Skip to main content

Susquehanna Life

William Woys Weaver: The Vital Role of Heirloom Seeds

Jun 11, 2018 06:10PM ● By Erica Shames
The gardens cultivated by William Woys Weaver have been compared to a living museum, reflecting his focus on preservation of heirloom vegetables. Growing heirloom vegetables is, in fact, a form of conserving and appreciating living history everyone can participate in this summer.

As commercial farming looks to genetically modified organisms and hybrids to prop up the produce industry, more gardeners embrace heirloom seeds as a way to ensure a promising future. The reasons to grow heirloom vegetables range from practical to aesthetic. While many point to a very real need to preserve biodiversity, William Woys Weaver focuses on the cultural and educational opportunities for heirlooms to define and connect us.

“Who we are as a nation comes together at our tables,” affirms William Woys Weaver, in the introduction of his re-released book, Heirloom Vegetable Gardening (2018, Voyageur Press), originally published in 1997. “In spite of our differences and many opposing points of view, we can discover common ground and a common identity as Americans.”

Looking back

Growing heirlooms creates, in fact, a direct link to our heritage—it makes connections to generations of gardeners who came before us. Weaver knows the veracity of that statement first-hand.

In 1932, during the Great Depression when food was scarce, Weaver’s grandfather, H. Ralph Weaver, began to feed his family from a one-acre plot in West Chester, Pennsylvania. He used his Lancaster County family connections, culled from research on Weaver family genealogy, to acquire heirloom seeds that had been grown in PA Dutch Country for many generations. By the 1940s Weaver had created what was considered one of the finest kitchen gardens in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Weaver’s untimely death brought an abrupt end to his seed collecting. Ten years later, William Woys Weaver, while a student at the University of Virginia, discovered his grandfather’s seed collection at the bottom of his grandmother’s freezer.

“My grandfather knew that by freezing seeds they could be kept for a long time,” said Weaver. “By this stroke of luck, many of his most valuable seeds were still viable when I began to tinker with them. By the mid-1970s I had brought most of his original garden back under cultivation.”

In 1979, Weaver—now an internationally known food historian and author of sixteen books—moved the seed collection to Devon, Pennsylvania, and dubbed it the Roughwood Seed Collection—after the Victorian house in which Weaver lives. The collection has been referred to as the “Walden Pond of heirloom seeds,” due to Weaver’s insistence that the collection be characterized as “a philosophy with a proactive purpose, as opposed to a museum-like agricultural seed archive.” Those proactive dual purposes are cultural and educational, as opposed to agricultural.

Recounting the story

The collection has grown dramatically over the years—to roughly 4,000 varieties of heirloom food plants; many seeds are unique and not found in other collections. Mr. Weaver has been called the most important figure in heirloom gardening today.

“Will is the person responsible for introducing to America the culinary side of heirlooms, as well as their historical value,” assessed Jere Gettle, founder of Baker Creek Heiloom Seeds. “He has taken rare plants from near-extinction and nurtured them to the point where they are now loved and grown widely.”

The story of Weaver’s work starts, from his point of view, with questions about who owns seeds, who controls our source of food and how food nourishes us. “If we keep our own seeds,” he says of the practice, “we have total control over how our food is raised, and how we want to select it for our own use. Heirloom seeds are a matter of food independence—not being dependent on the faulty food system we have right now.”

That reference denotes, in part, a practice of leveraging shipping qualities over those of nutrition and taste, in commercially raised vegetables. “We can produce more nutritious food raising it organically ourselves,” he says.

But perhaps an even more compelling factor in seed preservation is heirloom seeds’ strong link to history. “The point to raising heirloom vegetables is not so much an escape into the past,” Weaver notes, “but rather a search for greater diversity in our present diet and a healthy rejection of industrial agriculture.”

Heirloom seeds, Weaver likens, are food waiting to happen. “They have stories, and cultural context.”

As an example, Weaver references the Arbogast Sugar Pea, which hails from Snyder County, PA. This pea was recommended to Weaver by a member of Seed Savers Exchange who was interested in a possible connection with the Pennsylvania Dutch Arbogast family. “That genealogical footnote has not yet crystallized, but there is good reason to believe that this excellent sugar pea is none other than David Landreth & Sons’ once popular Tall Sugar Pea by another name,” references Weaver in Heirloom Vegetable Garden.

