Bound By Roots: Tucson’s Native Seeds/SEARCH

A local organization’s mission to conserve its seeded heritage.

For more than 4,000 years—longer than any other city in the United States—farmers have continuously cultivated food in Tucson’s Santa Cruz River Valley. As early as 2000 B.C., they grew varieties of beans, squash, maize and tobacco.

From around A.D. 450 to 1450, the Hohokam Indians lived and farmed in southern and central Arizona. Known for their engineering of irrigation canals and knowledge of drylands farming, they practiced efficient soil management and seasonal harvesting of native plants. Today, descendants of the Hohokam are members of the Tohono O’odham Nation.

Native Seeds/SEARCH was founded in 1983 to fulfill a need to conserve the land’s heritage. The organization’s mission is to protect, distribute and document wild and desert-adapted seed varieties, and to educate the public about the native plants and traditional foods of the American Southwest and northwest Mexico.

“Seeds are the foundation of nutritious food, which enables good health, strong families and vibrant communities,” said Laura Jones, interim executive director of Native Seeds/SEARCH. “Seed security requires that diversity be used within farms and gardens.”

To help farmers and gardeners access desert-adapted seeds, Native Seeds/SEARCH provides seed grants, educational programming and opportunities for seed exchange.

With the onset of hotter, drier climate patterns, and as modern-day agricultural practices have lessened the biodiversity of our food crops, Jones maintains that it is more important than ever to save the crops that have been cultivated in the desert Southwest for thousands of years.

Each year, the staff selects plant varieties to be grown for their seeds at the organization’s 60-acre conservation farm, located in the small rural town of Patagonia. The farm’s staff works to grow out and collect the seed, using special methods to avoid cross-pollination. The seeds are then transported to the Seed Bank, housed at the Native Seeds/SEARCH Conservation Center in Tucson, which contains more than 16,000 distinct samples. A quantity of the newly grown seed is stored at near-freezing temperatures, and the rest of the seeds are packaged for resale online or at the organization’s retail store, which is located at Campbell Avenue and Hedrick Drive.

Retail manager Chad Borseth said the store “offers guidance and education around successful cultivation, seed saving and preparation of arid-adapted crop plants and their wild relatives.” As testament to the organization’s commitment to public education, the store offers how-to gardening handouts and hosts a garden discussion forum called Garden Gab.

Among the variety of seeds available, the shop stocks an impressive array of books about desert agriculture, traditional American Indian baskets and jewelry, and desert salves, soaps and foods for further insights to Southwestern heritage and lifestyles.  

Debbie Weingarten
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