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Blue Jay beans had all but disappeared from Canadian gardens, until a seed saver and her grassroots network revived it. Their success illustrates how to save plants that might someday save us in a changing climate

The first spring that Shirley Bellows planted the special bean this story is about, she picked it off a list in the Upper Canada Seeds company catalogue and sent $2 by cheque in the mail to Toronto based solely on its lovely, yet curious, name. Why name a bean, she wondered, after the Blue Jay?

The answer arrived a few weeks later in an orange paper packet that contained a handful of dried beans, shiny blue with white markings, like painted beads. Planted in her backyard garden in London, Ont., in 1997, they sprung to life, growing sturdy stalks that blossomed into lavender flowers, and then produced a lush curtain of snap beans with purple stripes. They were delicious. And they arrived early, a boon for Canada’s shorter growing seasons. Mrs. Bellows, 73, a master gardener in both years and official certification, knew she’d found a gem.

“I couldn’t believe what a fabulous bean it was,” she says, in both style and substance. Others thought so as well. At a fall fair in nearby Ilderton, the Blue Jay took first place in the dried bean category.

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Some of Shirley Bellows's Blue Jay beans.Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail

Mrs. Bellows was so charmed by her beans in those first years that she went hunting online for their origin story, to no avail.

But while doing so, she discovered that her source, the Ontario seed farmer, had decided to concentrate on tomatoes and didn’t plan to keep the Blue Jay in stock. She couldn’t find any other seed companies that sold the bean – even though she searched each year.

As far as she knew, her few hundred beans might be the last ones out in the world, or close to it. Sturdy seeds like this disappeared all the time. The Blue Jay bean, she decided, needed a secure home in Canada.

Since most of us pick our vegetables in the produce aisle, the fate of a single bean may not seem that important. For that matter, saving seeds might seem like the quaint hobby of your gardening-obsessed neighbour who hands off their overflow cucumbers every summer.

If so, this is the tale to change your mind. Let’s call it: How an Enchanting Bean (and Other Rare Seeds Like It) Might Someday Save Us All From a Giant Problem.

Once upon a time, nature created seeds, and growers, sensibly, saved them to ensure dinner the next season. It took 10,000 years to expand the diversity of the world’s food supply – and only a century to lose roughly three-quarters of it.

In 1904, for instance, Canadian farmers could grow more than 7,000 varieties of apples. Now, barely 1,000 remain. According to Seeds of Diversity, a national non-profit that promotes seed saving, the country has lost 95 per cent of cabbage varieties, 91 per cent of field corn, 94 per cent of peas and 81 per cent of tomatoes.

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Seeds for sale at a garden centre in Tofino, B.C., in early 2020, when the pandemic created a surge of interest in home gardening.Melissa Renwick/The Globe and Mail

Around the world, seeds are lost every year – forgotten in the global seed market, where profits reside in high-performing hybrid seed. First invented in the 1920s, these commercial seeds transformed agriculture, feeding a lot more people, more cheaply. But the mixed parentage of the resulting hybrid plants meant saved seed could not reliably grow the same crop the second season.

And to prevent growers from even trying, companies registered trademarks and patents, and, eventually, designed terminator technology to make genetically modified crops sterile. So it was both easier and necessary for farmers to return to the same companies for new seed each year. Seed saving, especially in more industrialized countries, fell out of fashion.

Today, more than half of the world’s commercial seeds are owned by a handful of companies. Seeds themselves have become trade secrets worth billions of dollars.

We might have carried on forever, happily munching away on our narrowing options of peas and corn – except we no longer live in a world of ideal conditions. Too much fertilizer is ruining our soil, the rivers that irrigate farmland are drying up and climate change is making the weather unpredictable.

The United Nations has published repeated warnings about the world’s shrinking food diversity. The more we depend on fewer seeds, the more vulnerable our food supply.

That’s why, when Mrs. Bellows realized her beloved bean might be lost to history, she resolved to get more people growing and saving it. Because someday, seeds like this may save us in return.

