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August 11, 2013

YOUR GREEN VALLEY: Seeds give us clues to the past, help us save for the future

Terre Haute resident Karla Hansen-Speer studies the remains of plants cultivated or used by man in ancient times that have survived in archaeological contexts. She’s an archeologist specializing in paleoethnobotany. Broken down, paleo means old, ethno means people and botany means plants.

When Hansen-Speer visits an archeological site, she can recover plants people were using, often for cooking, medicine, crafts and even buildings. Once the plants are recovered, she can identify what foods may have been eaten during that time period. For example, when Native Americans were cooking over fire, parching corn or burned their leftovers in a trash pit, the seeds from their meals were often carbonized.

“Once seeds are carbonized, they are inert to bacterial decay, but they retain their morphology and shape,” Hansen-Speer said. “We can recover those seeds and other plant parts of those seeds and compare them with modern day collections and identify what kind of plants people were using in the past.”

Learning from seeds of our past

Hansen-Speer says there are a lot of lessons to be learned from archeology. By studying the past, we understand how people lived, what they ate and what types of plant resources they were using.

“There are examples of Native Americans protecting the pecan tree from being used as firewood,” Hansen-Speer said. “They would protect those trees because they would get their nuts off them.”

Another lesson would be diversity. If we look at archeological records, we see over the years man used many different types of plants. Today we have mono crops, one or two varieties of potatoes, a handful of apples and a couple tomatoes, unless you venture into heirloom varieties. The benefit of diversity is that it allows resistance to diseases. If you only grow one type of tomato and a particular tomato blight comes through, then your entire crop is gone. If you have several types of tomatoes growing, there might be a variety that is resistant to that particular disease.

“A historical example of that is the potato famine in Ireland. They were growing one particular type of potato. Potato blight came through and for several years wiped out their crop and Ireland went through some major changes,” Hansen-Speer said.

Saving today for tomorrow

By going through Purdue Master Gardener certification, I learned to plant something I wouldn’t normally plant in my garden every year. In my first full year as a Master Gardener, I went all out with different tomato varieties. In the early spring, I purchased two flats full of heirloom and open-pollinated tomatoes from the Ivy Tech plant sale. I didn’t discriminate on color or taste; I just wanted tomatoes that would allow me to save seeds for use in future years. Unfortunately, commercial farmers are left with fewer options these days.

“If you are buying your seed from a biotech company, they often have rules against saving their seeds,” Hansen-Speer said. “You can’t save the seed and plant the crop next year. That is how the biotech company makes their money. That means you have to buy that seed every year, whereas in the past, people would grow their crop and take the best seeds and save them for their crop next year.”

The International Seed Saving Institute says we could lose much of the agricultural diversity humankind created in the past 10,000 years due to our increase of monoculture. The Institute’s mission is to teach the seed saving ritual, a ritual as old as civilization, a ritual in many ways responsible for civilization. A fair warning: seeds cut out of food brought home from the grocery store are not easily saveable. For example, most supermarket tomatoes are F1 hybrids. If you save seeds from an F1 hybrid, the plants you grow will be different from the original plant. Fortunately, heirloom or the open-pollinated variety will produce an identical plant to the original.

For me, there is the economic side to saving seeds: it’s one less plant or seed packet I have to buy next spring. I also know that no company will discontinue the make and model of my precious tomato. Thus, I will forever have many different types of tomatoes to enjoy, as long as I am successful at saving seeds. A good reference to get started on collecting seeds is www.seedsave.

org. The site has seed saving instructions broken up by experience level: beginner, experienced and expert.

Jane Santucci is an environmental freelance writer for the Tribune-Star. Santucci is a proud volunteer with TREES Inc. and Our Green Valley. She also sits on the Wabash Valley Goodwill Industries Board of Directors. Share your environmental stories and tips with her at

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