More and more seed companies are offering heirlooms, making the task of finding them far less daunting than it was even a few years back. Still, one of the most common questions heirloom gardeners ask is "Where can I find a specific plant?" One strategy is to start digging through the mountains of seed catalogs available each spring. While there is much to be said for browsing catalogs, search engines and seed inventories can streamline the task of finding a particular variety.
A huge database of plants in catalogs and nursery, Plant Information Online from the University of Minnesota puts sources of thousands of plants at your fingertips. They compiled information in an impressive number of seed and nursery catalogs into one giant database, and then update it regularly. This includes vegetables, heirloom and otherwise. This database lists dozens of varieties of each and offers one to many sources for seeds for each variety. Links to seed company websites make searching even faster. This database was once available in print, then by subscription, and is now free.
As good as this resource is, the search function is picky. It requires more precision than Google and the other big search engines. For example, it returned zero hits for "beets" but three pages of hits for the singular "beet". Similarly, it returned zero hits for the complete name of a variety, Beta vulgaris (b) 'Winter keeper'. But when I used just a phrase "Winter Keeper", I found my variety.
As always, persistence pays.
Perhaps the fastest way to find a source for many heirlooms is by using the big search engines on the web. At least some of them will retrieve items in online catalogs, including seed catalogs. The only trick to using these keyword searches is finding the right combination of words. Otherwise, the search engines retrieve either next to nothing or way too much.
To improve your chance for success, try a search that includes three different elements: the name of the variety, such as "Early Jersey Wakefield" the kind of vegetable, such as cabbage, bean, or lettuce and a limiting term such as "seed" or "packet" or "pkt."
Each of the following books lists literally thousands of different vegetables or fruits, and identifies seed sources for each one. Your local public library may have them, or may be able to borrow them for you through interlibrary loan. Most of these books are also available through booksellers.
In this 700-page reference, author Facciola lists edible plants from around the world, and offers sources for seeds and plants. The resulting inventory is a mix of familiar garden crops and historic varieties, indigenous foods, and edible wild plants originally found everywhere from the tundra to the tropics. The vegetable listings are particularly helpful. For each variety, Facciola offers a short description like those in catalogs and seed sources. And there's more. The book includes a 45-page list (two columns, single spaced!) of US suppliers, plus more international sources. It also has a super bibliography of food, cookery, gardening, and allied topics.
Compiled along the same lines as the Garden Seed Inventory (see below), this one gives mail-order sources for several thousand varieties of temperate and tropical tree fruits, berries, and nuts. Booksellers can order it, or buy it directly from Seed Savers Exchange .
To compile this inventory, author Whealy and his colleagues collected catalogs from all the North American seed companies. Then they assembled a master list of all the open-pollinated varieties in all the catalogs, with cross-references to all the companies that sell them. The resulting list is an indispensable guide to who sells which vegetable varieties. To give you an idea of the scope, this edition lists sources for some 8,500 vegetable varieties. The sixth edition is available from booksellers or directly from the Seed Savers Exchange.
An enormous list of seed sources for 40,000 or so flowers, shrubs, trees, grasses, vegetables, and other plants in the seed trade. The book has a separate chapter on vegetables. It includes everything from Amaranth and Artichokes to Watermelon and Wheat, and everything in between. For each, author Platt offers a typically long list of varieties and one to several seed souces. For example, the book includes 53 different dent and flour corns, about 180 different cucumbers, and even 28 different radicchios. Who knew? Other vegetables receive equally detailed treatment. Many US gardeners will hope for more stateside suppliers, but Platt notes which of the many European companies are set up to handle exports.
While much of the work in preserving heirlooms is done by dirt-under-the-fingernails gardeners, plant scientists and even the government are also involved. The USDA operates several research facilities around the country, including the National Seed Storage Laboratory . They send plant material to researchers worldwide, answering thousands of inquiries every year. The website, which includes information on what they are preserving, is a fascinating glimpse at the research science side of biodiversity.