Over the years that I’ve been growing vegetables, I’ve discovered that seed catalogues — arriving in mailboxes this month in advance of spring planting — often contain much more than photos of the various varieties offered and how to grow them. With plant histories, stunning photos, and recipes from around the world, some seed catalogs have also become part travelogue, part history, and part cookbook.
“The Whole Seed Catalog,” is one of these. At age three, Jere Gettle planted his first garden. In 1998, at the age of 17, he printed the first Baker Creek Heirloom Seed catalog. Over the past 24 years Gettle and his team have continued to search the world for unusual and heirloom varieties. The company has now grown to offer more than 1,200 varieties of vegetables, flowers, and herbs — "the largest selection of heirloom varieties in the USA.” As you can imagine, the catalog has become really big! The 2021 issue contains 500 pages and weighs about two pounds. And with one fascinating story after another, this catalog has become something of a coffee-table book for me.
Let me introduce you to a few of the vegetables and flowers offered inside.
An edible ornamental? In 1915, the John Lewis Childs Seed Company introduced from China a celosia variety called “wool flower.” The flower, with its deep pink, fluffy, wooly-looking heads, “became a real head-turner in American gardens.” The surprise about this plant is that it’s not just decorative, but the young leaves may be eaten like spinach. Yet by the 1960s, this unique variety was no longer available here. Fortunately, while on a trip to Japan last year, Mark Wideman, “seed ambassador” for Baker Creek Seeds, found this plant still growing and managed to procure a single packet of seeds. From that packet, Baker Creek was able to produce seeds and bring this plant back to the United States.
Roasting sunflower heads on the grill? Grilling whole sunflower seed-heads is apparently not a new idea*, but Baker Creek chef Jenna Asher didn’t know that when she started exploring different ways of using the seeds. “I had read that all the parts of a sunflower were edible,” she says, “so I thought why not try to cook the whole head?”
Here’s how to do it:
Ingredients: one large single head variety sunflower, one jar sundried tomatoes, a handful of fresh basil leaves cut into fine strips.
Instructions: Pick the sunflower when the seeds have formed but the shells are still soft; remove all the flowers; coat with olive oil (you can use the oil from the jar of tomatoes); place the sunflower on the grill, face down, at medium heat; cover and cook for five minutes. While cooking, finely chop the tomatoes. Finally, rub the cooked sunflower head with the tomatoes, sprinkle with the basil leaves, and salt and pepper to taste.
For a fun, 10-minute video on how to do this, go to https://bit.ly/2XbE891.
“Tempting fragrance—none of the guilt!” I love cosmos for the bright, easy color they provide. I had no idea they could be more. Enter Black Magic! “Chocolate-scented cosmos, originally from the pine and oak woods in Mexico, was believed to now be extinct in much of their native range. Their intoxicating chocolate aroma made them a favorite of gardeners for centuries, but eventually the plants had become scraggly and could only be propagated by cuttings. Renowned flower breeder Dr. Keith Hammett of New Zealand has created the incredible new Black Magic cosmos. The large (two-inch), velvety blossoms truly look and smell like chocolate!” (Cosmos atrosanguineus)
For more on Baker Creek Heirloom seeds, go to www.rareseeds.com.
*Chefs at Apteka a Slavic vegan restaurant in Pittsburgh, developed a recipe for roasted whole sunflower heads a few years ago.
Pam Baxter is an avid organic vegetable gardener who lives in Kimberton. Direct e-mail to email@example.com, or send mail to P.O. Box 80, Kimberton, PA 19442. Share your gardening stories on Facebook at “Chester County Roots.”