even with severe insect pressure, a very late but abundant crop 2009, great crop again in 2013 – slightly abused due to lack of water but recovered once again in fine style, naturally grown.
  • SHWI PEH. 60 days. Snow pea with purple flowers, excellent taste, produces for months. Plants are spindly looking but produce copious quantities. Obtained from a farm woman from a small village in the Inle Lake region of Burma.
  • LOLLAND RAISIN. The most renowned Danish gray or soup pea. Semi-leafless, i.e. no small leaves, just tendrils. Light smoky foliage and lovely bicolored flowers. Early, plants 36-50 inches, support each other until the pods fill out. Very tasty in recipes with bacon or smoked ham – they don’t cook down as much as split peas so “soup” is misleading, more like stew. Grown on the Danish island of Lolland in the 1800s and shipped to Copenhagen, where it was both the working man’s protein and a delicacy for the rich.
And so forth! Not to mention the mystery varieties given insufficient description for their intriguing names, like beans GROUND SQUIRREL and ETHNIC ECSTASY. Just paging through the catalog on a snowy day is entertaining, even if you don’t find yourself reaching for a pencil to mark possibilities. Maybe I’ll grow some of these next year…

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