Sunday, December 30, 2007

Seed Orders

What’s still green above the snow: Conifers, Apache plume, rose stems, Japanese honeysuckle, columbine, rockrose, coral bell, snapdragon, bouncing Bess, blue flax, sweet pea, yuccas, Mount Atlas daisy.

What’s gray or gray-green: Salt bush, winterfat, buddleia, snow-in-summer, pinks.

What’s red: Cholla.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, geranium.

Animal sightings: Early in week, bird tracks in snow-covered beds, rabbit tracks in drive.

Weather: Cold Thursday killed many remaining green leaves; snowed around noon; since then, snow only melted on south side of house and from an exposed east facing bed.

Weekly update: I excuse my late fall laziness by claiming I let plants go to seed to give the best the chance to reproduce. Of course, I don’t rely on nature. So, the snow comes and goes, the birds leave tracks around abandoned stalks, and I spent the holiday reading this year’s batch of seed catalogs and ruminating on the earliest known American seed order, the one shipped in 1631 to Massachusetts Bay and reprinted by Ann Leighton.

When John Winthrop, Junior, bought seeds from a London grocer in July 1631, he, no doubt, had heard from his father, the governor, about the many deaths from cold and malnutrition the previous winter. He chose roots and leafy vegetables he knew would survive cold storage or drying and could be boiled in a single pot. His largest quantities were parsnips, carrots, cabbage, pumpkin, raddish, parsley, lettuce, skirret, and cauliflower.

Many of the other seeds he requested were herbs, like marjoram, basil, and chervil, that were added to the cauldron. Only a few were ornamental plants, perhaps the hollyhocks and stocks, and a very few, like monk’s hood, were exclusively medicinal.

Missing from his shopping list were the crop seeds, the grains and legumes, the wheat, rye, barley, oats, beans, and peas, the staples provided by the Massachusetts Bay Company. Daniel Slade says the proprietors also sent fruit stones; flax, hemp, woad and saffron seed for textiles; potatoes, and hop roots for brewing.

Winthrop’s selection seems commonplace enough. After all, the previous year Francis Higginson had told London that root crops, pumpkins, pot-herbs, and sweet herbs were doing well in Plymouth, founded ten years earlier. A generation later, John Josselyn found more than 40% of Winthrop’s species were commonly grown in Massachusetts.

What seems unusual about Winthrop’s receipt is that he bought ounce and half-ounce quantities of herbs. If he and his wife spent the first winter with his father, there were five adults and five children to feed. 80,000 thyme seeds, 40,000 savory, and 34,000 sorrel, the number offered today in an ounce, seems excessive for ten people, even granting Governor Winthrop was obliged to entertain.

I don’t know if Winthrop did the calculations I do when I plan a seed order, but I convert weight into number of seeds, and then into linear feet to make sure I don’t buy too much. As near as I can judge, adjusting for temporal differences in quality and cleanliness in seed, he would have needed at least five acres to grow all the seed he bought.

His father had more than enough land, certainly more than one of my immigrant ancestors whose three-acre town lot and six-acre crop land grant in Ipswich in 1637 would not have supported all Winthrop’s seed and also produced essential foodstuffs. In 1630, the governor had been granted a seventy-acre island now subsumed into Logan Airport, a 600-acre farm in what is now Medford, and a town lot.

However, like me, young Winthrop did need to consider how all those seeds were going to be planted, weeded, protected from birds, and harvested. The 25-year-old man had no intention of preparing five acres of virgin land himself before spring planting. His great-grandfather Adam, a guild leader in London, had purchased an estate when Henry VIII dissolved the abbey at Bury Saint Edmonds in 1552, his great-uncle John had claimed a plantation in Munster in 1595 when Elizabeth I opened the area to Protestants, and his younger brother Henry had gone to slave-owning Barbados in 1627. His father hired James Luxford a year later to manage the Ten Hills farm and used Indians on the island.

I suspect Winthrop thought he could make money from luxury seeds that were not supplied by the London company, for those were the ones he bought in superfluity. Perhaps he expected to sell some seeds in the spring, perhaps he expected to sell his surplus crop in summer. We know his father expected a profit from his farm because he later claimed Luxford sold the produce at below market prices.

I don’t know if my ancestor resented his dependence on seed and produce merchants, but other commoners rebelled against a profiteering nail importer in 1639. Even though I know I can enjoy the luxury of growing flowers, not vegetables, because entrepreneurs like Winthrop settled Massachusetts in the 1630's, the snow and the birds remind me life still depends on food, warmth, and good seed.

Seed quantities per ounce from a number of sources, but the majority from Stokes Seeds, Growers Guide, 2008.

Avery, Clara A. The Averell-Averill-Avery Family, 1906; genealogy of one of my grandparent’s families gives details about William Averell from legal records.

Fischer, David Hackett. Albion’s Seed, 1989, discusses colonial diet and cooking techniques.

Higginson, Francis. A Short and True Description of New England, 1629.

Josselyn, John. New England’s Rarities Discovered in Birds, Beasts, Fishes, Serpents and Plants of That Country, 1672, reprinted by University of Michigan, University Library with 1865 notes by Edward Tuckerman.

Leighton, Ann, Early American Gardens, 1970.

Slade, Daniel Denison. “The Colonies of Massachusetts Bay,” in The Evolution of Horticulture in New England.

Photograph: Bird tracks around Maximilian sunflower stalks, 25 December 2007.

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