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The seed sleuth, forensic botany goes veggie

The Seed Detective: Uncovering the secret histories of remarkable vegetables by Adam Alexander, 2022. Chelsea Green Publishing UK.

What do you think of when seed banks are mentioned? Perhaps Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank in the Sussex countryside of the UK, or the Global Seed Vault at Svalbard inside the Arctic Circle come to mind. What probably doesn’t is “jars and boxes filled with envelopes containing 499 varieties of vegetable seeds … crammed into two fridges in the garage…” (p. 10) of a “modest-sized home in Wales”. Yet, a seed bank is what that collection, which belongs to Adam Alexander [whose book The Seed Detective is here appraised], undoubtedly is. But, why is he doing this?

What you get

The Seed Detective begins with a Foreword by Tim Lang (Professor Emeritus of Food Policy, City University of London). Lang’s item – as you might expect – is a very good endorsement for the book, e.g. “This is a gift of a book in the sense that it’s a communication we get too rarely about the vegetable zone. There are tens of, hundreds of thousands of, scientific papers and books on vegetables but rarely communications this accessible, this knowledgeable and this captivating” (p. xiii). But, more than that, its full text is arguably as important a read as the rest of the book. As is Alexander’s Introduction. Do not skip these ‘hors d’oeuvres’ in indecent haste to get to the main vegetable course of the book.

The bulk of the book’s 224 pages of main text is in two parts. Part One considers ‘arrivals from the East’ – garden pea, broad bean, carrot, leek, brassicas (kale, cabbage, kohlrabi, sprouts), asparagus, lettuce & chicory, and garlic. Originating in the Mediterranean and parts of the Middle East, i.e. the Fertile Crescent, these are vegetables “for which we must thank the Romans” (p. 19). Part Two looks at veg that came from the West – tomato, corn, squashes, chillies & peppers, French beans, and lima & runner beans. Coming to Europe (and ultimately the rest of world) from Mesoamerica (which includes Central America and southern half of Mexico, and northern parts of South America – Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia), these are products of the so-called Columbian Exchange (John Horgan) [although Alexander has a lot to say about Columbus and his legacy, he does not use this term in the book].

Each of the 14 chapters – effectively one per vegetable (or group of related vegetables) – begins with a pithy quote, proverb, or short poem [who can not love a book by somebody who starts a chapter with such sound advice as “Never bolt your door with a boiled carrot” (p. 56), or a poem about farts (appropriately enough in the entry for the common bean)?]. The text within chapters is divided by pithy sub-headings, e.g. Purple does not mean heritage, A thoroughly modern spear, An Italian love affair, and Four types of squash. Not only do they – usually – give a clue to their subject matter, they are also important in breaking up the narrative because the book is entirely devoid of any illustrations. Super-scripted numbers in-text identify entries for sources in the Notes section. Occasionally, foot-notes are used to add extra information to matters raised in-text, but – and unfortunately – they are mostly devoid of any indication of sources for factual statements made therein.

The book ends with Acknowledgements, Glossary, Notes, and Index. From ‘Allele’ to ‘Variety’, the approx. 4.5 pages of Glossary is useful to keep readers reminded of what the technical terms – used out of necessity to tell this story properly – mean. But, it would have been useful to have included FV (Folk variety) and MV (Modern Variety) in that section. Although those terms are defined in-text, it would help readers to check on the meaning of those initialisms – should they have forgotten what they stand for. The Notes section provides approx. 10 pages of sources for information in the chapters – indicated in-text by superscripted numbers – and is a mix of books, web sites, scientific articles (with urls), and TV programmes [see also My only reservation about the book…]. However, a specific source is only provided in full on its first use in this section. Where a source has also been used elsewhere it’s shown in a highly-abbreviated form. Trying to track down the full version – so one can follow it up for extra information or to check its veracity – can take some time [e.g. the full citation for ‘Sauer, Historical Geography of Crop Plants: 156’ on p. 288 is to be found on p. 284; for ‘Winch, Growing food: 174-77’ on p. 290 one has to go to p. 283 to find the full version]. It would be much more helpful if all sources were shown in full whenever listed. The 13 pages of 2-columned Index is quite extensive, and goes from ‘Afghanistan, and carrots’ to ‘zucchini (courgette)’.

