History re-emerges each harvest at Medomak Valley

By Juliette Laaka | May 16, 2012
Photo by: Juliette Laaka Medomak Valley junior Kendra Beal presents the seed collection room, housing more than 850 rare and historic seed varieties.

Waldoboro — Medomak Valley High School's Neil Lash teaches more than science in his horticulture course. Each heirloom seed holds a history and anthropology lesson.

The heirloom seed project, started in 1991 by Jon Thurston and Neil Lash, has cultivated more than 850 seed varieties and taught generations of Medomak Valley students the importance of seed preservation.

"We were the first heirloom seed project in the United States. It gets really depressing when you read we're losing all of these genetics because animals are going extinct and land is being used for non-agricultural reasons, and there's nothing you can do about it besides write a report. So Mr. Thurston and I said, well, let's involve our kids and let them do something about it by saving the genes," said Lash.

The effort to save seeds was to preserve biodiversity as well as the historical value.

Students choose seeds from the seed saver's exchange catalog on the condition the variety is able to grow in Maine and has an interesting or unique history.

An eggplant variety named cannibal was chosen by student Rob Griffin from the catalog because it was a traditional ingredient in a sauce cannibals made in Tahiti and Fiji.

Lash and his students have seed varieties that fueled Viking conquests and were part of ancient Inca religious ceremonies. The oldest variety Lash has is a wheat that dates back to the neolithic period, about 6800 B.C., and a barley Vikings brought from the Orkney Islands in about 900 A.D.

The more exotic varieties include yacon, a South American tuber, grown in the Andes Mountains and mashua var. pilifera, one of the lost crops of the Inca Indians, dating back to 1000 B.C. The reason, Lash explains, these varieties are of interest is because the yacon has anti-hypoglycemic properties that make the tuber an ideal food for diabetics.

An arboretum was planted in 2009, consisting of 23 trees with a connection to local and national history. One is the Johnny Appleseed tree, which is a clone from the last known Johnny Appleseed tree survivor, planted by John Chapman. There are also five of Thomas Jefferson's favorite apple trees and an elm from Pennsylvania that came from an elm tree that witnessed William Penn sign a peace treaty with the Delaware Indians in 1682. A honeylocust from the site of the Gettysburg Address grows in the arboretum now, taken from a seed of an original tree to witness the historic address to the nation by President Lincoln.

A lumper potato, housed in the school's greenhouse, was the potato linked to the great famine in Ireland during the mid-1800s, causing many to emigrate to the United States. "It's highly, highly susceptible to blight. It's historically connected to the Kennedys and the Irish coming to America, so I've touched Irish history," said Lash.

A carrot native to Afghanistan, similar looking to Queen Anne's Lace, is also cared for by the class. Queen Anne's Lace is a carrot, though inedible. "No carrot at one time was orange, that's a very recent introduction to our diet. It was a mutation," said Lash. Carrots can be purple, white and yellow. Eventually Lash will get carrot seeds from propagating the carrot in the greenhouse. If not separated, the Afghan carrot will cross with Queen Anne's Lace.

The project has grown to include an interest in preserving poultry varieties. Students are incubating Dominique chickens and soon, Royal Palm turkeys, a breed with only 5,000  birds remaining in the United States. "They are rare and endangered. The class may put together a caging system for the birds that would incorporate the shop class building a coop," said Lash. The Dominique eggs came from Lash's own birds. If the eggs produce an acceptable standard, then the birds will be available for breeders to purchase.

"People write to us requesting a packet of seeds, and this is where we get them," said Kendra Beal, a junior at Medomak Valley, of the seed room, housing 850 varieties of fruits, vegetables and flowers.

Thirty-six different Native American tribes are represented by the collection, as well as seeds from the Civil War, a George Washington collection and a Thomas Jefferson collection.

If students run low on a particular variety, they cultivate more plants and collect the seeds at harvest.

The class also grows tomatoes to give to the public, to enjoy the fruits during the growing season on the condition they bring the tomatoes back in September so students can harvest the seeds. The plants need to be isolated by 20 feet by variety.

"That's what we did last year with the tomatoes," said Beal. "We cut them in half, squeeze out the seeds and sift through them. Then, we lay the seeds on paper towels to dry. It's the worst part because they are a little fermented before we get to them."

Beal added, "I like this class a lot, being in the greenhouse and working with Mr. Lash. You can tell he's passionate about this class."

"Two years ago, the head gardener at Monticello read in the seed savers exchange catalog that we were one of the sources of a garden pea that Thomas Jefferson planted for the first time on March 12, 1773. They could not find them anywhere else in America. Last year, Kaitlyn Theberge, the 2012 valedictorian, grew peas to send to Monticello. As a thank you, the gardeners at Monticello collected seeds they thought we would enjoy, including oranges, cow horn okra, cotton, all annotated," said Lash.

Local varieties include the Waldoboro green neck rutabaga from the Cambridge shipwreck. The steamship Cambridge, a Boston-Bangor liner that ran aground on Old Man Ledge in Friendship in February 1886, was carrying, among other goods, seeds. Legend asserts farmers and fishermen rowed out to the wreckage to salvage cargo. Seeds that were taken included the Waldoboro green neck rutabaga, Thompson's million dollar melon, and Charlie Murphy's pole beans.

Lash provides the Friendship Village School with Waldoboro green neck rutabagas to sell to generate money for school use. "The Old Man Ledge is in Friendship. The anchor from the Cambridge is also in front of the Friendship Museum, so I thought it would be great for the school to fundraise with the seeds because it's connected to their history," said Lash.

CBS News will visit Lash and the students involved in the heirloom seed project for a story on Thursday, May 17.

Planting will begin this month. Lash and two hired high school students will tend the gardens throughout the summer.


Courier Publications reporter Juliette Laaka can be reached by email at jlaaka@courierpublicationsllc.com or by phone at 594-4401 ext. 118.

Students separate plants in Neil Lash's horticulture class. (Photo by: Juliette Laaka)
Plants from Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello. (Photo by: Juliette Laaka)
Neil Lash with the rare yacon plant, native to South America. (Photo by: Juliette Laaka)
A Gettysburg Address honeylocust tree, from the seeds of the original tree to witness the historic address to the country by President Lincoln. (Photo by: Juliette Laaka)
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