The Southern Seed Legacy Project

SSLP preserves our horticultural past.

By Lynn Coulter | Photos By Mary Margaret Chambliss

There’s nostalgia for old seeds, says Dr. Virginia Nazarea, as well as a longing for the old ways of cooking and growing the foods we eat and flowers we enjoy. The problem is that many of those old seeds are vanishing and more are threatened. That’s why Nazarea and her late husband, Dr. Robert “Bob” Rhoades, started the Southern Seed Legacy Project (SSLP) in 1993.

Even by the early 1990s, when Nazarea and Rhoades began teaching anthropology at the University of Georgia in Athens, many old varieties had already disappeared. Rhoades, whose family plowed an Oklahoma farm with mules back in the 1940s, saw what he once called a “tremendous loss” of old seeds. In her native Philippines, Nazarea saw new hybrids replace many old types of rice. “Some were aromatic, and some were slippery, meaning the cooked rice slipped nicely down your throat. People were forgetting the old kinds even existed.” 

The SSLP was launched when the couple won a USDA grant.. The project reached across the south and into Texas with the goal of collecting and preserving. They also began “banking” the memories of elderly gardeners in tape recordings and photographs.

“The work was so much fun, “ Nazarea says. “We kept going after the funding ran out, offering memberships to help generate funds.”

The collection grew larger in 2010, when the estate of the late Bert Searcy, an heirloom grower from Kentucky, donated over 165 heirloom tomato varieties. At last count, about 800 different varieties have been saved, Nazarea says.

For more than a decade, Drs. Nazarea and Rhoades hosted an Old-Timey Seed Swap on their rural Georgia farm, but with Dr. Rhoades’ passing in 2010, the swap and the SSLP are changing hands. Beginning in the spring of 2012, Bob’s former student, Dr. Jim Veteto, is moving the seeds to the University of North Texas, where he teaches.

Veteto has many plans for the future. “We’re working on a new website,” he says, “and we want to strengthen seed saving networks and create a kind of clearinghouse, so we can grow and exchange seeds among gardeners and farmers.”

“The seed legacy will be very welcome [at UNT],” says Nazarea. She pauses, and then she speaks with sadness and hope in her voice. “Bob is still going strong in the world. The project goes on.”

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