Garden Musings · Vegetable Gardening

William Woys Weaver and the Roughwood Seed Collection

I was recently invited to attend a luncheon with William Woys Weaver before his lecture, Our Kitchen Garden for Culinary and Cultural Research: The Roughwood Seed Collection, at the Chicago Botanic Garden. I, along with a dozen other garden writers, hung on his every word as he talked about his childhood spent in the garden with his grandfather and his passion for saving the Roughwood Seed Collection.

The story started with his grandfather.

During the Great Depression his grandfather, H. Ralph Weaver, fed his family with vegetables grown in his kitchen garden in Southeastern Pennsylvania. In 1932, he began collecting heirloom seeds from vegetables grown in Dutch country for generations.

He practiced sustainability long before people even considered using the term. His pigeons provided manure for the gardens, and the bees from his hives pollinated fruit trees.

Photo taken of slide during William Woys Weaver’s lecture at Chicago Botanic Garden.

A frequent visitor to his garden, Horace Pippin – a local folk artist – gave him seeds of many rare peppers in exchange for the healing effects of the stings from his bees. The Fish pepper is just one of the varieties received from Pippin.

H. Ralph Weaver died unexpectedly in 1956 and the story of the seed collection ended…for a while.

Ten years after his grandfather’s death, Weaver discovered the seed collection at the bottom of his grandmother’s freezer. Held in 250 baby food jars, many of the seeds were still viable. Weaver brought most of his grandfather’s original garden back under cultivation in the 1970’s.

The seed collection moved to Weaver’s home, built in 1805, in Devon, Pennsylvania. It boasts the greatest number of Native American corn, squash and bean seeds.

The Roughwood Seed Collection now has 4,500 varieties of heirloom seeds. Some varieties are available for gardeners to purchase at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. Others can be purchased at Hudson Valley Seeds.

Weaver does not want to be a seed company. He looks at his seeds as cultural artifacts with important stories that need to be told and treasured.

Weaver teams up with local organic growers and Kutztown University to help plant out crops. One grower made use of leftover smashed tomatoes to make and sell salsa and ketchup after the seeds were harvested and returned for the collection. Surplus seeds are donated to urban gardens, and seeds have been donated to more than one hundred botanical gardens and museums all over the world.

Weaver describes the Roughwood Seed Collection as a publicly accessible seed archive designed to preserve and disseminate traditional food plants as a communally shared patrimony representing the rich diversity of American culture. (Their) over-arching vision is motivated by a Quaker sense of responsible stewardship of the natural environment and an abiding respect for the Green World that sustains us.

After a pipe burst in his home recently, it became a priority to find a safe home – climate controlled and protected from bursting pipes – for the Roughwood Seed Collection.

If you would like to support William Woys Weaver and the Roughwood Seed Collection, learn how to financially contribute here.

Listening to Weaver speak passionately about heirloom seed saving was so inspiring. “We are right on the cusp of doing very important things,” he said. I think he has already accomplished very important things but can’t wait to see what the future holds for him and the heirloom seeds he protects.

Consider growing some heirloom vegetables this year and then saving their seeds. I’ll show you how if you garden with me!

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2 thoughts on “William Woys Weaver and the Roughwood Seed Collection

  1. Beautiful. I actually just germinated fish peppers for the first time this winter. I got them from Baker Creek and while I have to say that while my germination rate wasn’t great, the seedlings I have are wonderful and beautiful. I live in Chicago and heard about fish peppers from my sister who went to college in Baltimore where they are very popular. I wish I had been to this lecture, I am super jealous of you!

    1. I wish you could have been to his lecture, too. He was such a wonderful, genuine man who cares so much about saving heirloom seeds. Good luck on your fish peppers!

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