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Seeds: Small things largely taken for granted

Just add water...
FROM A LITTLE SPROUT Four-year-old Marisol Reaves supervises mom, Simone McIsaac, co-owner and farmer at Pemberton's Rootdown Organic Farm, who's planting cilantro seeds in trays for later transplantation into the fields. Photo by Tyler Reaves

We first think of them, if we think of them at all, as no big deal. They're tiny, sometimes even a nuisance we have to scrape out of honeydews or squash. But mostly they're just quiet things, behind the scenes. Beige.

Truth is, seeds are a big deal. And they come in all kinds of packages.

Some are whispy; some winged. Some are spiny, spiked or forked. The water caltrop seed (also called water chestnut, although it's not a true Chinese water chestnut), is an amazing midnight-black mini-sculpture shaped like a bull's head with curved horns. Raffia palm seeds mimic a map of the world; the traveller's palm seed has an edible coating blue as a tropical sea.

As for giant seeds, the first one that pops to mind is the brown, hairy coconut. Technically it's a drupe—a fleshy fruit with a skin and central stone like an olive (druppa is Greek for "olive"). But we're on the right track. The world's largest true seed is the Coco de Mer, native only to two islands in the Seychelles. This humungous seed can weigh up to 17 kilograms! Which is also its undoing. Coco de Mer palms are now endangered as the seed is so heavy it doesn't disperse, instead dropping straight to the ground under its parent.

There's the black, wrinkly asparagus seed that comes from poisonous red berries. Fat nutmeg seeds with their orange lacey covering we grate for mace. Teeny Mayan mint seeds so small we can barely see them.

As you can see, seeds are totally fascinating—and at least one local farmer agrees they're also totally taken for granted.

"I think people don't understand how important (seeds) are in terms of food production and diversity—and how super-resilient they are. They're amazing!" says Simone McIsaac, co-owner and proud farmer at Pemberton's Rootdown Organic Farm, where they buy $3,000 to $4,000 worth of seeds each year for their 30-plus veggie and herb crops.

At one time, we humans grew our own food, or at least our parents and grandparents did. We were very connected to seeds then. Not anymore.

"People in general are so disconnected from their food. A lot of children think that potatoes just jump into a grocery store, or something like that," McIsaac adds with a laugh. "So I think that's a further mark of disconnect...

"Even being a farmer and buying seeds myself, I still don't totally understand—and I feel very humbled by—the whole seed-saving, seed-breeding, seed-propagation thing. That's a whole other world for us."

Our contemporary lack of consideration for the mighty little seed is even more ironic given virtually everything we eat depends on seeds.

According to National Public Radio, economists determined that the average American eats nearly a ton (and I'm using U.S. metrics here, as in 2,000 pounds) of food a year. Of that, 197 pounds is grain; 273 pounds, fruit; and 415 pounds, veggies. So about 44 per cent of the average American diet depends directly on plants sprouted from seeds. (Sorry, I'd love to give you Canadian equivalents, but economists have yet to crunch our national food consumption data. However, Statistics Canada at has more info.)

When you add in all the plants—all the grain, the grass, the vegetables that the animals we eat live on—you quickly realize that virtually everything we eat depends on seeds. Ergo the huge global seed vault at Svalbard, Norway, where more than 400,000 different types of seed are stored in an isolated vault embedded in permafrost—permafrost that's melting with climate change. But that's a story for another day.

In the meantime, know that the Pemberton Valley is famous for its healthy seed potatoes, largely due to its isolation which keeps seed potatoes, like those grown at Helmers Organic Farm or Across the Creek Organics, free from pests and disease.

You can't buy other seeds from Pemberton farmers, but you can from reliable suppliers to start your own seedy connections. Stefan Butler at Nutrient Dense Farm in Brackendale, where they also take great care with their 30-plus veggies and herbs, has these great tips.

First and foremost, find a good supplier that sells seeds not sprayed with pesticides or fungicides. Start with the BC Eco Seed Co-op, an excellent source of organic suppliers from across the province.

"The seed co-op is really building up and it's something worth supporting," says Butler. "They only get seeds from within B.C., and those seeds are going to be way more adapted to the climate and growing conditions here." West Coast Seeds in Vancouver is also good, offering 1,000+ varieties of untreated, non-GMO seeds.

As for that Mayan mint seed, it comes from Central America. The plant's oil is 1,500 times sweeter than sugar and makes an excellent substitute for stevia, proving you never know what a seed might hold. But you can learn lots about them, as I did, from the University of Chicago's wonderful The Book of Seeds, a life-size guide to 600 species from around the world.

Without lifting a finger or watering can, you can also enjoy the outstanding results carefully grown from well-sourced seeds at Rootdown and Nutrient Dense farms by ordering their CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) harvest boxes online. For Nutrient Dense's fresh produce, also visit the farmers' markets they sell at in Vancouver and Squamish, or their farmstand in beautiful Brackendale. And check out Pemberton's and Whistler's farmers' markets for more happy seed results.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist. The first seed she grew was a bright orange marigold in a tin can on her Grade 1 classroom's windowsill.