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The perilous quest for the perfect seed

We owe unending gratitude to those few who found, transplanted, and nourished the seeds of our every meal.

By James H. S. McGregor

George Forrest, the Victorian explorer, would do just about anything for a plant — including risk his life.

In 1905, Forrest and his team collected new rhododendron species in China near the Tibetan border. Immersed in the flora and fauna, the team had no idea that a massacre awaited them. Determined to resist British and Chinese aggression and inflamed by the presence of Christian missionaries, normally peaceful Tibetans had launched an all-out attack on foreigners and Christian converts. They tortured and killed the French monks who had sheltered Forrest and slaughtered the 16 porters and assistants who accompanied him on his seed-collecting expedition.


Forrest was hunted for eight days. With little sleep, no food, and in constant fear, he tried to find an escape as a ring of pursuers closed in around him. Near his breaking point, he found a refuge among sympathetic villagers. Though safe in the village for a time, he was still hemmed in. Finally, disguised as a Tibetan lama, and aided by his protectors, he rendezvoused with Chinese troops and with their help made his way to safety. “Although escaping with my life,” he said, “I lost everything I possessed. . . . What was much more serious, I lost nearly all the results of a full season’s work, a collection of most valuable plants.”

Yet, while Forrest’s experiences were dramatic, the trials and tribulations of many seed and plant collectors are just as dire. The aptly named botanical explorer, R. W. Plant, on a collecting trip in South Africa, found himself in the middle of an intertribal war. G. W. Milne, also collecting in Africa, found the work reduced him to a state of mental and physical collapse: “My health from so much exposure to sunshine and rain is ruined. . . . My nerves are such that it is with a struggle that I can write my name or hold a brush.” What J. D. Hooker endured while searching for orchids in Northern India reads like a creepy scene in an Indiana Jones movie: “Leeches swarmed in incredible profusion in the streams and damp grass, and among the bushes: they got into my hair, hung on my eyelids, and crawled up my legs and down my back.”


All that for a more beautiful orchid.

Gardening is in the air today, not just shrubs and flowers but vegetables as well, and with it a new consciousness. People are realizing that food doesn’t just come from the grocery store to the kitchen table; food comes from farms. But how did the seed that matures into our food get to those farms in the first place? Seed collectors found them, brought them home, and planted them. These unknown and unknowable men and women in the Fertile Crescent, in South China, in Africa, and the Americas laid the foundation stones of world nutrition. It is hard to imagine that their stories are any less harrowing than that of the rhododendron or azalea.

It is easy enough to read the stories behind the seeds foraged by Forrest, Plant, Milne, and the many other Victorian botanical explorers like them. With the seeds that produce our food supply, the puzzle is more challenging. The people who collected the first grains of what, over many generations, would become our wheat or corn carried out their work millennia before the invention of writing.


Fortunately, where history falls short, modern science has, within the past few decades, found new answers. A genetic probe of the DNA of contemporary domestic wheat reveals its closest wild cousin is a seeded grass native to the arid high plains of eastern Syria. That suggests that some 10 millennia ago, men and women who for years gathered wild seeds and ate them found a way to transport and grow those same seeds in different soils closer to home.

That corn on the cob in the farmers market? The ancestor of every ear of corn that is planted across the world is a thick-stalked weed called teosinte. It still grows wild in the highlands of southern Mexico. Discovered about a thousand years ago, the seed that was first gathered and eaten by foragers was, over time, planted and eventually traded to others throughout the American continents.

When Europeans reached the Americas, they quickly learned to cultivate corn; they saved seeds and sent them back home. Corn, important as it was, was less of a success than the potato. The potato — also a New World discovery — eventually became a staple food of Northern Europe and the British Isles. This was a significant step up from barley, oats, or rye — the original dietary staples of Ireland, England, Germany, and Scandinavia.

The list goes on and on: First collected in the marshes of South China, rice was eventually brought into cultivation in the same way as wheat and corn. Sugar cane once grew wild in New Guinea, but it is now extinct. Muslim farmers brought cotton, sugar, and rice into the Mediterranean from India. Spinach, watermelon, artichokes, oranges, and coffee were also Muslim transplants via India and Africa and novel introductions into the Mediterranean diet. They supplemented the figs from Asia and the grapes from the Caucasus that were long-term staples of Mediterranean farms. Genetics tell us that cattle were first domesticated in Anatolia, chickens and pigs in South China, donkeys in Egypt, horses in the steppes of Central Asia.


So as we remember adventurers like George Forrest who brought exotic plants to our borders, an expanded food literacy urges us to acknowledge and honor the anonymous collectors of our staple food crops, too. We owe unending gratitude to those few on each continent who found, transplanted, and nourished the seeds of our every meal.

James H. S. McGregor is the author of “Back to the Garden: Nature and the Mediterranean World from Prehistory to the Present.” He lives in Cambridge.