The garden at the Wylie House Museum is thriving this time of year, but most of the gorgeous produce won’t be eaten. It will be allowed to ripen past the edible stage. That’s because these crops are valued for their seeds.
The one person who gets to sneak a bite of the produce on occasion is Sherry Wise, Outdoor Interpreter at the Wylie House and coordinator of the garden and seed-saving program. She will taste a cucumber to make sure its seeds are worth preserving.
In the room where the seeds are collected, cleaned and packaged, Wise grabs a bean pod. It has gone from green to brown, which is how she knows the seeds are mature. “It’s as simple as opening the pod and there are the seeds,” she demonstrates.
The Wylie House was the home of Indiana University’s first president, Andrew Wylie, and his family. A second generation of Wylies lived in the home until 1913. Today, it’s a museum that replicates life in the mid-19th century.
The garden is home to a variety of heirloom vegetables, herbs and flowers, mostly varieties the Wylie families would have grown. There are several different varieties of squashes, including one of Wise’s personal favorites — Long Island Cheese Pumpkin. (“They make wonderful pie.”) She also shows off the Lazy Wife Bean, a favorite of the second Wylie family. This stringless pole bean got its name because it was easy to harvest and clean.
All the plants are grown using organic methods. They are also open-pollinated, “Which means that if you start them from seed again, you’ll get the same thing as the plant they were collected (from),” says Wise.
Wise says heirloom vegetables tend to taste better than hybrid varieties from a grocery store, which she speculates is partly why heirloom foods are growing in popularity.
But the benefits of preserving heirloom seeds go beyond the dinner table.
“All these heirlooms are the source of our genetic diversity,” she says. “A broad genetic base gives us a lot of good traits — hardiness, disease resistance.”