Come dream with me. Back a bit, back beyond Kew Gardens, the Doctrine of Signatures, and the Victorian Language of Flowers. Before the Tulip Craze and the Opium Poppy Trade. Before the Nile Delta was strewn with lotus and papyrus. Before the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Before the first seeds were cultivated in the Fertile Crescent. Before homo anything moved across the Land.
The first plants (after the infamous algae and liverwort) were primarily mosses, which appeared 440 million years ago during the Silurian Period of the Paleozoic Era. A mere eighty million years later, Devonian ferns joined the party. What these, albeit lovely, green beings were both missing, though were seeds. Most mosses and ferns reproduce via spores like good little bryophytes and pteridophytes. Seeds appeared with the earliest spermatophytes. The first group of spermatophytes – the gymnosperms that came into being during the Carboniferous Period – are still sharing the Land with us today. Now we call these 270 to 218 million year old beings ginkgoes and conifers.
The conifers, the most numerous and most successful of the gymnosperms, figured out how to reproduce via seed, but not how to produce fruit. The word, gymnosperm, means “naked seed”. The seed cones of conifers like the Douglas or Noble Fir, the Ponderosa or Pinyon Pine are generated from fertilized ovulate cones. The naked seed was truly an ingenious evolutionary invention of these mighty plants who would come to dominate the Land for a time. The coating around each seed, and later the cone that held the collection of seeds, freed the Plant Kingdom from the marsh by allowing the embryonic plant form to carry much of the moisture it needed to germinate with it as it traveled further and further away from the direct water sources required for survival by mosses, liverworts, and ferns. Any given conifer seed contains cellular material from three generations of its lineage. Not merely genes, but actual cells. Pine seeds are also one of the two most important food sources for wildlife in North America. Show them due respect next time you spy them littered on the neighborhood sidewalk or forest floor.
Conifers, like the Pines, reigned supreme over the Land alongside the infamous thunder lizards of the Mesozoic Era. That is, until the angiosperms blossomed onto the scene. And those wanton blossoms inevitably led to fruit. Fruit-encased seeds are the ticket to being an adventuresome angiosperm– a plant that make its seeds internally within the wombspace of its ovary as opposed to out in the open at the cone tip of a branch.
Angiosperms did not put in an appearance at the evolutionary botanical dance until probably the late Jurassic or early Cretaceous Period, in the twilight of the Mesozoic Era. Two of the oldest surviving fossilized genera of angiosperms, Archeafructus and Montsechia, are actually freshwater plants. There is an ongoing debate among paleobotanists as to whether or not the first flower rooted itself in the Land, proper, or under the surface of a freshwater lake or pond.
As the dinosaurs’ dominion over the Land began to wane, the blossoms’ influence began to wax, surviving the Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction 65 million years ago and roaring back to dominate almost every botanical microclimate across the Land. Today, there are somewhere between 250,000 and 400,000 flowering plant species sharing space with us; nearly ninety percent of all plants growing on the Land. And we absolutely, unequivocally, could not live without them.
Flowering plants feed us, clothe us, house us, heal us, soothe us, and romance us. Heck, angiosperms are largely responsible for keeping us breathing. Stop for a moment and take a look around you. Are there hardwood floors under your feet? Wood as vital components of any of your household furniture or fixtures? Even particleboard potentially contains bits of several different angiosperms – alder and beech, as well as, the ubiquitous pine believe it or not. What did you have for breakfast? Oatmeal? An apple? Flowering plants, both. Cotton clothes in your closet? Flowering plant. Aspirin in your medicine cabinet? Thank a willow tree (also a flowering plant, of course). Ever wished upon a dandelion? Received a red, red rose from a potential lover?
Take just one day and bring your attention to the sheer number of flowering plants with which you commune in so many varied forms in the everyday humdrum of your daily round. Angiosperms quietly abound all around us, seeding our lives with their magic throughout the day.
Out of those 250,000 to 400,000 or so species of angiosperms growing across the globe today, we modernized, hoity-toity, edumacated Western folk use only a fraction of them for food and medicine. The harrowing follow up to that little tidbit is that we are further narrowing that number every year as more and more heirloom species disappear from our gardens, our plates, and our modern collective consciousness. We’ve already lost ninety-four percent of the seed varieties we were availing ourselves of only a hundred or so years ago.
