Keeping Heirloom Seeds Alive

By Staff
1 / 7
2 / 7
3 / 7
4 / 7
5 / 7
6 / 7
7 / 7

Keeping Heirloom Seeds Alive

The art of searching for, saving, and storing heirloom seeds, including a couple of okra cultivars that were designated All-America Selections winners in 1939.

By Chris Smith
Winter 2018

Photo by Chris Smith

Since its establishment in 1932, All-America Selections (AAS) — a nonprofit plant trialing organization — has only given its annual award of recognition to an okra cultivar seven times. In 1939, two okra cultivars were designated AAS winners: ‘Clemson Spineless’ and ‘White Lightning.’

‘Clemson Spineless’ is popular in India, Africa, the Middle East, America, and elsewhere. This cultivar has withstood the test of time, and if you’ve ever eaten okra purchased from a supermarket or farmers market, there’s a good chance it was ‘Clemson Spineless.’ In 1939, it was released as a refined seed cultivar by Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina, but Thomas H. Davis began the process in 1880 by saving seeds based on the spinelessness of the pods. In Lancaster, South Carolina, on the corner of Main and Dunlap Streets, there’s even a plaque that reads “Honoring Thomas H. Davis: Site where his forty year selection, (1880), of okra led to the nationally known variety of ‘Clemson Spineless Okra’ 1939.”

Photo by Rare Seeds

The other winning okra cultivar, ‘White Lightning,’  was introduced by Georgia-based Hastings Seed Company and was listed in their Spring 1938 seed catalog under the heading, “Hastings’ Famous Okra,” with a description that read:

‘White Lightning’

4 ft.; 50 days. A new distinct introduction from Hastings’ Seed Farms. An extra-early, smooth and exceptionally long, white-podded variety, bearing 7 to 10 days ahead of ‘White Velvet.’ Stays tender to much larger size than others. Supply limited.

Pkt., 10c. Oz., 15c. 1/4 Lb., 40c. Lb., $1

Hastings Seed Company continued to list ‘White Lightning’ in their seed catalogs into the 1950s, with improved strains cropping up along the way. While trying to find more details on ‘White Lightning,’ including information on why it was chosen for the AAS award,  I discovered that a flood had destroyed most of the older records AAS had on file.

Photo by Chris Smith

Trying to track down more clues, I contacted okra grower Ron Cook, whom I consider a modern-day version of Thomas H. Davis. When growing ‘Clemson Spineless,’ Cook noticed that a few of the plants put out more branches than the others, and he saved seeds from those plants. Through the years, he continued to select for branchiness, and his production per plant continued to soar. He calls this okra cultivar ‘Heavy Hitter,’ and the plants can reach 8 feet tall and 8 feet wide. When I asked if he would share some seeds, Cook said his farm in Oklahoma had flooded, and only two of his okra plants survived.

Photo by Chris Smith

Seeing that floods ruined both the AAS records for ‘White Lightning’ and the majority of seed for Cook’s  ‘Heavy Hitter’ cultivar made me contemplate the tragic results of hurricanes, the wildfires on the West Coast, climate change, and the fragility of seed and, by extension, our food supply and our very survival.

‘Cockes Prolific’ corn

So why did ‘Clemson Spineless’ rise to fame while ‘White Lightning’ fizzled and was forgotten? And more importantly, does ‘White Lightning’ exist out there somewhere, kept alive by a committed seed saver who enjoys the cultivar enough to save and replant and save again? I have hope that this may be the case, and through my work with Sow True Seed (, I’ve experienced many stories of the rediscovery of “lost” cultivars.

For instance, here’s a sneak preview of one “lost” cultivar from Sow True Seed’s 2019 seed catalog: ‘Cockes Prolific’ corn:

“Angie Lavezzo, Sow True Seed’s general manager, connected with Mr. Manning Farmer in Inman, South Carolina, who was growing a corn cultivar thought to be extinct for decades. After some historical digging and verification, we’re  proud to reintroduce this long-lost cultivar to the public for the first time since 1951. ‘Cockes Prolific’ was developed by John Hartwell Cockes, one of Thomas Jefferson’s head gardeners at Monticello in the first half of the 1800s. We’re unsure why this cultivar fell off the radar, but it was once one of the most cultivated corns in the South because of its reliably high yields and excellent flavor. Each plant produces at least two good-sized ears of heavy, white-kerneled corn, perfect for cornmeal and hominy. We hope you’ll join us in bringing this corn back into the spotlight.”

Photo by Rare Seeds

To prevent seeds from ever becoming “lost” in the first place, it’s important that home gardeners have a solid understanding of appropriate seed storage conditions and that seed companies have the infrastructure in place to be good seed stewards on a larger scale.

Longevity and Storage

Seeds like to be stored in cool, dark, dry conditions, with a relatively stable temperature. As a home seed saver, I store seeds in glass jars with moisture-absorbing silica gel packets. The jars either live in my basement or my spare fridge. Many people freeze seeds, which will certainly increase longevity, but they must take care to ensure the seeds are fully dry prior to freezing. Any moisture in seeds that are frozen will expand and destroy the germ.

Photo by Chris Smith

At Sow True Seed, where germination is a legal requirement, the basis of our reputation, and something we care deeply about, we take seed storage very seriously. We recently moved locations and were faced with the daunting task of rebuilding a climate-controlled seed storage facility, as we have an available catalog of more than 500 cultivars, plus more than a hundred cultivars that are in various stages of trial, grow out, or storage. We wanted the best for our seeds, so we decided to crowdfund some $40,000 to build a well-insulated, air-conditioned, humidified, air-filtered, 4,000-cubic-foot box. This has allowed us to continue our base mission of saving seed diversity.

“We’ve always cared about our seeds,” says Lavezzo, “but this new facility really allows us to take many of the small lots of rare and special cultivars and grow them out to a larger, safe level of seeds, then pack them out so home gardeners can grow, and hopefully help save, these cultivars.”

Photo by Chris Smith

The new seed storage is no Svalbard, where seeds are cooled to extreme temperatures to extend viable longevity for a long, long time. (The Svalbard seed vault has been nicknamed the Doomsday Vault, because it’s designed to survive a range of apocalyptic scenarios.) Our seed storage allows daily access to our seeds, because we’re operating what some call a “living seed bank” — somewhere that stores seeds but relies on a constant cycle of regrowing the cultivars to reinvigorate the seed supply. That way, the seeds can continue to change and adapt to new climatic conditions. My ongoing hope is that ‘White Lightning’ okra, and other cultivars that are currently suspected “lost,” will one day join the collection — just like ‘Cockes Prolific’ corn has — and be made available to anyone who wants to grow them.

Chris Smith works for Sow True Seed. He’s a garden writer for local and national publications and is currently writing a book about okra. You can follow him at

Mother Earth Gardener
Mother Earth Gardener
Expert advice on all aspects of growing.