Sochi Seeds: Top Ten Russian Varieties

by Tusha Yakovleva

cosmonaut_volkov_tomato_frontEven though the relationships between our countries has often been strained, Russia is an important part of America's garden heritage. Many of our favorite varieties hail from that part of the world: bred to thrive in a short growing season with cold winters, much like ours.

This year there is a spotlight on Russia due to the Sochi Winter Olympics. It's an opportunity to appreciate our seediest (in the best sense of the word)  connections. At the same time, the light of the Olympic torch illuminates the hosting country's darker side as well - no matter where the Olympics are held. We're taking this opportunity to both celebrate the rich Russian agricultural legacy in our gardens as well as contribute to helping lesbian and gay Russians deal with the oppressive and dangerous challenges they face day to day.

Top Ten Russian Varieties:

Gift Zinnias, a variety we’ve grown through all our years of seed farming, is called so because it first arrived in this country in 1991 (during the Moscow coup) as a gift from plant breeders at the Vavilov Institute in St. Petersburg. This particular zinnia produces brilliant, crimson blossoms later in the season than any of its relatives and can even withstand light frosts.

It’s just one of the many important gifts Russian agronomists have brought into our modern gardens. We offer over a dozen herbs and vegetables from that part of the world: Tarragon, Ragged Jack Kale, Brilliant Beet Blend, Ukrainian Slicing Cucumber, Paul Robeson Tomato, Japanese Black Trifele Tomatoes (yes, they are actually Russian - click on the variety for the full story), Cosmonaut Volkov Tomatoes, Black Krim Tomatoes, and the Collective Farm Woman Melons.

vavilov us route Vavilov's route on a North American expedition in 1930

Personal Seed Stories:

Nikolay Vavilov, founder of the institute that sent the zinnia seeds, is another important gift to plants and gardeners everywhere. This Russian botanist and geneticist, who worked in the first half of the 20th century, is best known for identifying geographic centers of cultivated plants (for example, the first cultivated maize and bean varieties come from Central America because it is where their wild relatives are most genetically diverse). He traveled the world extensively, collected seeds everywhere, and created the world’s largest seed bank, which still exists today. The seed bank survived the 28-month siege of St. Petersburg during which at least one botanist died from starvation while protecting the thousands of (edible) seeds all around. Vavilov favored Gregor Mendel's genetic theories, unlike Stalin, who wanted to pursue hybridization. In 1940, Vavilov was blamed for wrecking Soviet agriculture and arrested. He delivered over a hundred science lectures to his fellow prisoners, but did not outlive his sentence.

The Hudson Valley Seed Library's connections to Russia are personal as well. Ken's brother lived there for 15 years and Ken had the opportunity to visit one of the last remaining historical botanic gardens in Moscow. Ken says, "it was an amazing adventure decoding Cyrillic signage,  navigating the deep subway lines, and finding the verdant garden site hidden between modern skyscrapers." We can't confirm nor deny, but chances are Ken collected some seeds from that garden!

IMG_0105 One of hundreds of seed shops, at Moscow's giant Seed Pavilion

Tusha, who manages our blog and newsletters and apprenticed at the Seed Library farm last year, is from Moscow and lived there half her life. Her grandmothers filled closets with dying flowers every fall to save their seeds; grandfathers, who had desk jobs, never missed a growing season; parents rounded up their friends to dig out new potatoes; everyone hunted for mushrooms. "Russia has deep cultural roots in home gardening, seed-saving, herbal medicine, foraging, and an infinite love for food as a social connector," says Tusha. "Despite its shameful politics, this chaotic northern land, shaped many of the agricultural values that I practice in the Hudson Valley today."

Seeds of Change:

Seeds are powerful connectors through time and history, between individuals and cultures. And they are agents of change. We can't celebrate the Olympics, or Russian seeds, without addressing one of the most oppressive laws in Russia. New anti-gay laws are making individuals and families targets of violence and legally sanctioned oppression and taking away their basic human rights. Through honoring Russian seeds, we're also raising funds for RUSA LGBT  and No More Fear who are working to support LGBT asylum seekers from Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus who fled the abuse and mistreatment in their homelands. For every order with Russian varieties in it from now through the Olympic closing ceremonies on 2/23 we'll donate 5% of that order to RUSA LGBT and No More Fear. Together, we can both honor the source of many of our favorite garden varieties, and make a difference for the lives of the people who live there.

Thank you.