At her garden in Mill Bay, B.C., Shirley Bellows is growing more concerned each year with the ‘haywire’ weather of Vancouver Island. She starts her seedlings indoors to give them the best chance. Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail

Seed savers such as Mrs. Bellows are the unsung green thumbs who quietly stock seeds for free in public libraries. They host “Seedy Saturdays” in communities across the country every spring to swap, sell and learn about seeds. The country’s long-term seed banks call on their skills when they need to grow – and save – a fresh supply of rare seeds. This grassroots network of backyard gardeners, researchers and market farmers works diligently to protect the diversity of Canada’s harvest and keep seeds in the public domain. To them, we owe the existence of cotton candy squash and Drunken Woman Frizzy-Headed lettuce, among a couple thousand other whimsically named plants whose seed is stored away in the Seeds of Diversity freezers as insurance for the future.

Seed savers are, by nature, also story savers: They like a seed with strong roots and the idea that they are honouring the work of the past. “I really feel connected to the rest of humanity through a seed,” says Jennifer Sanders, a seed saver in Meaford, Ont. She is planting an onion in her garden this season that French gardeners once brought by boat to England and sold door to door on bicycles. “That’s the romantic story, which I am a sucker for.” (The onions, she says, are also sweet and store well.)

Ask after a seed, and a tale springs forth. Gardeners in Quebec grow the Tante Alice cucumber because two young sisters who had lost their mother kept her garden growing, soaking the family seeds in milk as she had done, and sharing the harvest with their neighbours; the seed survives today because a nephew recognized its value and passed a handful to Seeds of Diversity for safekeeping.

In Sudbury, Tamara Clement, a stay-at-home mom, saves seeds from her suburban garden and lists them through the Canadian seed exchange, an open source for swapping and selling heirloom seeds. She was once contacted by a woman searching for the delicious bean her mother-in-law had grown; based on her description, Ms. Clement sent the Marconi Roma. A thank-you arrived by e-mail that summer; the nostalgic bean was back in the family. “I love matching people with their soulmate vegetables,” she says.

A few years ago, Michelle Smith, a Cape Breton seed saver, was running as an NDP candidate in the federal election. Before one debate, a man she didn’t know appeared at her side. “I hear you are looking for the Horochuk bean,” he said. Indeed, she had been inquiring about it for years. The seed in question was a yellow, European-style slicing bean, carried across the sea by a Ukrainian family in 1906.

“The man pressed this seed packet into my hand and took off into the night,” Ms. Smith recalls. “I don’t know if he voted for me or not. Judging from the result, probably not.” The bean, however, was a great success, now safe and sound at Seeds of Diversity.

The Blue Jay bean’s genetic origins are mysterious: It is a cross of two different beans discovered in an Illinois garden in the 1970s. Pollinating insects can create these crosses by accident. The Globe and Mail

Seeds are saved by love and luck and a sense of duty. The Blue Jay bean was saved, the first time, by curiosity. One afternoon in late August, 1977, Russ Crow, who worked on the assembly line at a Chrysler factory, crouched by a bean plant in his Illinois garden and cracked open a drying pod for inspection.

This was early in Mr. Crow’s side hobby as a bean gardener, before his website about beans made him famous in gardening circles, and before people started sending him their cherished ancestral seeds so he could grow back a healthy supply. On that afternoon 46 years ago, he was expecting to find the white beans of the Comtesse de Chambord – an elegant French variety that Napoleon might have been served in Versailles – that he’d planted weeks earlier. Instead, his hand held a row of blue.

Another gardener might have flung those mutant seeds away into the grass at the garden’s edge. They weren’t supposed to be there, corrupting the Comtesse. “But I was interested in new possibilities,” Mr. Crow says. So he collected and saved them, and gave them their bean name: the Blue Jay. It was his first crossed bean, the result, he surmised, of bees mixing up pollen as they travelled from one bean flower in his garden to another. Mr. Crow had half a dozen bean plants growing nearby, so the father of the Blue Jay would remain a mystery.

