Cherokee Nation heirloom seed project returns

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TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – Cherokee gardeners will take delight in knowing that spring gardening season is just around the corner. Cherokee Nation is once again offering those gardeners a chance to grow a bit of the tribe’s history and culture in their own backyard.

Last year, Cherokee gardeners had the opportunity to request heirloom seeds from the Cherokee Nation as part of the tribal seed bank project. Some 6,000 seed packets were mailed out to Cherokee Nation citizens throughout the U.S. and beyond. The resulting produce ranged from the ornamental to the edible, and gardeners reported having great fun with the unique plants.

“Our 2009 growing season had mixed results, as do most years,” said Pat Gwin, Cherokee Nation Natural Resources director. “Some species yielded ‘bumper crops’ while others produced minimal yields.”

Because the 2009 participants have been very generous in returning portions of their seeds to the program, Gwin said this year’s gardeners can request a good variety of seeds that have been researched to relate historically to the Cherokee Nation, such as Georgia Candy Roaster squash, Job’s Tears or Birdhouse and Dipper gourds. Other species offered by the program include varieties of corn, beans and tobacco. Most are rare cultivars not widely available through commercial means.

Kate Chapman, of New Mexico, reported that her crop of rattlesnake beans in 2009 was prolific enough to feed her family, plus save seeds for this spring while returning some to the Cherokee Nation seed bank for others to enjoy.

“They got about 10 feet tall, and I had to use a ladder to pick the tops,” Chapman said.

She said that having the special plants in her garden helped keep connections and precious memories alive for her and for her mother, who also spent time last summer in Chapman’s garden reminiscing about long-ago gardens she remembered in the Cherokee Nation.

“We haven’t been able to get back for awhile, and both of us are a bit homesick for it,” Chapman said. “So having these plants to nurture was really special to both of us.”

Gwin said the participation and interest of gardeners like Chapman is greatly appreciated by the nation.

“The propagation and cultivation of these rare plants is the only way to assure their genetic preservation and also serves to preserve a vital component of Cherokee history.”

If you would like to participate in the Cherokee Nation seed bank and seed exchange program, e-mail your request to mark-dunham@cherokee.org or pgwin@cherokee.org or fax to (918) 458-7673. You may specify up to two seed varieties and are encouraged to include an alternate selection in case your first choice is not available. Please include your name, a copy of your Cherokee Nation citizenship card (blue card), mailing address, and if requesting tobacco seeds, proof that you are over 18.

For more information or for a complete list of species and varieties available in this year’s seed bank, call (918) 453-5704.