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Gardening Articles: Edibles :: Herbs

Preserving Desert Crops

by Michael MacCaskey

Native Seeds/SEARCH is a nonprofit group devoted to finding, collecting and disseminating seeds of traditional southwestern crops. Order seeds and products from them by mail, or visit their gift shop and test garden: Several items make unique holiday gifts. You can also become a member and support their useful work.

The primary service of Native Seeds/SEARCH is the expansion and maintenance of a seed bank of desert-adapted crops. Currently it includes more than 1,250 different food, herb and dye plants. NS/S also sells native craft, dye, herb and food products; distributes free seeds to Native Americans; and provides information about adult-onset diabetes, a significant health problem in the Native American community.

The mail-order catalog attracts most gardeners initially. Native food plants featured include amaranth (10 kinds), dry beans (more than 30), corn, chiles, sunflowers, squash and gourds.

Seed origins are often indirect, as in the case of the Tarahumara White sunflower. The Tarahumara of northern Mexico originally obtained the all-white seeds of this rare, solid-gold flower from Chihuahuan Mennonites who were given the seeds by Canadian Mennonites. But it grew well in the desert, and was appreciated and preserved by the Tarahumara. Or consider the Tohono O'odham chiltepines. Wild relatives of peppers, their pea-size fruits are very hot. These seeds were collected in the Baboquivari Mountains in southern Arizona. Now both are preserved and distributed by Native Seeds/SEARCH.

The organization grew out of an effort by another nonprofit group, Meals for Millions (now called Freedom from Hunger). Fifteen years ago, MFM began a nutrition project on a Tohono O'odham (formerly Papago) reservation, in which people were encouraged to start vegetable gardens. Seeds of ordinary crops were offered free. But some of the people repeatedly requested seed of traditional varieties of squash, corn and melons that they preferred. Soon Meals for Millions's organizers realized no one sold these traditional varieties. They began to track down sources and then had the seed propagated for distribution. In 1983 this effort was organized as Native Seeds/SEARCH by Gary Nabhan, Karen Reichhardt, Barney Burns and Mahina Drees, the current director.

Native crops occasionally have crucial modern benefits. For instance, a sunflower traditionally grown by the Havasupai of northern Arizona has proved resistant to rust disease, a serious problem of commercial sunflower growers. It is now being used to create disease-resistant hybrids. Also, Native Seeds/SEARCH cofounder Gary Nabhan discovered that some traditional southwestern crops, such as chia, various beans, cholla buds and plantago, both prevent and control adult-onset diabetes among Native Americans.

Only a fraction of the seed-bank collection are offered in the catalog in a given year. About 20% of the catalog offerings change each season to keep the material in circulation.

Native Seeds/SEARCH produces some of the seed on the museum grounds and some on a 3/4-acre property nearby. All of the rest is produced by a network of cooperating growers, many of them backyard gardeners. Some seeds are still collected in the wild just as they were thousands of years ago. Last year, 9% of the seed distributed was free to Native Americans who requested it.

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