The Seed Kist is a treasure chest full of seeds. It is a symbol for the wealth and diversity of the crops that grow in Scotland. It is a seed swap between past and future.
We have created our own Seed Kist by transforming an old kist found in a shed in Angus – giving it a lick of paint and kitting it out with unfolding drawers divided into sections. We have begun to stock it with open pollinated varieties suited to growing in the Scottish climate – and in the summer of 2013, went on a journey across Scotland collecting seeds.
We think everyone should make their own Seed Kist – each region of Scotland, each glen, each community garden or croft – and appoint a keeper of the kist who will make sure that the seeds of all the most valued crops are gathered in each year to restock the collection.
We think the Seed Kist should be the symbol of a national seed saving network, and a celebration of the cultural wealth and diversity of the crops of Scotland.
As a country which in recent decades has got a lot of bad press for its poor health record, we should look beyond the chips and begin to rediscover the hundreds of unique and unsung Scottish fruit and veg varieties, and reclaim them as part of our culture.
The Gordon Castle plum, the Bloody Ploughman apple, Fife Green Jam rhubarb, the Tayberry, the Kelsae Onion, the Ailsa Craig tomato, the Shetland Black and the Edzell Blue potato are some of the magnificent names of fruit and vegetables bred and still growing strong across Scotland, and that’s not to mention the huge diversity of wild plants that grow in abundance, from the elderberry, with its connections to the fairies, to the humble nettle and wild garlic, to the musically but not culinarily famous Wild Mountain Thyme. But if you go into any shop or supermarket, where are these varieties?
The choice offered on supermarket shelves is in fact a strange illusion. The onslaught of the industrial monocrop agriculture and the globalised food chain has brought us the all sorts of exotic food, but it is always the same food, all year round. For example, there is only one variety of mango that is grown worldwide for supply to supermarkets, and the same applies to other fruits: there are only three or four apple varieties readily available, and yet there are at least 21 Scottish varieties in existence, all with their own characteristic tastes and uses.
However, as the local food revolution gathers pace, and more and more people flock to garden centres, set up community gardens, and bring crofting townships into community ownership, it is time to step up the game.
A good example of a vibrant food culture that celebrates its regional specialities is the Veneto region of Italy, and particurly Treviso, where what they really go wild about is a type of chicory. This Radicchio Rosso di Treviso is considered a real delicacy, and is used in all sorts of recipes, from pizza to beer!
The fact is we are no strangers to the preservation of a rich diversity of culture here in Scotland. Just under three years ago the School of Scottish studies launched its online database of over 30,000 oral history recordings, Tobar an Dualchais, or the Kist o Riches. This database all the stories, songs and oral history collected by folklorists since the 1930s, has been an additional boost to the folk music resurgence. Perhaps it is time to create the Seed Kist – a similar resource for the gardeners, crofters and farmers of this land. There is no reason why we couldn’t, as all the elements required are already there – all that would be required would be a bit of concerted effort to unite the key players.
For a week in August 2013, the Seed Truck set off across Scotland, Land, Seeds and Stories tour - travelling from coast to coast from Ullapool (9th /10th August) to Aberdeen (17th August) – handing out seeds, telling stories, and gathering seeds and cuttings along the way.
We were delighted to find a surprisingly large number of people, in the community gardens which we visited, actively saving and swapping seeds, and even developing new varieties, such as a black-flowered broad bean developed by a seed saver called Agric in Culbokie.
This suggests that we are not far from developing a national seed-saving network already – all it would take would be a concerted effort from a few key bodies and individuals.
These are our visions for the Seed Kist network:
• To set up a national collection of Scotland’s unique heritage varieties of vegetables, fruit, grains and other plants. There is much that is kept going already by institutions such as the James Hutton Institute and SASA, as well as commercial and individual growers.
• To set up a network of seed savers across the country to strengthen the stock of region-specific crops, and to establish new varieties. The main purpose would be to strengthen the supply of vegetable seeds, for which there is currently no dedicated Scottish supplier. Some fantastic work has already been done by the East Kilbride Development trust
• To encourage more growers (individual, community and commercial) to grow and celebrate regional specialities.