A living history in seeds

Have you ever had blue cornbread?

When Diana Young made some from the Cherokee white eagle corn she grew last year, that’s what color it was.

“I wasn’t prepared for that, but it was very good cornbread,” she said.

She grew the unusual variety from heirloom seeds, so called because they are handed down from generation to generation within the same region.

Heirloom seeds may have been selected for any number of traits, such as hardiness, flavor or unique coloration.

Young’s selection at Seed Brown County’s March 19 seed swap was as descriptively named as it was colorful: red calico lima beans, white cucumbers, white Virginia gourdseed corn, purple-potted pole beans and more.

The flavor or use of an heirloom variety may differ from what most people are used to getting at the grocery store, but they are no more difficult to cook with than commonly consumed hybrids, she said.

Like her cornbread, Young’s purple-potted pole beans offer a color-change surprise.

“It’s a green bean that — it’s purple, and turns green when you cook it,” she said.

Betsy Nickel and her daughters and nieces crowded around Young’s table, examining her jar of red calico lima beans.

“We just love gardening,” Nickel said. It’s important to pass that love and knowledge onto the next generation, and to offer a nutritional variety of homegrown food to her family, she said.

“We’re big on nutrition; we think that’s really important,” she said — “and just independence and self-sufficiency.”

Nickel’s daughter, Lilly, enjoys the surprise of seeing life sprout from the ground, as well as cutting the flowers they grow and making vases to give away.

The Nickels packed up their seeds with smiles, carefully labeling the baggies.

Though Young also received some flower seeds earlier in the day, her main motive in driving with her husband, Herman, from their home in Unionville was to give her seeds away.

“I want to spread the wealth,” she said. “I want to preserve the heirloom seeds and keep them going.”

Torrie Birkemeier founded Seed Brown County to build a greater seed-sharing network. She was inspired in part by a particularly unique set of heirloom seeds, from famed Brown County naturalist Jack Weddle.

Before he passed away, he gave all of his seeds — including varieties of corn he had bred — to Brian Webb. When Webb’s wife, Amanda, learned Birkemeier had a background in small-scale farming and knowledge of heirloom seeds, she asked her to put them to use, Birkemeier said.

There is a living history carried in heirloom seeds, Birkemeier said.

“This lives on,” she said. “He’s not here, but his legend lives on.”

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Ben Kibbey is a Brown County transplant from the cornfields of central Ohio. He covers county government, business, outdoors, sports and general news.