The drive to bring extinct animal species back from the dead, such as the wooly mammoth or saber-toothed tiger, is picking up speed as genetics and biotechnology science advances. But animals are not the only life in danger of disappearing forever. Botanists, historians, and plant genetics experts now work to restore and retain endangered plants and seeds which may be lost forever.
Dr. Frederick Wiseman, retired professor and expert on ethno-botany, spent years researching and working with the Maya civilization in Guatemala and Mexico. But for the past two decades he’s turned his attention to the plight of plants native to his homeland – Vermont, in the United States.
According to daily newspaper Press Republican, Wiseman now works to identify and preserve ancient seeds which were vital to the Abenaki Native Americans of northeastern North America. The history of the indigenous plants reveal a wealth of information which would otherwise have been lost in time. He has reportedly “traced 26 different varieties including corn, beans, squash, Jerusalem artichoke, ground cherries and tobacco.”
Abenaki couple wearing traditional dress. 18th-century watercolor. Public Domain
“There was a huge wellspring of unrecorded agricultural information. The tribes were doing all types of agriculture that was recorded by early explorers in the Northeast. Some people were raising crops that were basically unknown to science,” Wiseman tells Press Republican. Wiseman, of Abenaki ancestry himself, gives presentations on his work, “Chasing Seeds: The discovery and restoration of Ancient Wabanaki crops” at the Vermont Archaeology Heritage Center. The Vermont Archaeology Heritage Center writes of their “Seeds of Renewal” project, reporting it has “developed a complex strategy to recover the produce raised and consumed by the Vermont Abenakis and their relatives in Maine, Quebec and the Canadian Maritimes.
In addition to multiple cultivated varieties of the so called ‘three sisters’ of corn, beans and squash, [the project] recovered more unusual ancient crops such as husk tomatoes, sunflowers, gourds and tobacco.” The struggle to locate and preserve specimens, and especially to repopulate an endangered plant, has successes and failures, Wiseman notes. In his search for the Norridgewock bean, a bean from an Abenaki village in Maine destroyed in 1724 by a British attack, Wiseman connected online with an agronomy teacher who had a few seeds. But seed collection takes up so many resources that it leaves little time for studying the samples, and the beans haven’t yet been planted.
Illustration in ‘The History of Norridgewock’ by William Allen, of Norridgewock, Maine. 1849. Old Point is the site of Norridgewock Indian Village, (now part of Madison, Maine) which was burned to the ground and destroyed. An obelisk grave marker can be seen. Public Domain In another case of seed rescue, Wiseman sourced a few samples of the rare East Montpelier squash. He tells the Press Republican, “The seeds grew but did not at all look like the picture she sent. We were completely devastated. She gave some other seeds to friends of hers in Orange, Vt. They grew it out, and it looked exactly what we were expecting.
The bad news was the couple who was raising them didn’t realized how valuable it was and grew it in it a field with blue Hubbard squash, which is the same species.” The blue Hubbard had cross pollinated with the rare East Montpelier, and the produce were hybrids, leaving fewer original uncrossed seeds. “It’s over the edge of extinction right now, and we’re going to try to pull it back,” Wiseman says. Fred Wiseman is not alone in his quest to preserve ancient seeds. Botanical researcher Elaine Solowey has nurtured more than 100 rare or near-extinct species back to life as part of a 10-year project to study plants and herbs used as ancient cures.
She has grown plants and herbs used in Tibetan, Chinese and biblical medicine, as well as traditional folk remedies from other cultures to see whether their effectiveness can be scientifically proved. Most notably, Solowey resurrected an extinct date palm from 2,000-year-old seeds found in an archaeological dig at Masada, in the southern district of Israel. The Judean date palm had been purposefully eradicated in ancient Judea in 70 A.D. by the invading Roman Empire. In 2005, Solowey planted and nurtured the seeds, producing a sapling no one had seen in centuries and becoming the oldest known tree seed to germinate. The plant was nicknamed “Methuselah,” after the longest-lived person in the Bible.
The only specimen of a Judean Date Palm. Kibbutz Ketura, Israel. It was germinated in 2005 from a 2000 year-old seed found in the archaeological excavations, and is nicknamed “Methuselah”. Wikimedia, (CC BY-SA 3.0)
For now, Wiseman and others will continue their search to restore ancient seeds with an aim to preserve not only the plants themselves, but the history and the cultures which relied on such natural wealth. The struggle to do so continues, aided in part by more open communication and advancing technologies. “It’s an emerging science,” Wiseman tells PressRepublican. “It’s pretty raw and undigested.”