SANTA FE (AP) Seeds from a spicy little red chile grown for generations at Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, N.M., have traveled a long way in the last 20 years to Arizona, Colorado and now to a doomsday seed vault in the icy Arctic.
The possibly misnamed San Juan tsile joined seeds from 13 other New Mexico chile species and more than 500 other food crop varieties such as melons, sorghum and a wild Russian strawberry at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway. The vault now contains the seeds for more than half a million food plant varieties from all over the world, a safeguard against disease, drought or other disaster that might wipe out whole species.
The San Juan tsiles long journey may have begun with Bertha J. Burcks family at Ohkay Owingeh, or one of her neighbors.
Burck, 75, has been farming since she can remember. She farms on the same river-bottom acre of land in northern New Mexico, using the same ditch and water from the same river her parents, grandparents and great-grandparents and probably family before them all used.
For generations, they grew a native chile, harvesting the seeds and replanting every year.
In Tewa, the native language of Ohkay Owingeh, the chile is called tsindi.
Since then we have been growing that chile. It is a real small chile, and its not as meaty as the Big Jims and some of those from the south, Burck said, taking a break from her garden. It is a hot chile. Here and there you will find a mild or medium.
She and her husband sold the native chile, along with corn, melons, squash and other crops at the Santa Fe Farmers Market more than 15 years ago.
In the early 1990s, seed collectors from the Tucson, Ariz.-based nonprofit Native Seeds/SEARCH spotted the San Juan tsiles and bought some of the seed from a couple of elderly pueblo farmers, according to information from the organization. San Juan Pueblo since has returned to its traditional name, Ohkay Owingeh.
Burck doesnt know if her husband or a neighbor sold the chile seeds to the researchers, and she thinks it is a little weird the seeds ended up in a Norwegian vault.
The San Juan tsile is described by Native Seed/SEARCH as a mild to medium-hot chile that grows 3.5 to 5 inches long. The groups catalog says the chile still is grown by pueblo farmers.
Burcks native chile pods grow 5 to 6 inches long and produce a lot of pods per plant but with little meat, she said.
The older people like the flavor though better than some of the new fancy varieties, Burck said.
Herman Agoyo, another longtime Ohkay Owingeh farmer, remembers the Native Seeds group but doesnt know who might have sold them the seeds.
He said the farming tradition around Ohkay Owingeh used to be stronger than it has been in recent years. And farmers always grew chile and saved the seeds.
We were known as champion farmers even in the surrounding communities, Agoyo said.
He likes the idea of the little chile seeds from San Juan preserved in a vault. It is better than losing it altogether because people stop growing it.
The San Juan chile seeds that came to Tucson, were grown and collected and sold through the groups catalog. Then in 2000, some of the seeds were sent to the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation, a research center managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Fort Collins. The center, designed to preserve genetic material and seeds from plants, dates to the 1950s.
The center now houses more than one-half million seeds, constantly monitored by researchers. It began sending copies of those seeds to the Svalbard vault in 2008 and will continue for several years.
Our goal, over the next 10 to 15 years, is to have the majority of the systems 511,000 collections represented in the Svalbard vault, said Edward B. Knipling, center administrator, in a statement.