Diane Ott Whealy began her career with two little seeds—one morning glory and one German pink tomato—handed down to her by her German grandparents. The seeds were, in both senses of the word, heirlooms; not only had they kept their original traits through open pollination—the word’s botanical definition—but they also symbolized to Ott Whealy a preservation of, and respect for, her family’s legacy.
“I was not a trained botanist,” Ott Whealy recalled, “but knew instinctively to respect seeds, stories, recipes, and memories. I knew that the loss of this genetic diversity could never be recreated. Family heirlooms were important and saving seed was the right way of communicating with the past and passing it on to the future.”
The two seeds became the cornerstone of Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit organization founded by Ott Whealy and her husband Kent, which today boasts 13,000 members and at least as many seed varieties. Buoyed in later years by the Slow Food movement, the nonprofit played a pivotal role in widespread appreciation for heirlooms among gardeners, chefs, and foodies alike. The once-obscure variety was now in high demand at farmer’s markets across the country.
Known as the “mother of the heirloom seed movement,” Ott Whealy is the author of Gathering: Memoir of a Seed Saver. The personal story of how the Seed Savers Exchange grew from a handful of seeds into the largest non-governmental seed bank in North America, Gathering has been hailed by American Gardener magazine as a work that “deserves a place on any gardener’s shelf,” and by The Denver Post as “a beautiful book that’s both stylish and homey.”
A plant curator and frequent lecturer, the Iowa-based Ott Whealy will be in the area to share her knowledge on Sunday, Feb. 10, from 4 to 6 p.m. For a suggested donation of $10, come to San Luis Obispo’s Grange Hall for a talk titled “Saving Heirloom Seeds,” a Gathering book signing, and a community seed exchange featuring heirloom varieties from Seed Savers Exchange.
The Grange Hall is at 2880 Broad St. in San Luis Obispo, and the event is being presented by SLO Seed Exchange. For more information, call 543-5364 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.