My favorite sources for strange, beautiful, and unusual vegetable, herb and annual flower varieties are family-run seed companies like Wild Garden Seed, Kitazawa Seed, and Seeds from Italy. These small seed houses each have carefully curated collections of seeds and offer varieties that you will never find in a grocery store. They also help preserve rare and underutilized vegetables by growing out the seed and saving it from year to year.
Wild Garden Seeds
Nestled in the green countryside near Philomath, Oregon, the Morton family does the important work of saving heirloom vegetable varieties that are on the edge of extinction and breeding open-pollinated vegetable varieties that will become heirlooms for future generations. They work hard to select varieties that will thrive in organic gardens and naturally resist disease and pest problems. All of their seeds are certified organic. Even though they concentrate on developing regionally-adapted seeds for the Pacific Northwest, their amazing varieties deserve to be grown everywhere. My favorite Wild Garden varieties include 'Purple Peacock' broccoli, which is a cross between kale and broccoli. Every part of the plant is edible from the beautiful, deeply serrated kale like leaves to the tender broccoli shoots. 'Dragon Tongue' mustard develops amazing whorled, violet and chartreuse leaves that love cool fall weather. And 'Flashy Butter Gem' lettuce produces dense little heads of lettuce with green leaves that are splashed with red. I also love Wild Garden Seed's collection of calendula varieties.
Kitazawa Seed Company
In 1917, Gijiu Kitazawa opened up a seed company in San Jose, California specializing in Asian vegetable varieties. Though the company was sadly forced to close during World War II when the Kitazawa family was interred at a relocation camp, the company and the family survived and today Kitazawa Seed remains one of the best sources of Asian vegetable seed in the United States. I love to surf through their website, where they have greens like tatsoi and misome, daikon radishes, bitter melon, shiso, and even sesame and rice seed! This is a great resource if you love Asian food (they have Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean vegetable varieties) or just want to try growing something new-to-you.
Seeds from Italy
This little seed company was started by a gardener who loved to cook Italian food, but couldn't find the right varieties in the United States. So he started importing seeds from Franchi Sementi, Italy's oldest family owned seed company. I love this company because they not only carry authentic Italian vegetables, but they offer lots of variety. For instance, they have 8 different kinds of cima di rapa (broccoli rabe), 31 kinds of chicory and radicchio, and 6 varieties of fennel.
The best part about ordering from each of these companies is planning meals cooked with vegetables grown from their amazing seeds!
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Willi Galloway writes The Gardener column. She lives in Portland, Oregon and writes about her kitchen garden on her blog DigginFood. Her first book Grow. Cook. Eat. A Food-Lovers Guide To Vegetable Gardening will be published in January 2012.
(Images: All images via Wild Garden Seed)