Mr. Crow planted his enigmatic beans the next year, saved the best, and grew them again the year after; in 1980, he listed his Blue Jay bean with a non-profit seed savers exchange in the U.S. and, as he says, “put it out into the world.”

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A stall at a Toronto farmers' market advertises heirloom tomatoes after blight killed off the field vegetables.Della Rollins/The Globe and Mail

If the hybrid seeds developed by Big Agriculture are Olympians, then heirloom or heritage seeds are “the rest of us, muddling along, trying to get in shape,” says Ms. Smith. But carefully chosen heirloom seeds are resilient, and they can be freely saved at the end of each season, passing memory to their progeny. That seed can wait for the sun in a Mason jar in a cold basement for years; frozen carefully in a seed bank, it may sleep safely for decades.

Still, Canada’s food diversity is better ensured when different seeds are grown by as many gardeners and market farmers as possible, says Bob Wildfong, the executive director at Seed of Diversity. “Our real purpose is to get seed circulating from person to person.”

A seed planted year after year, in soil that feels like home, under a sky it remembers, will be more resilient to change – a trait all life on Earth will surely need in the decades ahead. These are the very seeds we may need in the future, says Mr. Wildfong, to make tougher hybrid crops.

We might especially need beans, which rival beef as a source of low-fat protein without generating greenhouse gases – and use only a fraction of the farmland. So you could argue that putting one more bean species out into the world, as Mr. Crow did with the Blue Jay, is an act of self-preservation.

But about a decade after he discovered it, life got in the way of Mr. Crow’s garden. His marriage ended, he moved away, took up bowling, and stopped offering his beans on the public seed registry; over the next 22 years, the ones he’d kept became souvenirs, too old to grow. But then, recently retired in 2011, he decided to seek out the Blue Jay bean for a new garden.

He was surprised to find it, flourishing, in Canada.

Manish Kushwawa holds a tray of tomatoes at the seed farm he operates near Ottawa. In his living room, Mr. Kushwawa sorts packets of seeds for kale, basil, lettuce and other vegetables. Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Good intentions aside, a seed can only ever be truly saved when it finds its way to someone who recognizes its value. That’s what happened during a Seedy Saturday in Victoria in 2004, when Mrs. Bellows, who had recently moved to Vancouver Island, handed Mr. Wildfong a small package of Blue Jay beans – just in case they were indeed the last of their kind.

“They’re in your hands now,” she told him.

Mr. Wildfong went home to Waterloo and planted the Blue Jay bean in his own garden. It grew as wonderfully as Mrs. Bellows had promised. He passed his saved seed to some gardeners to grow it out, with instructions to send the seed back to Seeds of Diversity until they had collected enough to add it to the freezer and list it in the Seed Exchange for anyone who wanted it.

One of those people was Manish Kushwaha, who returned from a farming conference with the bean in 2019. In his farmhouse outside Ottawa on an overcast Thursday in April, he presents a Ziploc bag full of Blue Jay beans. They have turned brown as they aged, but are still ready to be replanted. Mr. Kushwaha has 1,000 varieties of organic seeds for sale on his small farm. He’s a fourth-generation seed farmer on both sides; his father still farms seeds in India. The 33-year-old was a tech worker before losing his job during the pandemic, and realized he’d never felt at home in an office anyway. He took over a seed farm from a retiring grower; this year, his neighbour agreed to loan him 20 more acres.

“This is my purpose,” he says, sitting at his table surrounded by thousands of packages and bags of seeds. He plans to grow seeds full-time, hoping to raise awareness about the importance of buying local seeds adapted to Canadian growing conditions.

He worries people aren’t paying enough attention to the shrinking diversity of our food supply and don’t realize that the seeds they buy at the grocery store usually have no connection to Canadian soil. They forget to ask when they buy local vegetables at the farmer’s market whether the seeds that made them were local too.

But Mr. Kushwaha is an optimist, part of a group of small-scale farmers developing new vegetable varieties, even as others dwindle away. He imagines that with the right co-operation between growers it might be possible to create a whole harvest of Canadian-grown seeds that can endure all kinds of weather and regional differences.

