SeedZoo™ is a project to preserve traditional and indigenous food plants from around the world. Teaming up with botanical explorers and ethnobotanists, we are searching for rare and endangered food plants that home gardeners can grow and enjoy, and help to preserve.
Of the 7,000 or so species of food plants known to man, only 140 are cultivated commercially, and of those, most of the world’s supply of food depends on just 12. Even as the world increasingly speaks about food security, incredible varieties that are known only to a single tribe or in small and remote localities are being lost forever.
We sent plant explorers across the world in search of rare beans, squashes, melons, greens, and grains. They have been to the jungles of Borneo, to small farms in Japan and Italy, and to the bustling food markets of Africa. In the coming months they will visit India, Vietnam and beyond. Many of the rare and exotic plants that they bring back don’t even have names and can only be called landraces - plants with unique features found in only one region or sometimes in just one village.
Often our explorers can bring back only a handful of seeds, sometimes fewer than 100. Because these seeds are so rare and from such remote regions of the world, they are sold on a “first come, first served” basis. Once they sell out they may never be available again. So if you see a variety that you like, do not hesitate to order it or you may be disappointed. The SeedZoo™ variety list is only available online and will change often so check our SeedZoo website regularly, or follow us on Twitter.
Join us in this grand project to preserve a part of the world’s food diversity. Try some of the planet’s treasures, and enjoy the culinary adventure. And please save some seeds and share them with your friends.
This video presentation by Conrad Richter explains why the SeedZoo project was started and why gardeners should grow these rare and endangered food plants in their gardens.
Here are the currently available SeedZoo™ varieties!
Virtually unknown outside of West Africa, this plant could become very important for our future food security. It is a highly nutritious peanut-like seed, very rich in protein, up to 25% by weight, with much less fat compared to peanuts. And it is richer in certain amino acids than almost all other legumes. Yet it tolerates drought, thrives in poor soils, and does not need fertilizer. Wherever it is grown the locals actually prefer its taste over that of peanuts. Traditionally the seeds are boiled with seasoning to make soup or to serve on rice. In Benin the seeds are processed into a delicious fried paste called "ata". Order it now!
Sometimes known as "bitter eggplant", this rare landrace is cultivated in dry savannahs of West Africa by the Hausa people for its edible leaves. While its decorative small orange berries are not eaten, there are other traditional cultivars of the same species that are grown for their edible fruits; but they only grow in areas of high humidity and high rainfall. Over many generations the Hausa people developed this unique leaf vegetable for its ability to thrive in dry conditions and its resistance to pests. The taste of the leaves, when boiled or steamed, is somewhat bitter, which actually works well when combined with other ingredients in soups and sauces, or as a side dish. Grow it like other eggplants. Order it now!
African Pea Eggplant
This is a type of eggplant but it doesn’t produce the familiar large egg-shaped vegetables that we know in the West. Instead it bears many small edible berry-like fruits about 1cm (1/2") in diameter. It grows wild in Africa and South Asia, and is cultivated in gardens also. The berries are gathered while green well before they ripen and turn red. They are eaten raw as an appetizer in Ghana and cooked in a traditional Cameroonian soup called nkwi. The berries are also eaten cooked or raw in India. In both Africa and India the berries used fresh or dried and ground to treat high blood pressure. Order it now!
Looks like a tomato but it’s actually a type of eggplant, and one of the five most common vegetables in Sub-Saharan Africa. It followed the slaves to Brazil and the Caribbean and later followed migrants to southern Italy, but is virtually unknown elsewhere. And yes it is bitter. But when picked young and combined with other ingredients it is absolutely delicious. The unripe or ripe fruits are boiled, steamed, pickled, or added to stews with other vegetables or meats and the leaves are cooked like spinach. Order it now!
African Black Sesame
Sesame is one of the world’s oldest crops first domesticated on the Indian subcontinent more than 5,000 years ago. Today India is still a top producer of sesame but the African country of Tanzania is rising and may already be the world’s largest. Perhaps that’s not surprising because Africa may be where the crop’s ancestors originally came from. Africa is where the greatest diversity of wild relatives of sesame can be found today. With increasing concerns about food security, varieties that thrive in marginal soils in the hot, dry areas of west and central Africa may become increasingly important. This landrace from the semi-arid regions of northern Ghana is a black seeded type with strong aroma and flavour. Order it now!
Madagascar Lima Bean
A beautiful cream and maroon lima bean with a striking radiating pattern. Although its origin has been traced to Brazil and before that to the Incas in Peru – this bean has been in Madagascar since at least the 16th century. Like a second home, the semi-tropical climber took to the warm humid climate that suited it perfectly. In time the bean became one of the country’s most important export crops, with huge quantities shipped to Europe yearly. While Europeans favoured the large pure white varieties, the locals grew smaller varieties with a range colours and patterns such as this one. Today these traditional varieties are disappearing as land use and crops change. Like most lima beans they can be shelled and used fresh or dried in soups and stews or to make veggie burgers. Order it now!
Africa´s oldest cultivated cereal, going back more than 5,000 years. With the growing challenge of climate change this ancient grain could become critically important for future global food security. It is amazingly tolerant of drought and thrives in virtually any soil, even depleted soils where little else grows. It was once a prized food fit for the kings and chiefs of Africa, and was a special treat served on holy days and at weddings. Highly nutritious and gluten-free, with low glycemic index, it is a delicious new grain for the kitchen, with a rich nutty taste, something like quinoa. When cooked it becomes light and fluffy and readily absorbs the flavours of other ingredients. It can be cooked and served like couscous, or like jollof, or added to stews, soups, or sauteed vegetables. Try stuffed acorn squash with fonio. We think the possibilities are endless. Order it now!
