Grandpa Ott's Granddaughter

I love morning glories, but there has always been one morning glory that I’ve never taken a liking too. Ipomoea purpurea ‘Grandpa Ott’s’ is a ubiquitous morning glory. When I started trading seeds online it was always offered, and even as a SASE seed trade you couldn’t get me to take any of its seeds. I’ve always been partial to the Japanese morning glories and the more dramatic ones like ‘Sunrise Serenade.’ I guess I’m a morning glory snob.

morning glory seed pods

My neighborhood has always had its share of transients, and sometimes people in the neighborhood employ them for various tasks. One such individual, who I’ll call “Speedy,” because that’s the name I knew him by, popped up one day a few years ago. He came to my attention one day while he was working on my father’s car, and soon after he was speeding around the neighborhood on a bicycle fixing, cars, radios and all manner of electronic equipment. The rumor was that he was either the son of an MIT professor or a drop out of MIT-I forget which. Speedy was a diminutive man with few teeth, balding unkept gray hair, a high-pitched nasally voice that was almost comical-and he was dirty. Not in the figurative sense, I mean in the literal sense. He prescribed to the hygiene regiment of your average homeless individual battling addiction and living on the street. The rumor was that his drug of choice was crack, though I never asked and he never explained.

If you could get past his outward appearance you’d encounter a man who was personable and obviously intelligent. His ability to quickly fix just about any car or piece of electronics using very few tools gave credence, at least in my mind, to his connection to MIT. One day while sitting on the front stairs and pondering a stack of seed packets I heard the familiar screech of Speedy’s bike tires and that funny voice ask, “Hey, is your dad home?” I looked up to find him balancing on his bike while holding onto the wrought iron fence. I shook my head to indicate he wasn’t and went back to the seed packets because I knew the next question was going to be if I could loan him a couple of dollars. I could sense him looking at me when he asked, “Whatcha got there?” I looked up again but this time I said, “Just some seeds for vine I’m thinking of planting there on the fence.”  I was hoping he’d go away because I had some serious seed making decisions at hand. “Ooooooh, are you going to plant ‘Grandpa Ott’s,’ he inquired. I shot him a look and incredulously asked, “Are you on crack? ‘Grandpa Ott’s’ in my garden?”

Almost instantly my brain registered what I had just done and I felt horrible. He either didn’t catch it or- to his credit-chose to ignore it.

Within moments Speedy was through the gate and in my yard extolling the virtues of ‘Grandpa Ott’s’ and why it deserved a place in my garden. He painted a scene of what he imagined the fencing around the garden to look like if I grew that morning glory over them. His right hand flailed about like a mad orchestra conductor as he explained how the vine would ramble over the fences. The pads of the fingers of his left hand came together and pushed apart to represent the purple flowers of vine opening up early in the morning. I was mesmerized, confused, a little bit frightened, and wished he had just asked me to loan him a couple of dollars. Almost as quickly as he was in the gate and dancing around he was gone. “Think about it, man, ‘Grandpa Ott’s’ is a beeeeeeutiful flower. You won’t regret it,” he shouted, over his shoulder, as he rode his bike away.

In the intervening 3-4 years since the day this took place I only saw him once. Aside from neighborhood gossip that he’d been beaten and robbed there hadn’t been news of him. Speedy hadn’t crossed my mind until one day this winter when I received a copy of Diane Ott Whealy’s memoir, Gathering, to review.

Diane Ott Whealy, Seed Savers Exchange
Diane Ott Whealy co-founder of Seed Savers Exchange at Chicago Botanic Garden

I knew of Diane Ott Whealy, I certainly was familiar with ‘Grandpa Ott’s,’ and I knew she, along with her husband Ken, was a founder of Seed Savers Exchange. But I’d never made the connection prior to reading her memoir. She writes lovingly of her grandfather, Baptist John Ott, and evenings on his farm where family members would sit on a porch covered in the vine we know today as ‘Grandpa Ott’s.’ In the book, she recalls saving the seeds along with her grandmother as an insurance measure. Some of the purple morning glory seeds were saved and others Grandpa Ott would share with family, friends and anyone who admired his prized vines. The seeds came to America with Diane’s great-grandparents when they emigrated from Bavaria.