That is why he began experimenting with watermelons. Some crosses, like the Blue Jay bean, are created by chance. Mr. Kushwaha helped the wind and bees along by intentionally mixing up dozens of seeds from different watermelons and planting them together “to see what nature would gift me with.”

This kind of planting is called a landrace. It’s a natural way to develop plants that grow well in a specific region, but it relies on a large collection of diverse seeds to work. For Mr. Kushwaha, it meant sampling dozens of watermelons, collecting seeds from the best and repeating the process the following spring. Nature did eventually offer a gift: a watermelon that tastes like a mango, which he is still working to perfect.

A day after the snow melted in May, Evalisa McIllfaterick of Thunder Bay, Ont., readies her gardens for watermelons she is adapting to grow in more northern latitudes. David Jackson/The Globe and Mail

In his second year, he also sent his seeds to Evalisa McIllfaterick, who has started a similar landrace on her small farm in Thunder Bay, trying to create a delicious watermelon that would ripen early in a short growing season of long days and cool nights.

Saving seeds, Ms. McIllfaterick says, is an individual action against the overwhelming problem of climate change. “It is a way to engage in these bigger doom-and-gloom issues and feel productive and inspired.”

It is also a way to slow down, says Sudbury’s Ms. Clement, and to work with – not against – the natural world. “If you want to create something in soil, it takes effort and patience.”

These days, growers also need to be ready for unexpected frost and unreliable rain. Every seed, given the chance, will do what it can to adapt. But nature responds best when there are options; there’s a reason bees exist to buzz around and mix things up. One more bean, another tomato or an heirloom squash may not seem particularly essential to anybody today. But one of them may prove invaluable in the future – resistant, perhaps, to an encroaching fungus, or defiant against drought.

“Look what happened to the banana,” Mrs. Bellows warns. The world’s most popular fruit is a cautionary reminder of the risk of putting all our food in one basket. In the 1950s, the Panama disease nearly wiped out the Gros Michel, the main commercial banana. Its singular replacement, the ubiquitous Cavendish, is now threatened by the same fungus. Bananas, at least as we know them, are in danger of going extinct – for the second time.

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'When we see something rare, we need to protect it,' Mrs. Bellows says.Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail

Canada’s expert seed savers are also endangered. They are getting older, and without a fresh crop of curious and inventive gardeners, their skills and knowledge may soon be lost, along with their seeds. Every year, Seeds of Diversity operates a community grow-out and sends seeds to novice gardeners to grow and save. This year, they had 250 volunteers, a record number. But it takes time to become an expert who can be trusted with the rarest of seeds, Mr. Wildfong says. To protect Canada’s public supply, he says, “We will need more savers.”

Meanwhile, Mrs. Bellows continues to find rare seeds to grow, save and share with other gardeners to ensure their longevity. Next spring’s project will be the Vinedale sweet pepper, which was developed in Canada to adapt to northern temperatures and short growing seasons but dwindled down to a small supply of aging seeds in the 1990s. “When we see something rare,” she says, “we need to protect it.”

Nothing is certain: Worthy seeds can always vanish, lost to history. But today, the Blue Jay bean is sold by about a dozen seed companies in Canada. Seeds of Diversity has a full, frozen supply, supplemented by gardeners. Back in Illinois, Mr. Crow has sent the bean to customers as far away as South Africa, where it was also reported to grow prodigiously. Across the country, seed savers such as Ms. Clement have Mason jars full of the beans stored in closets and basements. And in Mrs. Bellows’ backyard in Mill Bay, this season’s Blue Jay beans are already blooming in their pots. The garden would not be complete without it.

How the Blue Jay bean grows

The Globe and Mail planted a Blue Jay bean in early April, then documented what happened for 27 days. Learn more about how we did it and why the Blue Jay bean matters to seed conservation.

The Globe and Mail

Time-lapse photography by Patrick Dell and Liz Sullivan

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