A more subjective view…

Alexander tells us that The Seed Detective was written “out of a desire to share my enthusiasm and love for growing and eating rare, unusual, delicious vegetables, and saving and sharing seeds” (p. 13). But, those vegetables aren’t really that rare or unusual, they are ones we’re probably all familiar with, e.g. maize, leek, tomatoes, asparagus, and beans. The rarity is in the varieties that Alexander talks about [and by ‘talks’ one really means waxes lyrical]. And those varieties – some of which are hundreds of years old, and are categorised as heritage and/or heirloom (Tres Crow; Gloria Logan; Susan Low) – are often unknown to the wider public because they are usually only grown on small-holdings in local communities. And one reason these are rarely widely available is not that they’ve necessarily fallen out of favour with the masses, but they’ve largely been lost from the collective memory because big business has often shunned their commercialisation in favour of specially-bred varieties that suit big-scale agriculture to produce large amounts of uniform produce and maximise profits. Alexander recognises that – and is rather scathing of the blandness of the results.

What he wants is “a continued resurgence in the diversity of varieties we grow and enjoy. With a more intimate and personal relationship with these Cinderellas of our food culture will emerge a greater desire to nurture our crops, eat better and enjoy more. But it is flavour that counts above all else. Locally grown, just harvested and rapidly consumed, there is not a vegetable I grow that isn’t superior to anything found in a supermarket aisle” (p. 13). If big business won’t deliver that, then it’s down to individuals to get back to basics and grow their own ‘lost’ varieties: ”If you want to eat really tasty vegetables, you have to grow them yourself or get them from someone who does” (p. 16). That last point is important; not everybody can grow their own, but if the demand is there then others with the wherewithal to do so can continue to supply the vegetables for themselves and others. Hopefully, The seed detective may increase the demand for such varieties, and possibly encourage others to grow and supply them.

But, nice tasting veg is only part of the story, the other reason for Alexander’s interest in these rare varieties is the seed-saving and sharing side. That has several benefits. One, saved seed can be sown for next season’s crop of really tasty vegetables. Two, seed-saving can help to save the variety if some of that seed is stored in some sort of seed bank for future use. Three, seed that is shared – and sown, grown, and saved – amongst individuals helps to maintain a stock of the crop in several locations (an insurance policy should any one location lose its seed). The importance of this is dramatically underlined by Alexander’s declaration that “Much of the seed I save is for seed libraries and displaced people, so they can grow crops from their native homelands” (p. 16). Four, continuing to grow those varieties – and ideally in many different environments around the world (where suitable for the crop) – maintains the genetic diversity in the species, and, over time, produces varieties that are better-adapted to the local conditions. And that has great relevance to concerns over future food security, and continued growth of crops under a changing climate. The genetic potential of such locally-adapted landraces [“locally distinct, and potentially adapted, population of a crop, often associated with traditional farming systems” (p. 281)] could be exploited in breeding programmes to produce new varieties better suited to future growing conditions. Or, putting that in Alexander’s own words: “If we only grow one or very few varieties of any crop … all it needs is a mutated pathogen or bug that takes a special liking to said cultivar for the world to go hungry” (p. 84). Which is why for Alexander “the real heroes of our future food supply are the growers, farmers and seed libraries who are recovering, restoring and championing local varieties around the world” (p. 273).

All of the above are very good reasons why we should continue to grow these rare and unusual varieties, and all are written about in Alexander’s book. But, although it is necessary to include some technical material about genetics and crop biology, we have a Glossary to help with that side of things. Elsewhere – and in any case – we have stories of 14 vegetables that are very well told; Alexander writes in a way that is effortless to read, and is a great mix of humour, righteous indignation, strong opinions, and nice phrasing. But, and above all, it is all told with great love of the plants, and tremendous respect for the first Neolithic farmers who experimented with agriculture thousands of years ago – and with special reverence for the agricultural expertise and heritage of the Native American Hopi people (as exemplified in his account of their blue corn).

