It has been told that during a dig on First Nations land in Wisconsin, archaeologists found a small clay pot with seeds inside of it that dated back 800 years. The seeds were given to students at the Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, who had planted and successfully “resurrected” the ancient squash, which grew to be over 30 pounds in size. But according to Kenton Lobe, an environmental studies professor at the University of Winnipeg, there was no clay ball. Actually the seeds were a gift given from elderly gardeners on the Miami Nation of Indiana.
The seeds had been preserved through hand-pollination to maintain their purity for over 5,000 years. So the captivating story of lost-and-found 800-year-old seeds is not the exact truth, but we can celebrate the fact that nature can and has been preserved for over thousands of years by indigenous humans who have lived in harmony with the earth. Lobe states: “There’s something that resonates culturally when we share a heritage seed that has been reclaimed.”
Students at the Canadian Mennonite University made the head-titles in October 2015 by growing the mammoth squash seeds, but the Native Americans with the American Indian Center’s Growing Circle gardening club and others had grown them before. The Growing Circle received the gift from Sue Menzel of the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe tribe. Frederick Wiseman, a retired professor and expert on ethno-botany, spent years researching and working with the Maya civilization in Guatemala and Mexico, and for the past two decades he’s turned his attention to plants native to his homeland. Dr. Wiseman works to identify and preserve ancient seeds which were vital to the Abenaki Native Americans of northeastern North America. The history of the plants reveals a wealth of information that would otherwise have been lost in time. He has traced 26 different kinds, including squash, beans, corn, artichokes, ground cherries and tobacco.
Fred Wiseman is not alone in his quest to preserve ancient seeds. Elaine Solowey a botanical researcher, has nurtured more than 100 rare or near-extinct species back to life. She has grown plants and herbs used in Tibetan, Chinese and biblical medicine, as well as traditional folk remedies from other cultures. Dr. Solowey resurrected an extinct date palm from 2,000-year-old seeds found in an archaeological dig at Masada, in the southern district of Israel. The Judean date palm had been purposefully eradicated in ancient Judea in 70 A.D. by the invading Roman Empire.
The revival of the giant squash comes at a time when scientists are trying so hard to conserve the world’s precious varieties and species of plant foods. Scientists from around the world opened in 2004 a seed bank on a Norwegian island, north of the Arctic Circle, where cold and dry conditions are perfect for preservation, and there are already hundreds of thousands types of plant-food seeds in the vault (the seed vault can store up to 4.5 million varieties and species, for a total capacity of 2.5 billion seeds).