SeedZoo™ is a project to preserve traditional and indigenous food plants from around the world. Teaming up with botanical explorers and ethnobotanists, we are searching for rare and endangered food plants that home gardeners can grow and enjoy, and help to preserve.
Of the 7,000 or so species of food plants known to man, only 140 are cultivated commercially, and of those, most of the world’s supply of food depends on just 12. Even as the world increasingly speaks about food security, incredible varieties that are known only to a single tribe or in small and remote localities are being lost forever.
We sent plant explorers across the world in search of rare beans, squashes, melons, greens, and grains. They have been to the jungles of Borneo, to small farms in Japan and Italy, and to the bustling food markets of Africa. In the coming months they will visit India, Vietnam and beyond. Many of the rare and exotic plants that they bring back don’t even have names and can only be called landraces - plants with unique features found in only one region or sometimes in just one village.
Often our explorers can bring back only a handful of seeds, sometimes fewer than 100. Because these seeds are so rare and from such remote regions of the world, they are sold on a “first come, first served” basis. Once they sell out they may never be available again. So if you see a variety that you like, do not hesitate to order it or you may be disappointed. The SeedZoo™ variety list is only available online and will change often so check our SeedZoo website regularly, or follow us on Twitter.
Join us in this grand project to preserve a part of the world’s food diversity. Try some of the planet’s treasures, and enjoy the culinary adventure. And please save some seeds and share them with your friends.
This video presentation by Conrad Richter explains why the SeedZoo project was started and why gardeners should grow these rare and endangered food plants in their gardens.
Here are the currently available SeedZoo™ varieties!
Kyrgyzstan Banane Melon
This is a gorgeous casaba type melon from southern Kyrgyzstan near the city of Osh. It is one of many local variations of melons found throughout central Asia. The yellow fruits have a creamy white flesh that is very sweet and delicious. It should be as easy to cultivate as other melons. Assume about 100-110 days to maturity. Will likely do best in warmer slightly drier areas. Fruit sweetness is enhanced when there is not too much water available. Fruits are picked when mature and deep yellow, and the stem begins to dry up. They are usually eaten fresh but the flesh is also dried as and used in the winter. Order it now!
An edible Mexican berry found only in pine forests in the cool mountains southwest of Mexico City. It is a food plant enjoyed by young people hiking the area close to the Valle de Bravo where the plant is found. Like other jaltomatas, germination can be erratic, but once germinated the plants are easy to grow. Advanced gardeners may want to try soaking the seeds in gibberellic acid for 24 hours prior to planting to help induce germination. This plant is extremely rare and an exciting challenge to the SeedZoo community. We believe that this is the first time that seeds of this species have been made available to gardeners. Read more about it on the Jaltomata bohsiana web page. Order it now!
This criollo melon is from the environs of Zapotillo, in Ecuador, an area where conditions are hot and dry and where this gorgeous white-fleshed melon flourishes. Fruits are large with smooth yellow skins and deep ribbing. Melons can weigh up to 10 pounds (4.5kg) each. It is a traditional and increasingly rare landrace that is probably in danger of extinction. Should be easy to grow as any melon but will likely do best in warm drier areas and with less water than other varieties. Fruits tend to be sweeter when they are grown "drier". The fruits slip from the vine when ripe or they may be cut from the vine when they change colour and become fragrant. These melons can be eaten fresh and in salads, or can be juiced. Order it now!
The Canacin is a very old variety of squash traditionally cultivated in the northern Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. The squash is very unusual in that they are round and very flat. The meat of the squash is a deep orange-red colour and is sweet and highly appreciated. This squash is now endangered because fewer and fewer farmers are growing it in the Yucatan. It grows in the steamy hot and humid Yucatan during the rainy season. But could do well even in warm temperate areas in North America. The squash are picked as their skin hardens and the stem starts to dry up. According to the farmers the fruits mature in about 105 days. Order it now!
Oblonot Sweet Melon
This is a creamy white-fleshed melon grown in southern Kyrgyzstan, in central Asia. It is a favourite variety of the area north of the city of Osh. The fruits are large, from 4-10 pounds (2-4.5kg) and the flesh is thick, sweet and juicy. Like most melons, it thrives best in dry warm areas with cool nights, and taking care not to over water will yield sweeter fruits. Fruits are picked when they start to change from green to yellowish. Estimated 110 days to maturity. Order it now!
Just like the Mediterranean species, Capparis inermis, the flower buds and young fruits are pickled and used as a seasoning or garnish. This species is more cold tolerant and could be hardy in more northern areas of North America. It grows throughout the Caucasus and Central Asia where the local people traditionally collect the buds for use in cooking, and in some areas collect the buds on an industrial scale. Our seeds were collected in the dry steppes of Kyrgyzstan by Joseph Simcox, the botanical explorer who inspired the SeedZoo project. The collection site was at lower elevations where it gets quite cold in winter, and he guesses that this plant will survive at least zone 6 in North America. Order it now!
