For centuries, part of maintaining a garden was saving seeds for the following year's crops. Gardens contained necessary foods and medicines, and gardeners kept their seed supplies as close as family members. Occasionally, a favorite or surplus seed was traded with a neighbor, but survival depended on having enough seed to start your garden for the next growing season. Gardens for leisure and enjoyment were the province of the wealthy and noble-born, and the history of garden seeds closely follows the history of gardens.
In the Beginning
Although the lure of gold, gems, and silk cannot be discounted, the Renaissance voyages of discovery may also validly be regarded as searches for new sources of food, especially spices. Surely, rich foreign lands must have enough to eat; and the cargoes of ships and caravans trading with Western Europe, from tomatoes, to tulips, to tobacco, confirmed this belief. Indeed, some of the most important byproducts of discovery were food: rice, sweet and white potatoes, garlic, ginger, cloves, and pepper, as often smuggled as traded honestly, and most easily carried in the form of seeds.
Seeds and Social Change
Early seed culture was first and foremost controlled by ruling classes, just as they controlled land ownership. Throughout the Dark and Middle Ages, all products of the land, and most of its dwellers, were the property of the owners. Monastic, apothecary and other specialized gardens provided places for talented members of the low classes to distinguish themselves as seed-breeders, but few records outside of religious order recorded their names.
Renaissance Gardens and Beyond
Conan speculates on how gardens enhanced and supported social changes that led to the formation of a middle class. As feudal property rights were replaced by burgeoning towns and a merchant class, development of reliable seeds for flowers as well as vegetables and fruit became a respected and valued craft. Having space for a garden that emphasized beauty and leisure as well as providing necessities became a sign of economic and social success. Eventually, the equation of garden enjoyment and upward mobility led to huge landscaped estates owned by captains of the Industrial Revolution and the 19th-century public parks movement throughout Europe and the U.S.
The Commercialization of Seed Trade
Widely regarded as the oldest, and now the largest, seed company in the world, the French firm Vilmorin Clause et Cie illustrates the path from royal service to independent commerce. Founded in Paris in 1743, former seed supplier and botanist to King Louis XV, Phillipe d'Andrieux's small business grew with the help of his son-in-law Phillipe de Vilmorin, who created the first seed catalog. Today Vilmorin Clause et Cie owns subsidiaries in Japan and most European countries, Israel and Australia. It recently acquired Ferry-Morse in the U.S.
The Development of the Hybrid
For much of its history, Vilmorin Clause & Cie, along with its European and American competitors, prospered from the sale of open-pollinated non-hybrid seed. Seeds were grown, pollinated by bees or other insects, wind and rain, and grew into plants strongly resembling parent plants. Nineteenth-century plant genetic discoveries by Gregor Mendel did not impact on the seed market until very early in the 20th century. W. Atlee Burpee, who began an American seed company in 1876, was fascinated with the idea of combining the strengths of two varieties of a plant to produce an offspring with both strengths (the process called hybridization). Familiar with cross-breeding from the poultry business which was his first venture, Burpee produced and marketed his first deliberate hybrid--the Fordhook lima bean--in 1907. Hybrid seeds produced strong, reliable plants and hugely increased the variety of plantings available even to an amateur small gardener. The fact that saved hybrid seeds did not grow true to type (they might resemble one parent plant, the other, or neither) also hugely enlarged the market for new hybrids, since every year required a new start.
Garden Seeds Today
At present, the commercial garden seed has moved successfully in two directions at the same time. Seed saving organizations and those concerned with biodiversity have championed a revival of open pollinated, now called "heirloom," seeds. Home gardeners seeking reliability, along with commercial food producers, have strongly supported the predictability of hybrid seeds; hybridization has now extended to genetic modification, which has created economic, cultural, and geographic controversies still awaiting resolution. For the home gardener and larger producer, the variety of garden seeds available on an ordinary seed rack would astonish centuries of savers, growers, and breeders.