And it’s that intimate mix of people and plants that makes this book a really great addition to the plants-and-people library. Yes, we get ‘origin stories’ of each of the marvellous vegetables, with emphasis on early agriculture, but we also get the tangled tale of how we got to where we are today with some of the named varieties. And that emphasises the human side of things. Accordingly, Alexander tells us that: breeding of a certain legume was a 19th Century obsession in western Europe and the USA; vegetarian Pythagoras forbade his followers to eat specific legume seeds fearing that their souls would transmigrate and they would be reborn as that plant instead of a human being; there was a bit of fuss about whether a vegetable or a flower should be the true emblem for Wales; a pickled green vegetable was taken on ocean voyages by Capt. Cook as a scurvy-preventative; Louis XIV of France had a greenhouse built specially for an early crop of a specific vegetable; a ‘smelly bulb’ was, arguably, the world’s first performance-enhancing drug; and the flowers of a certain legume were the first reason for growing this vegetable in Europe. [To find out which vegetables these comments relate to, you’ll need to read the book…]. And The Seed Detective contains so many more extraordinary insights into what are otherwise common-or-garden, everyday vegetables: This book is a little gem [no lettuce pun intended…].

My only reservation about the book…

In keeping with the book’s title, detective work has undoubtedly been undertaken to unearth the origins of the crops considered and to provide the other information that is pertinent to their stories. However, since true detective work is evidence-based, it would have been really nice to see all the sources used for each chapter,* not just the few indicated by in-text numbers. Where shown, those numbers are usually at the end of a paragraph, and may charitably be assumed to relate to all of the material in that paragraph. But, that still leaves large chunks of the text that are reference-free, e.g. six pages (which include two foot-notes) – of nine paragraphs – between notes 3 and 4 in The tale of four peas or four tall stories chapter, which contain several statements of unsourced fact. Elsewhere, a number of statements are made in paragraphs devoid of any Note number, e.g. “There is no question that countless millions were saved from starvation” (pp. 7/8) by the Green Revolution [for support of this, see Gregg Easterbrook, and here]; that vitamin C is present in vinegar [see here for analysis of vinegar by the USDA]; tomatine has fungicidal, insecticidal, and antimicrobial properties [for evidence for this, see here]; and “farting is … something we all do at least fourteen times a day” (p.193) [see Sara Rigby]. Although the paucity of such stated sources is my only serious quibble with this amazing book, it does somewhat undermine any claim it might otherwise have to be authoritative.

A comment about genetic modification

Although The Seed Detective very much has an emphasis on traditional crop breeding techniques – which, in fairness, have generated almost all the varietal variety we currently have – modern hi-tech crop enhancement technologies are well mentioned in respect of tomatoes. Accordingly, Alexander reminds us of the first attempt to market genetically-modified [GM] FlavrSavr tomatoes in 1994 (G Bruening & JM Lyons). And he mentions the most up-to-date genetically-edited [GE (Courtney Schmidt & Lon Swanson)] Sicilian Rouge High GABA tomato. Created using CRISPR/Cas9 technology, the fruit’s elevated amounts of GABA [γ- amino butyric acid] should give additional health benefits to consumers because GABA has the useful property of lowering blood pressure in humans (Satoko Nonaka et al., Sci Rep 7, 7057 (2017); https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-06400-y). Alexander advises that seeds of this variety were to go on sale to amateur growers in 2022.** Somewhat surprisingly, he didn’t mention GM purple tomatoes developed by Cathie Martin et al. (Yang Yue). These tomatoes have higher amounts of anthocyanins than traditional ones – hence their colour. And, because consumption of these pigments is associated with decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity and certain cancers (Caroline Wood), should also deliver health benefits. Having been assessed by the USDA [United States Department of Agriculture], which concluded that “the plant is unlikely to pose an increased plant pest risk compared to other cultivated tomatoes”, they are anticipated to be on sale – in America – in 2023 (Zoe Sottile).

Plants have sex chromosomes

Although some of the material was familiar to me, the book has the ability to provided important educational moments. For example, this phrase about asparagus: “Breeders cross andromonoecious [NB, this term had been previously defined in-text, although isn’t in the Glossary] plants with supermales – plants that have an identical pair of ‘Y’ chromosomes which determines their gender – and then carefully select their hybrid progeny over many years” (p. 117) gave me pause. I had no idea plants had chromosomes that determined sex. In my ‘defence’ I’d never previously thought about how sex may be determined in plants, I’d just accepted that there were male, female, and hermaphrodite flowers. However, having been made aware of this matter by Alexander, I Googled the topic [because no source was provided in the book for this topic] and am now a more knowledgeable person***. And I’m happy to report that plant sex chromosomes are indeed a ‘thing’.

