They Call Her the Godmother of Southern Seeds for a Reason
It was the allure of peanut seed that drew a big-dreaming beginning gardener to the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange catalog decades ago. I was madly imagining a zone-defying adventure with the tropical legume in my decidedly Northern plot.
What I found at Southern Exposure amounted to a lot more than mere peanuts, and way beyond the packets of collard seed and okra that I added to my order from their list of Southern specialties.
I began an education there — and at Seed Savers Exchange, and a few other like-minded catalogs that are no longer around — centered on the lesson that seeds are no mere commercial product, but the embodiment of our living history.
In those catalogs, I received encouragement, and information, to learn to grow each crop organically and save its seed, rekindling a traditional skill that empowers us to feed ourselves season after season, while helping to keep seed strains going.
For some 40 years, Southern Exposure has stewarded an ever-evolving list of regionally and culturally important seeds, now numbering around 800 varieties. And for about a quarter of a century, Ira Wallace, 74, has played a key role at the company, which has been owned since 1999 by the place she has long called home.
The farm-based Acorn Community is a secular, egalitarian intentional community on 72 acres in Mineral, Va., that supports “radical sharing” and “encourages personal responsibility,” according to its website. Such ethics, and the energy forged by its communal spirit, have been assets in the face of the seed industry’s modern era of dramatic consolidation and its focus on the pursuit of patented varieties.
Four multinational giants that are also in the pesticide business now own much of the precious genetics of our agricultural crops; seed has become intellectual property.
But not here. Southern Exposure offers heirloom and open-pollinated seed, each variety with a story to tell — a link to those who grew it before, and the places it originated.
One that Ms. Wallace looks forward to each year is roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa), a big, beautiful plant that produces “the zing in Red Zinger tea,” she said. It used to be grown in Florida, where she was raised. It’s sometimes referred to as sorrel or Jamaica sorrel; in the 1890s, it was called Florida cranberry.
‘Collaborators, Not Competitors’
Southern Exposure mails out about 80,000 catalogs each year. In 2022, it filled 52,000 orders, most to customers in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast, with a segment of shoppers elsewhere wanting a taste of the region — as those long-ago peanuts promised me. Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter tomato, with giant fruits exceeding two pounds and sometimes reaching four, is one such headliner.
As if her role there and as the elder at Acorn were not enough, Ms. Wallace applies her seemingly inexhaustible energy to other forms of nurturing as well, and to teaching. Prepandemic, she was a Girl Scout leader and “the math lady” at the local library, using math games to engage children with numbers.
She has also mentored countless grown-ups who were curious about seed farming, helping to connect them with other growers who could share information and equipment, improving their chances of success.
She even mentors other seed companies.
“I remember a really early conversation, where Ira told me small seed companies needed to be collaborators, not competitors,” said Chris Smith, the executive director of the Utopian Seed Project, a North Carolina-based crop-trialing nonprofit. He expressed gratitude for Ms. Wallace’s role in helping to jump-start the Heirloom Collards Project, which he is part of, and her early support of another small Southeastern specialist catalog, Sow True Seed, where he worked.
The role she has assumed has been described by many — including Ms. Wallace herself — as that of a godmother.
“When you say her name in our community, all this love comes up — a standing ovation every time, from all the young’uns and friends who sit at her feet, whom she has blessed,” said Bonnetta Adeeb, of Ujamaa Seeds. Ms. Wallace has advised Ujamaa, a collective of Black and Indigenous growers focusing on culturally relevant seed, which just introduced its second online catalog.
Witnessing this traction is joyful for Ms. Wallace, and even a little surprising, in the best way — particularly set against the backdrop of the last century’s sharp decline in Black-owned American farms, to fewer than 1 percent today.
“The seed world is a particularly white aspect of the sustainable agriculture movement,” she said. “Where Black people were coming in at all to farming was in CSAs and that aspect of the food system — not to grow seed.”
She is delighted to support Ujamaa’s young and emerging seed farmers, alongside retired educators and those in the BIPOC community who want to farm, she said: “This is definitely something I didn’t think I was going to see.”
