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Morgantown seed library preserves and shares seeds

With spring and summer growing season starting, many of us are turning soil already, watering seedlings and plotting our growing space.

Whether growing our own food as a new endeavor or a family tradition, we form links in the line of Appalachian growers. Those who grow heirlooms or save seeds make particularly vital links.

Mehmet Öztan, a service assistant professor of geography at WVU, initiated collaboration between WVU Eberly College, WVU Libraries and Morgantown Public Library to preserve and share seeds.

“One of the main goals of the seed library is to highlight and promote and circulate the seeds of the state and Appalachia,” Mehmet told me.

“This area is rich in heirloom beans, and we owe that to the native peoples,” he said, noting that Appalachia may be home to the most varieties of heirloom beans in the country.

Regionally, we also have lots of heirloom tomato varieties, some brought by Italian immigrants, Mehmet said, who helped build much of our state’s infrastructure.

Heirloom seeds are old cultivars, selected and passed on by growers. Unlike seeds collected from hybrid plants, heirloom seeds produce the same type of fruit or veggie year after year. Hence, gardeners can save the seeds and expect predictable results.

In the 1930s, radiator mechanic M.C. Byles, here in West Virginia, developed a tomato variety and used the money he made selling its seedlings to pay off his home mortgage. His variety, Mortgage Lifter or Radiator Charlie’s tomato, is now a popular heirloom.

Along with seeds and food, Mehmet wants to preserve the stories of seed stewards. “I’m working with the WVU Libraries to create an archival library of the regional seeds,” he said. The database will contain all kinds of information about the seeds, including stories of their taste, texture, growing habits, cooking methods, stories of growers and photos.

I cannot wait until this database launches — a combo of seed info and stories? Yes, please!
In addition to the importance of keeping plant diversity thriving and providing heirloom seeds to gardens and farms, Mehmet explained another benefit of saving local seeds.

“Preserving these regionally adapted varieties is increasingly important,” he said, because as gardeners and farmers grow them and save seeds from the strongest and best-producing plants, the plants continuously adapt to changing growing conditions.

Working out a smooth and efficient system for checking seeds out of the Seed Preservation Library is in the works, but in the meantime, those interested in growing some regional heirloom seeds, or those who have some to donate, contact Mehmet via the Morgantown Seed Preservation Library Facebook page or email at

Mehmet can tell you what seeds are available, mail them to you, and provide instructions for collecting seeds after growing the plants.

“These tomatoes that we are distributing this season are fascinating,” he said. Ruby Red and Cindy’s West Virginia, varieties with outstanding flavor, are two highlighted on the seed library’s Facebook page already. He also wants to highlight beans this year, for the aforementioned abundance of varieties and historical importance.

The Morgantown Seed Preservation Library kicked off about two years ago with a seed swap and guest speaker Ira Wallace from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Mehmet organized more educational lectures in a series called Seedy Talks, and hopes to continue them in person, when doing so becomes safe again.

Between distributing seeds, sharing stories and hosting educational events, Mehmet said “hopefully we can increasingly connect with the community through this project.”

ALDONA BIRD is a journalist, exploring possibilities of local productivity and sustainable living in Preston County.