The Indiana Jones connection

Alexander has been described as the ‘Indiana Jones (James Brigden) of vegetables’ (see hardback book’s inside front cover, and here (Sian Bayley)). I’m not entirely sure what that means, but, in some sort of homage to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade****, Alexander’s book could be retitled Indiana Jones and the Great Crusade. Why? Because the enterprise that Alexander is engaged upon – conserving traditional, genetically-rich varieties of crops – is arguably one of the most important tasks humanity can undertake, and Alexander is a crusading figure for that odyssey. The modest goal of that noblest of quests is to conserve, maintain, and ensure genetic diversity/resilience in our vegetable [which includes maize, chillies, peppers, and tomatoes] crops’ seed stocks. This should help to avert the future food insecurity that can be a consequence of over-reliance on narrowly-defined, genetically-straitjacketed, commercially-grown, mass-produced, mediocre crops.

And Alexander is not alone in this endeavour; he’s joined world-wide on this journey by an army of individual farmers – and such enterprises as the Millennium Seed Bank, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the Seed Savers Exchange in the USA (María Paula Rubiano A), the UK’s Heritage Seed Library, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas [ICARDA] in Lebanon (Ruth Sherlock & Jawad Rizkallah), and Zayaan Khan’s Seed Biblioteek in South Africa (Mary Fawzy) – who are each doing their bit to preserve the genetic legacy entrusted to us by those first Neolithic agriculturalists at the dawn of the age of agriculture. One can only hope that we respect and treasure that precious inheritance and don’t squander it. We need more ‘Indiana’ Alexanders; The Seed Detective, can only help to recruit more volunteers to the cause.


Should you be looking for a suitable follow-up book to further whet – or maybe satiate – your seed-story appetite after having read The Age of Seeds by Fiona Macmillan-Webster, then I’m very happy to recommend The seed detective by Adam Alexander. Combining plants, people, geography, agriculture, plant breeding, history, gardening, and food/cooking, this is true plants-and-people writing at its best (apart from the reservation regarding references).

* The only unsourced statement that I will accept on trust as a fact is Alexander’s assertion that: “nothing beats the flavour of a freshly pulled carrot and that, dear reader, is a fact” (p. 70).

** Actually, seed-sowing kits were sold in May 2021, and fruit was available for purchase by consumers from September 15th, 2021. The 2021 realised dates relative to Alexander’s prediction of 2022 may reflect the fact that writing of the book was completed before May 2021 and a ‘guess’ had to be made. Or, that the company brought forward dates for commercialization of their GE tomato.

*** Details relating to sex chromosomes in asparagus are available in this article by Alex Harkess et al. (Nature Communications 8, 1279 (2017); https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-017-01064-8), and in its editorial comment (Nature Communications 8, 1279 (2017); doi: 10.1038/s41467-017-01064-8). For more on plant sex chromosomes generally, see Deborah Charlesworth (Heredity 88: 94–101, 2002; https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.hdy.6800016), Ray Ming et al. (American Journal of Botany 94: 141-150, 2007; https://doi.org/10.3732/ajb.94.2.141), and Sebastien Andreuzza.



**** The best of the franchise’s movies – as at 1st February, 2023 – IMHO (Brian Manzullo).




Nigel Chaffey

I am a Botanist and former Senior Lecturer in Botany at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany I contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international phytological organ for almost 10 years. I am now a freelance plant science communicator and Visiting Research Fellow at Bath Spa University. I also continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience at Botany One. In that guise my main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way) others about plants and plant-people interactions, and thereby improve humankind's botanical literacy. I'm happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities.
[ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]

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  • […] the depth for any of its named plants that you’d find in other specialist publications – e.g. Adam Alexander on vegetables, Nicholas Money for yeast, Henry Hobhouse on quinine, sugar, tea, cotton, potato, and […]

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