Ever since I bought a $2 packet of seeds from an elderly couple at the Longford Flower Show a decade ago I’ve been fascinated by seeds.
They were old-fashioned sweat pea seeds, numbering only about a dozen, and came wrapped, like mixed lollies, in a plain brown paper bag. They proved to be sweets for the garden. I’ve been collecting their descendent seeds and passing them on for years now, always remembering how that Longford couple had told me of the beauty of their fragrance.
Over the years I’ve passed them on to people who come to visit and sold them as Nuns’ House seeds in brown paper bags at Lilydale market. People have reminded me, years on, how the dual-purple flowers had bloomed and how dreamy they smelt. They have brought me simple joys and I’m forever grateful for having found them.
It’s that time of year again, when I’m sorting out the seeds. I could give some to you now if you were to drop in. That’s the beauty of seeds. I don’t mean the kind you buy in colourful glossy packets from the garden centre – athough they are useful too. The kind of seeds I mean are local, saved, that you have been witness to and seen through a life cycle. They seem to connect you to a way of living where you are, that I know to be precious. I think, as precious as families. Seeds have roots too.
More often than not, people who save seeds from their gardens will tell you how best to grow them. My sweet pea seeds, for example, get saved in a bag in a cool place, then, just tossed into the garden on St Patrick’s Day, against a wall, fence or gate, where they might ramble and get a sprinkle of water every now and then, when the days are warmer. And, sure enough, by the first day of spring, my sweet peas will be up, all tangling tendrils and bursting into flower and heady fragrance.
I love the way seeds are packaged up in nature, and how every flower has different packaging. The sweet pea flower dries and hardens to a crescent-like pod, packed just so with seeds. Then, when ready to burst, they spring out so fast they’ll have you chasing them all over the kitchen floor. I also love the cup-like seed pods of Love in a Mist that, if shaken, sound like mini maracas. Double joy: you can also use the seeds (nigella) in cooking. The pods of a particular white wisteria are a new fascination, like flat broad bean pods, or dangly earrings.
Sunflowers left to dry and go to seed teach melancholy in the garden and when you’ve had enough just throw them to the chooks or save them for next year’s planting. Angelica blooms, too, make pretty dried arrangements, as do artichokes left on the plant you couldn’t be bothered to cut earlier in the season. And, when the border of wild Watsonia leaves finally withers and dries, I cut some right back to the ground, while others I leave only because the frost looks so pretty clinging to vertical dried stems. Poppy fields with dead heads are such things in the Tasmanian landscape: so much so you’ll often see people stopping to photograph them from the roadside.
Karen Hall and Peter Cooper’s Wychwood garden in Mole Creek introduced many garden lovers to the beauty of saving plants well after their prime. I always looked forward to their autumn garden – their beds of seed heads were an inspiration not to tug things out of the ground before you have also appreciated them as they fade. Those curved rainbow-borders of bronze and biscuit, of gold, dusky pink, and mauve … In their book, Wychwood, Karen explains how easy it is to collect your own seeds, alongside the joys: “The rewards for taking the time to venture into the garden with a handful of paper bags and a pen are great,” she writes. “Watching seeds germinate, develop into seedlings and then mature into a plant is one of the most wondrous journeys a gardener can take.”
Seeds come in packets but it’s only when you grow your own seeds you realize their true nature. So I was riveted when English physicist Professor Brian Cox introduced viewers to the Doomsday seed vault on Human Universe, his fascinating program currently showing on ABC TV. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is seed heaven on an incredible scale. At last count, the total number of seeds buried underground in frozen caves, 1300 kms from the North Pole, was over 20 million. There are 32 varieties of potatoes from Ireland’s national gene banks and 20,000 new samples from the U.S. Agricultural Research Service. Other seed samples came from Canada and Switzerland, as well as international seed researchers from Colombia, Mexico and Syria.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault’s mission is to provide a safety net against an inevitable loss of diversity in traditional gene banks. US Conservationist and vault visionary Cary Fowler told Professor Brian Cox while some people thought the seed bank was depressing because its existence accepts that the world might be doomed, he said he thought it spoke of hope. Hope that, given the destructiveness of humanity, we might at least have been clever enough to save enough seeds to keep future generations alive. Which is the ultimate cleverness of seeds: that in their seeming deadness they hold the potential for life. Just make a point of popping a handful in a paper bag over the next few weeks: see for yourself.
First published in Tasweekend, Saturday Mercury, 21 February 2015