Shortly after Diane and Ken Whealy were married, Ken asked Diane’s grandfather for some of the saved morning glory seeds. Over the ensuing years where Ken and Diane moved to in search of creating their own life the seeds went with them. One day they began to wonder if there were others like them who cherished seeds and the stories behind them. Grandpa Ott had passed away in 1974 and Diane and Ken were the only family members in possession of his seeds. That year Ken had written letters to various magazines, including Mother Earth News, after they had started to read articles that warned about the loss of genetic diversity, hoping to find like-minded individuals. Word had begun to spread about the young couple interested in preserving and swapping seeds.

In 1975 Twenty-nine gardeners from across the United States and Canada mailed in 25 cents and a large envelope to what was then known as the True Seed Exchange. The name was chosen to stress that they were trying to save heirloom seeds that produced plants that were “true” to type every year. The gardeners who replied listed their seeds and sent along letters with personal stories of the seeds. The next year the listing of seeds and members was larger and the beginning of what we know today as Seed Savers Exchange was established and starting to grow.

My gardening awakening came at an age when I was already a cynic and Grandpa Ott must have been filed away in the recesses of my mind along with the old-timey mascots for brands created by Madison Avenue to ignore.

I have memories of my grandfather coming to visit from California and unloading seeds from his pockets to plant his vegetable garden. So, why the idea of a real Grandpa Otts so inconceivable to me? After reading the memoir I came to the conclusion that it was because my grandfather lacked that nurturing gene that Diane’s obviously was born with. He never explained what he was doing when he was sowing his seeds, didn’t share stories of where they came from and didn’t, to my knowledge, share them with others in order to keep them going.

Recently, Diane gave a presentation at the Chicago Botanic Garden about the origins of Seed Savers Exchange, and I got to hear her tell the story of Grandpa Ott and those morning glory seeds in person. I asked Diane how she felt about the fact that so many commercial seed sellers are now riding the heirloom wave and selling heirlooms like ‘Grandpa Ott’s’ and watermelon ‘Moon and Stars’ (another interesting story in her memoir, btw) that originally were only available through (and because of) Seed Savers Exchange. She was very diplomatic in her answer and said that their commercial availability is just an indication that Seed Savers Exchange has fulfilled its mission to preserve heirlooms so that they’re available for future generations. Although, she did mention being in Europe once and spotting ‘Grandpa Ott’s’ in a garden and wishing that there had been an indication on the plant label of where it came from and the story. She recounted an exchange where she recommended ‘Grandpa Ott’s’ to a gardener and was told that morning glories were too invasive. Perhaps it was just how I interpreted the story, her tone and facial expressions, but I gathered that she may have been a little offended. She showed some slides and said that the vine stayed pretty much in place in her garden.

At that moment I had a realization that I’ve had countless times. There are many plants I “hate” until I hear a personal story behind them. Suddenly they’re not just common, boring, or weedy plants in the garden. Hearing about someone’s connection to these plants puts them in a new perspective.

After reading Gathering and hearing Diane speak in person I have a whole new appreciation for the morning glory that I once turned my nose up at. The story, its importance to the founding of Seed Savers Exchange, and the impact that those morning glory seeds had on gardening took on a whole new relevance. If not for Grandpa Ott passing on those little black seeds in a white cardboard pill box how grave would the issue of genetic diversity be today? How many of the varieties of fruits and vegetables that members of Seed Savers Exchange have saved and traded would have been lost to history?

At the presentation a friend mentioned that she had no familial seed saving history so that she would have to borrow the traditions of others. Fortunately, we have Seed Savers Exchange documenting the history and tradition of seeds so that those of us without a familial history can borrow from.

I’m left to forever wonder how Speedy knew of ‘Grandpa Ott’s’ morning glory. I’ll probably never get an answer and it will bug me for a long time to come. Maybe I’ll sow some of these seeds and one day there will be the familiar screech of bike brakes at the garden gate and a comment on how beautiful the ‘Grandpa Ott’s’ blooms are.

How to Save Morning Glory Seeds

Diane Ott Whealy will be at the Chicago Flower & Garden Show on Saturday, March 10th giving a presentation. If you’re in the area I recommend attending it. The following day, Sunday, I’m hosting a seed swap the show from 3-5pm outside the recreated White House kitchen garden.

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