Eggplants are common throughout Africa and come in many forms. This beautiful variety, collected in the hills east of Kigali, is very different from eggplants grown in Europe, North America or Asia. The small fruits about 8cm (3") long are often called "garden eggs" and they turn from green to yellow or orange as they ripen. They are decidedly bitter but in African cuisine that bitterness is actually desirable and is skilfully transformed into something absolutely delicious with the right ingredients. Here is a wonderful Nigerian recipe that illustrates how they are prepared and loved throughout Africa. Order it now!
Ligote Ethiopian Kale
Grown for centuries in the East African highlands, this tall kale adapts very well to North American gardens. The plants get up to 5 feet tall and produce loads of succulent tender leaves that are more sweet than bitter and are used exactly as you would regular kale. The Ethiopians use the leaves in many cooked vegetable dishes. Very easy to grow, start plants indoors exactly like you would cabbage or broccoli. Set the plants out after the danger of frosts. So far, we know this kale will flower and set seed as far north as Connecticut. Pick the leaves when tender and try them in salads either fresh or cooked like spinach. Order it now!
This small edible berry, related to tomatoes and husk cherries, has never been offered commercially before and is considered extremely rare. Jaltomata ventricosa grows in the Andean cloud zone above 9,500 feet (2700m). Its in humid shady areas and is somewhat shrubby. The flowers are exquisite: they look like blown Murano glass figures. The orange berries are variously described as sweet and acidic to slightly bitter and are relished by the locals. Fun fact: children are told not to make noise while picking them otherwise they will go "bitter." Although it is a tender perennial, it can be grown like an annual. It is quite easy to grow and there are reports of it flowering and fruiting in New York and Connecticut. It is not a plant for the beginner however, because the seeds germinate sporadically and can take from 3 weeks to 3 months, or the may remain dormant. For the experienced gardener, this is well worth the challenge. Plants can be overwintered after trimming back, probably best in a cool greenhouse. Order it now!
West African Epazote
This is a milder form of the popular Mexican herb. It has a nice earthy flavour that works well in soups and stews or anywhere the Mexican variety is used. This form was found in the Volta Region, in West Africa, where it is grown for cooking, medicinal and spiritual uses. The locals use it in dishes featuring strong smelling meats such as goat or fish in order to reduce or mask strong cooking odours. In traditional soups it gives a really nice flavour that compliments strong meat and fish. Medicinally it is used to treat shortness of breath caused by anxiety: the fresh leaves, macerated into a paste and mixed with water, are taken 3 times a day. Spiritually the herb is used to stop recurring nightmares and for that a special ritual of asking for permission is done before taking and using it. Easy to grow like the Mexican form. Order it now!
Dagbon Grey Millet
This is one of many pearl millets grown in northern Ghana. Pearl millet may be the oldest domesticated food crop in West Africa. It was grown in Mali as far back as 4,500 years ago and was later brought to Ghana by invaders. Today more than a half million acres in northern Ghana are devoted to millet cultivation. Farmers traditionally save their own seeds, selecting the best plants suited for their local region, and many unique varieties throughout the millet-growing areas have been developed over the centuries. This unnamed variety, from one of the local markets in southern Ghana. is used to make a thick porridge called to and a thin, fermented porridge called koko. For koko, the seeds are roasted and popped and then ground into flour. This millet is also used to make a deep-fried pancake-like snack called marsa. Among the Ewe people, pearl millet is sometimes used in place of maize in traditional foods such as the dough-like akple served with soups. Due to worries of climate change there is a renewed interest in traditional drought- and heat-tolerant crops such as pearl millet. Order it now!
Ajima Chile Pepper
This chile pepper is from a tiny village called Ajimakope, located in the Volta Region of Ghana, in West Africa. Inaccessible by road, our collectors had to hike in, fording a river along the way. It is an heirloom of the Ajima family, a family of traditional herbalists and farmers. Ajima pepper is a local variation of the piri piri peppers found throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa. Piri-piri peppers are believed to have arrived from South America and became established in the wild centuries ago. Piri-piri peppers can vary a lot but this has mild heat and a nice woodsy flavour. There is hardly a dish prepared in the village in which this pepper is not used. Plants reach a height of 50-60cm (20-24"). Order it now!
