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Heirloom Seeds and Their Keepers: Marginality and Memory in the Conservation of Biological Diversity

Heirloom Seeds and Their Keepers: Marginality and Memory in the Conservation of
Virginia D. Nazarea
University of Arizona Press and the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum
Publication Date: 

hardcover, 193 p., $35.00

In order to keep up with the food demands of ever increasing populations, modern farmers and gardeners have been gradually forced to employ high-yielding hybrids exclusively, resulting in a farming monoculture. As a result, scientists have been concerned about this narrowing of genetic diversity, which essentially leaves such uniform crops more vulnerable to pests and diseases. Recognizing the need for greater plant diversity, anthropologist Virgina Nazarea is a strong supporter of those who informally pass along plant varieties that exist outside the global mainstream of agriculture and horticulture.

Unlike specimens in institutional gene banks under the control of scientists, these heirloom plants were collected haphazardly, expressing the “free spirit” of their growers. As a result, these seed savers contribute to the biodiversity of plant life, conserving in situ diverse populations, different in character and quality from commercial crops. The author discusses the factors that have led up to the “crisis of extinction and genetic erosion, ” but her main thrust is the importance of this less recognized means of biodiversity conservation. Proving her point, she includes a long list of growers and the plants they have saved, using anecdotal reports on vernacular projects. Although there is some technical language with illustrative tables, the text is easy reading. Those who appreciate the character and taste of heirloom plants will gain a greater appreciation for those who save them.

— Marilyn K. Alaimo, garden writer and volunteer, Chicago Botanic Garden