Togo Sword Bean
This beautiful sword bean from Togo in West Africa features lovely purple striated blotches on bone white seeds. And those seeds are huge, weighing more than 3 grams each! They are not commonly eaten, but the young pods are, like a sort of outlandish giant string bean that gets up to a foot long (30cm). Equally outlandish is how it grows, as a vine that can climb or sprawl 20 feet or more. Typically, however, the vines are corralled with mesh or fencing to keep things civil in the garden. Like other sword beans, the cooked pods are great in soups, stews and stir-fries.Order it now!
Purple-Black Sword Bean
Sword beans are otherworldly in so many ways! For starters, the seeds are massive, just 8 seeds weigh an ounce. The pods get long and rigid enough to swing like a sword. Meanwhile the plant grows as a climber or a trailer with vines up to 20 feet (6m) long. Surprisingly little known outside Africa and Asia, the young pods are used in soups, stews, stir-fries, and curry dishes. Sword beans come in many different patterns and shades, from white, red and purple to almost black. This landrace from Ghana, in West Africa, has a distinctive purple-black coloration.Order it now!
Delicious leafy vegetable of Africa, where the tender young stems and older leaves are popular in sauces and soups, and as cooked greens. It is one of the most beautiful vegetables you can grow, with spectacular green and maroon leaves and showy fuchsia and white flower spikes. Humorously it is locally known in the Yoruba-speaking areas of Nigeria as soko yokoto which means "makes husbands fat and happy". And why not, it is rich in iron, protein and healthful antioxidants vitamins C and E, and beta-carotenoid. Many rave that its flavour and texture are heads above true spinach. Try it in soups, curry, pasta, dips, pizza. Grows in most soils, in sun or part shade, and withstands drought, but needs summer heat to really thrive. Can be started indoors and transplanted out in late spring or, in warm areas, sown direct to the garden in spring. Order it now!
West African Okra
African farmers often prefer this species over the common okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) that we know in the West because it keeps on producing for months and is better at resisting diseases. Used just like the common variety, the young immature fruits are cooked or fried, or used to make soups and sauces. The young leaves are also eaten like spinach. In some areas the plant is used for sore throats and to assist child bearing. Order it now!
Just like the Mediterranean species, Capparis inermis, the flower buds and young fruits are pickled and used as a seasoning or garnish. This species is more cold tolerant and could be hardy in more northern areas of North America. It grows throughout the Caucasus and Central Asia where the local people traditionally collect the buds for use in cooking, and in some areas collect the buds on an industrial scale. Our seeds were collected in the dry steppes of Kyrgyzstan by Joseph Simcox, the botanical explorer who inspired the SeedZoo project. The collection site was at lower elevations where it gets quite cold in winter, and he guesses that this plant will survive at least zone 6 in North America. Order it now!
Ajima Chile Pepper
This chile pepper is from a tiny village called Ajimakope, located in the Volta Region of Ghana, in West Africa. Inaccessible by road, our collectors had to hike in, fording a river along the way. It is an heirloom of the Ajima family, a family of traditional herbalists and farmers. Ajima pepper is a local variation of the piri piri peppers found throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa. Piri-piri peppers are believed to have arrived from South America and became established in the wild centuries ago. Piri-piri peppers can vary a lot but this has mild heat and a nice woodsy flavour. There is hardly a dish prepared in the village in which this pepper is not used. Plants reach a height of 50-60cm (20-24"). Order it now!
A variety of cowpea growing in popularity among Ewe farmers in the Lake Volta region of West Africa because of its higher yields and higher tolerance of pests. Farmers report that they can get higher prices for ‘Cynthia’ than for other varieties. The flavour is similar to ‘Tsenabawu’ and ‘Turkoviahe’ varieties, but is taller and more vigorous. Like other cowpea beans, it is cooked in stews or cooked with rice and served with any spicy fish, meat or vegetable sauce on top. Little is known about the origin of the variety but some farmers have said that they heard it came from nearby Togo. We suspect that this variety was brought to the area by a trader named "Cynthia" and was henceforth known by that name. Order it now!
West African Popping Sorghum
Sorghum is a major cereal crop in the north of Ghana where it is a staple used for porridge and to make a local beer called pito. There are many varieties, white, red, and brown, and among them there are early, medium, and late varieties. This variety is preferred for making popped sorghum, a snack that is popular throughout Ghana and West Africa. Unlike many other varieties, this sorghum has a hard glassy endosperm that traps steam until the pressure explodes. The popping is so quick that little heat is required and proteins and vitamins are only slightly denatured by the heat. In the village of Dagbamete, the locals pop the seeds by roasting in hot sand over a fire (see video). The seeds pop almost instantly and the popped seeds are separated from the sand by sifting. Salted water is sprinkled on the popped kernels while still hot. Popped kernels are sold locally in small plastic bags. In Western kitchens sorghum can be popped like popcorn on the stove or in a microwave.Order it now!
A traditional favourite of the Ewe people of the Volta region of West Africa. Harvest time is eagerly anticipated when the beans, along with maize and groundnuts, are cooked in seasonal dishes such as ayibli and ayikple. The mottled beans are commonly cooked whole or they are first roasted and ground and then cooked to make nutritious stews and breakfast porridge. Drought resistant and sweeter tasting than other beans. Traditionally planted in May or June and harvested in August. Order it now!
An old variety grown by the Ewe people of West Africa. As far as we know only a few farmers in the Lake Volta region are still growing it. Beautiful small red beans are borne in long straight pale-yellow pods. Traditionally cooked in stews or simply cooked with rice and served with any spicy fish, meat or vegetable sauce on top. Can also be eaten like string beans when young and tender.Order it now!