“We can talk about how this seed was saved in the PA Dutch community,” Weaver continues, by telephone. “This pea becomes a talking point about culinary heritage and cultural identity and heritage. And then it spills over into the many ways that pea was prepared—you can eat the pods, the shoots and the green peas, and even the flowers. Or you can dry the seed peas and cook them for a winter pea soup.

“This is how we turn the seed story into a food story,” Weaver adds. “There are lots more examples like that. We’re the third-largest agricultural state in the country; no one seems to get that. We have all kinds of riches here, and it’s not just Lancaster County’s PA Dutch story—it’s a story that stretches across 25 counties.”

Rich pedigree

Weaver earned his doctorate in food studies at University College Dublin, Ireland—the first doctorate awarded by the university in that field of study. He is, by all accounts, a driving force in their heirloom seed movement. Through the Roughwood Seed Collection, he has saved nearly all the Native American corn varieties grown in Pennsylvania at one time. Fittingly, Roughwood’s new seed manager, Steven Smith, who is part-Cherokee, has focused his research on corn genetics.

“Steve has fantastic connections with Native Americans, and as a result we’ll be emphasizing corn, squash and beans—the three sisters. We have a lot of rare beans from Pennsylvania.”

One bean variety worthy of mention is Indian Hannah Pole Beans. “Hannah (1730-1802) was the last of the Lenapes to live in this part of Pennsylvania,” says Weaver. “She stayed behind to tend graves where her ancestors were buried. She preserved some important Native American bean varieties.”

A Quaker family allowed Hanna—whose assumed name was Freeman—to remain on a farm that had been part of confiscated Indian land. “Hanna’s story is quite beautiful,” said Weaver. “She chose the name Freeman because to her it meant free person, and that she was a free spirit and would not bow to any higher authority, other than her own spirituality. She lived there under the protection of the Webb family, and my grandfather got the pole bean seeds from the Webbs. That variety is very rare. There you go—a whole story about a woman is behind this bean.”

Making it happen

Interviewing older generations of seed savers is an important part of Weaver’s work. And he recommends seed savers write down what they know about the heirloom seeds they grow. “That’s what keeps this history alive,” he explains. “How they used the food, and how it was prepared in their family. From that we can understand why it was saved, and its culinary strengths.”

In fact, many people who understand the value of heirloom seeds look to Weaver as a storehouse for seeds they’re unable to keep. “They will contact me and tell me their grandmother passed away, and they can’t keep the seeds. They’ll ask us to take and preserve them. “We’ve become a repository for orphan seeds!”

As part of his work, Dr. Weaver and the Roughwood Seed staff are working with chefs and growers to emphasize heirloom food plants in their work—pointing out ones that grow best in Pennsylvania, and the ways in which traditional food can become a culinary road map to the future.

“This movement back to the land is taking place all across Europe, notes Weaver. “Since Pennsylvania has five distinct culinary regions, our unique region is poised to take a lead in the renewal of American cuisine. We’re planning food events in restaurants in Philadelphia, Allentown and Easton in the fall.”

What’s our role?

Perhaps the last piece of the heirloom seed picture relates to our individual responsibility to connect to it. As we plan our summer gardens to include heirlooms, Weaver advises growers start small with lettuces, radishes and other crops easy to grow—and to get our children involved.

“This helps children understand the value of food, and where it comes from,” says Weaver.  “There’s nothing I hate more than to see food that goes back to the kitchen as waste, in a restaurant. This, to me, is criminal. 

“The thing that made the PA Dutch so well off years ago is their frugality,” Weaver continues. “They wasted nothing. Grow plants and use them as a way to teach children where food comes from—and that it means something. In these folk tales I hear as I go about seed saving, every living thing has a soul and you respect it. It’s not something we get in church, but it’s a very valuable lesson about respecting nature. Plus, growing your own food is healthier; you’re getting good exercise; and it’s good for the mind to get outside and understand why and how we’re part of the environment.”

And, lastly, Weaver repeats, growing heirloom seeds has a very real function today, in reminding us who we are as Americans. “People who grow heirloom seeds—it doesn’t matter what race or religion they are,” Weaver concludes. “We all come together with this common language. This is one of the best ways to rebuild a sense of community—something we need today. And to relearn how to take care of each other.”

Visit to learn more about William Woys Weaver.

Like what you're reading? Subscribe to Susquehanna Life's free newsletter to stay informed