By Melissae Fellet
Glass jars filled with speckled beans, tiny mustard seeds and dried corn kernels line tables in a cozy cottage at the UC Santa Cruz farm on a Saturday afternoon in mid-October. College students and some local gardeners rifle through the selection. UCSC student Elan Goldbart holds up a large jar of black beans, called Cherokee Trail of Tears, collected from plants grown over the summer.
“We planted about 15 to 20 plants,” he says weighing the jar in his hand. “Now this feels like probably 5, 6, 7 pounds of seed, which is a lot.”
Goldbart and other students run a seed bank on campus, called the Demeter Seed Library, to promote growing heirloom plants and saving the seeds. They hold these seed exchanges every quarter to share seeds with the community and give gardeners a chance to return seeds they’ve saved.
Andrew Whitman started the UCSC seed bank when he was a student at the university with the goal of creating a living seed library. “A lot of the seeds we have aren’t being grown out commercially anymore and are at risk of going extinct,” he says.
Seed banks, like the Demeter Seed Library, aim to preserve the genetic diversity found in plants adapted to a particular region – be it the cold weather in Alaska or the heat in Florida. Those genes are protection against a changing climate or pest invasions.
But it’s not clear how much crop genetic diversity we need to protect – or how much we’ve lost. Fewer varieties of crops are grown in fields today, but the amount of genetic diversity lost with those varieties is unknown.
Nonetheless, preserving plant genetic diversity through seed saving is a growing trend. There’s a global seed vault on an island in Norway. Closer to home, seed banks in Oakland, Berkeley and Richmond are part of the eleven that serve the San Francisco Bay Area. Monterey Bay area residents can also pick up seeds in Santa Cruz from the Museum of Art and History and a branch of the county library.
Whitman estimates the UCSC collection contains about 250 different grains, vegetables, and flowers, including the seashell-like seeds of teosinte, the ancestor of corn, and an Ethiopian grain called teff.
People borrowing from the library can take as many seeds from as many varieties of plants as they want at no cost. They plant them and collect the seeds from the healthiest plants in their crop.
In return, Whitman says the library asks that gardeners return 20 times amount of seeds that you borrow for two varieties of plants. That’s pretty easy to do, he says, because one seed produces hundreds of seeds.
For beginning seed savers, the easiest plants to grow include beans, lettuce, tomatoes and peppers. These plants pollinate themselves and their seeds reliably grow plants that are genetic clones of their parents.
Plants like kale, squash or melons are pollinated by insects or the wind. Experienced seed savers separate varieties of these plants to prevent an accidental gene swap. Cross pollination is a problem when plants grow too close together – even for beans.
Goldbart explains what happened to a recent crop of scarlet runner beans, typically a black seed with purple and magenta mottles on it. “This year we got some seeds that had white mottles on it,” he says. “Some white colored bean must have gotten into the genome and now we have some white scarlet runner beans.”
Goldbart welcomes these spontaneous crosses as a chance to find plants with more vigor or perhaps more drought tolerance. But he says it’s also important to prevent crosses to preserve the genes already in these seeds.
“Each year that the seeds are grown out, it’s receiving all this information from the outside, all the weather conditions, the soil types,” he says. “It’s adapting, changing every single year. These seeds are living, breathing, evolving. And so, over the hundreds of thousands of years that seeds travel around the world, through wind pollination and people migrating and bringing their seeds to different places, things change. And it’s just this diversity that’s created.”
By planting, saving and sharing seeds these students are protecting a future for cultivating heirloom plants adapted to the Monterey Bay area.