Southern Peas, Greasy Beans and More
There are flowers and herbs in the Southern Exposure catalog, too, but it’s the traditional Southeastern vegetables whose stories pull me back every year.
This is where I met greasy beans and certain other pole beans, including Selma Zesta, whose pods remain tender even after the beans have swelled inside, providing green and protein in each mouthful.
Ms. Wallace has a special affection for the Whippoorwill pea, a Southern pea or cowpea — not the green shelling or English pea (Pisum sativum), but Vigna unguiculata, the same species as asparagus beans. Whippoorwill traveled with enslaved people from Africa to the Americas, where it was eventually grown by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello.
Cowpeas, which grow on vines, can be shelled and eaten green or used as dry beans.
“I can’t do without them,” she said. “They remind me of my grandmother, who raised me, who always grew them, and they’re inexpensive protein. The vines build the soil, and you can feed them to your critters if you have animals on your farm. What’s not to like?”
A dozen collard varieties sport leaves ranging from green and blue-green to the yellow-green ones of Yellow Cabbage Collards, a North Carolina heirloom whose leaves form a loose head. Maybe the most striking is a variegated Florida heirloom; half of its leaves display white markings in winter.
And move over, kale: Collards are just as versatile, whether they are harvested young or fully grown, to steam or sauté; or serving as the wrapper for dolmas; or even dehydrated and crispy. The Heirloom Collard Project, whose members include Seed Savers Exchange, Southern Exposure, Ujamaa and the Utopian Seed Project, hopes to convince us to make room for a row.
Go Ahead, Try Some Okra
In the way that the South’s population has evolved, so has the Southern Exposure seed list. Alongside Doe Hill golden sweet bell pepper, a pre-1900 Virginia family heirloom, is Pimiento Lago Agrio, an Ecuadorean sweet pepper with two-inch, pumpkin-shaped fruits. An Acorn Community member whose mother is from Latin America volunteered with Ecuadorean seed-saver groups, forging the connection.
“We realized that, just like the European immigrants spread their versions of different vegetables around, that the current immigrants have communities and varieties,” Ms. Wallace said. “We’re trying to make that a part of the web of American heirlooms we offer.”
Many gardeners, particularly Northern ones, may not have grown a single okra (Abelmoschus esculentus), a mallow family member. It has been in Southern Exposure’s assortment from the start, as if preparing the ground for Mr. Smith, whose book, “The Whole Okra: A Seed to Stem Celebration,” became a 2020 James Beard Foundation Award winner.
The current catalog lists 20 okras, including the winner of Mr. Smith’s 2018 trial of 76 varieties, Puerto Rico Everblush — early yielding, bountiful and delicious.
“A lot are family heirlooms, like the Shows okra, which we sold out of the first year of the pandemic and just got back in,” Ms. Wallace said.
But some are “just fun,” she added, like Okinawa Pink, from Japan: “It’s such a bright pink color that kids come to it like bees to honey.”
Peanuts in Colors, Onions in Aggregate
The peanuts that first pulled me in have been there alongside okra since the start, or thereabouts — and not just familiar-looking reddish-brown ones, but those with variegated, striped and black nuts.
Also marking decades on the list are yellow potato onions (Allium cepa var. aggregatum), a favorite of Ms. Wallace’s that is also popular with customers, and is shipped out each fall as bulbs. Southern Exposure reintroduced that perennial onion in 1982, from a strain dating to before 1790. “That’s something that, every year, we never have enough of,” she said.
It’s one of her must-have crops — like a larger shallot, but with more true onion flavor. Adaptable to all of the United States, except for Florida and South Texas, its bulbs are exceptional keepers, lasting a year or longer under good storage conditions.
The last word of its Latin name, aggregatum, is a tipoff to the multiple onions that grow in aggregate — a group of individuals nested together. And one of its common names is mother onion.
Somehow it all seems to fit that this particular godmother to so many seeds, and seed people, would have a rapport with a mother plant that thrives, and produces, in community.
Margaret Roach is the creator of the website and podcast A Way to Garden, and a book of the same name.
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