Turkish Corbaci Pepper
This is a beautiful sweet pepper with long narrow fruits up to a foot (30cm) long. The fruits turn from green to yellow to orange and finally to red and can be eaten at any stage. Originally from Turkey, it is known for its heavy yields, producing as many as 100 fruits per plant according as some have claimed. Local SeedZoo contributor Sofie Bigham says that she never gets that many fruits per plant but for her this pepper has been a reliable heavy yielder in her Ontario garden ever since she began growing it in 1998. Although Corbaci peppers are still grown in Turkey by farmers today, this Canadianized version is a little thicker and heavier than the Turkish original. Order it now!
A variety of cowpea growing in popularity among Ewe farmers in the Lake Volta region of West Africa because of its higher yields and higher tolerance of pests. Farmers report that they can get higher prices for ‘Cynthia’ than for other varieties. The flavour is similar to ‘Tsenabawu’ and ‘Turkoviahe’ varieties, but is taller and more vigorous. Like other cowpea beans, it is cooked in stews or cooked with rice and served with any spicy fish, meat or vegetable sauce on top. Little is known about the origin of the variety but some farmers have said that they heard it came from nearby Togo. We suspect that this variety was brought to the area by a trader named "Cynthia" and was henceforth known by that name. Order it now!
West African Popping Sorghum
Sorghum is a major cereal crop in the north of Ghana where it is a staple used for porridge and to make a local beer called pito. There are many varieties, white, red, and brown, and among them there are early, medium, and late varieties. This variety is preferred for making popped sorghum, a snack that is popular throughout Ghana and West Africa. Unlike many other varieties, this sorghum has a hard glassy endosperm that traps steam until the pressure explodes. The popping is so quick that little heat is required and proteins and vitamins are only slightly denatured by the heat. In the village of Dagbamete, the locals pop the seeds by roasting in hot sand over a fire (see video). The seeds pop almost instantly and the popped seeds are separated from the sand by sifting. Salted water is sprinkled on the popped kernels while still hot. Popped kernels are sold locally in small plastic bags. In Western kitchens sorghum can be popped like popcorn on the stove or in a microwave.Order it now!
This is a giant kale that came to the Americas from Spain centuries ago, presumably with early settlers. It became a family heirloom that is still passed on from generation to generation. It can get up to 5ft (1.5m) tall, and even taller when it flowers. SeedZoo contributor, Lorraine Collett, says that the leaves get so big they look like an elephants ear. Imagine leaves that get up to 20in/50cm long and 12in/30cm wide! The leaves can be used in soups, stews, stir-fries and can be used like cabbage leaves to make meat rolls. Hummingbirds love to visit the yellow flowers. If the flowers are allowed to set seeds, the plant will reseed itself where winters are mild. Easy to grow. Happily grows as a spring-planted annual where winters are more severe. Order it now!
Cicoria a Foglia Frastagliate
A specialty variety with thick succulent stems from southern Italy. These stems are the part used in salads. Order it now!
Surami Dry Pea
In the market in Zestafoni, a village in the central Asian republic of Georgia, a stout red-faced woman was standing offering all kinds of "garden" delights, including these peas old fashioned soup peas. Dry soup peas were once common throughout Europe and in America during the colonial period. Peas are of prime food value and make for hearty soups and good eating during the long winter months. Order it now!
Volta White Maize
White maize or corn is ubiquitous throughout the world. The impact of maize on the human condition is impossible to overstate: maize is responsible for the wellbeing and survival of billions of people on the planet that we share. Each region has its own varieties or landraces that are adapted to local conditions. This landrace is commonly grown throughout the Volta River region of Ghana. Virtually every meal features this maize in one form or another, whether it is akple or kenkey used to scoop food out of soup bowls, or it is in stews such as ayibli made with beans and groundnuts, or it is made into porridge for breakfast, or to prepare alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks called aliha. The versatility of white maize in the local diet is astounding and, for the local Ewe people, it is impossible to imagine life without it. Every square meter of growing space is used to grow it, even in open rooms of buildings under construction as long as there is soil, light and water! This Volta White landrace is a starch corn for dry processing and it is not eaten fresh like sweet corn, although it is sometimes roasted or boiled and eaten on the cob. Order it now!
A traditional favourite of the Ewe people of the Volta region of West Africa. Harvest time is eagerly anticipated when the beans, along with maize and groundnuts, are cooked in seasonal dishes such as ayibli and ayikple. The mottled beans are commonly cooked whole or they are first roasted and ground and then cooked to make nutritious stews and breakfast porridge. Drought resistant and sweeter tasting than other beans. Traditionally planted in May or June and harvested in August. Order it now!
An old variety grown by the Ewe people of West Africa. As far as we know only a few farmers in the Lake Volta region are still growing it. Beautiful small red beans are borne in long straight pale-yellow pods. Traditionally cooked in stews or simply cooked with rice and served with any spicy fish, meat or vegetable sauce on top. Can also be eaten like string beans when young and tender.Order it now!