Part of the problem is that we’ve come to think of a tomato as just a tomato. Okay, so maybe we glance over small, medium, and large in choosing which ones we need from the supermarket this week. Maybe we do distinguish between a cherry, grape, plum, or full size beefsteak tomato. The standard, mass produced American tomato is commonly referred to by a general category driven by shape and size instead of cultivar or variety. But do we truly know the full name of that tomato in our basket? Before we pick it up, take it home, and have our way with it, do we even ask for its given cultivar or varietal name? Not really, and especially not if we bring it home in a can, which is where almost ninety percent of the commercially grown tomatoes harvested in the United States end up.
Yellow Perfection, Cherokee Purple, Red Calabash, Tigerella — these are all names of just a sampling of the myriad, intriguing, open pollinated heirloom tomatoes. These tomatoes have a legacy, a story of how they came into being. And they have personality in spades. Take my friend the Tigerella, for example.
The Tigerella tomato is an open pollinated cultivar. Cultivars are intentionally bred by some intrepid botanist-gardener, while varieties appear in our garden beds as a result of the divine hands of the Land, herself. Tracking down the origins of an heirloom cultivar, a cultivar known to have been grown for at least the last forty years or so, is often like chasing the mythic origins of some untold, fantastical beast. The Tigerella is no exception. But if you search hard enough, you find an entertaining English gentleman by the name of Dr. Lewis Darby and his fascinating menagerie of 1960s tomatoes. Breeding his lycopersicum friends in Littlehampton, West Sussex at the Glasshouse Crops Research Institute, Dr. Darby had a thing for gorgeous color, sweet flavor, and stripes. Lots and lots of stripes. He was responsible not only for the Tigerella, but also the Tangella- a tomato fascinatingly high in carotene, the Darby Striped Red/Green, and the Darby Striped Pink/Yellow. The latter two never made it into popular production, but now reside comfortably in perpetuity at the UK’s Heritage Seed Library. In England, Tigerella is also sometimes known as Mr. Stripey (not to be confused with Wayne Hilton’s Mr. Stripey of Georgia, who, while also an heirloom tomato, is quite the gregarious beefsteak when compared to his sweeter, smoother, somewhat more demure English cousin.) All of Dr. Darby’s tomatoes can still be obtained by adventurous gardeners via that time-honored gardening tradition known as the mail-order catalog.
Learning the stories of the seeds and fruit of angiosperms we commune most intimately with — those we consume — can gift us with a sense of gratitude, amusement, nourishment, and light-heartedness. Who wouldn’t want to dance with a Tigerella? But it can also inform our understanding of human history and the seeds of our own species’ future.
This is the perfect time of year for what I like to call Seed Dreaming. Step one is to seek out an assortment of seed sources. These may be mail order seed catalogs — a favorite late winter companion of gardeners everywhere. Or it may be discovering you have your own local seed exchange in your area. Once you’ve located a diverse array of potential seed sources, the fun begins. Grab yourself a hot cup of tea. Sit in the slowly strengthening sunshine with your tea, your seed catalogs, and a brightly colored marker. Take your time flipping through the pages to get to know the seeds & plants you may want to court this year. Circle with reckless abandon the ones that make your heart flutter or your soul stir. Never mind budgets. Meticulous planning & ordering come later. For now, just dream.
What seeds will you grow?
For your Seed Dreaming pleasure, some of my favorite organic, heirloom, & open-pollinated seed catalogs are listed below. I have no special relationship with any of these companies beyond enjoying the heck out of their catalogs & occasionally ordering seeds from them. Click on any of the names below to order a catalog for yourself today.
Kate M. Brunner is a writer, healer, homeschooling mother, member of The Sisterhood of Avalon, & resident of Heartwood Cohousing. Kate is a presenter for Red Tents & women’s retreats. She also hosts seasonal women’s gatherings, priestesses labyrinth rituals, and facilitates workshops on an assortment of women’s healing & spirituality topics. Follow her exploration of herbalism and mandala healing on Facebook at Mandala Dreaming with Kate. Read more of her work in Flower Face: A Devotional Anthology in Honor of Blodeuwedd and The Goddess in America: The Divine Feminine in Cultural Context.