HAVE YOU STARTED browsing the incoming seed catalogs yet or clicking around their websites, looking to see if the 2023 lineups have been unveiled? Lane Selman is always on the lookout for exceptional varieties of edibles, particularly those with an authentic Italian flair.
I did some virtual seed shopping with her to learn about some distinctive edibles and unusual seed sources you may not have tried.
Lane, an agricultural researcher at Oregon State University, is founder of the Culinary Breeding Network, a collaborative community of plant breeders, seed growers, farmers, produce buyers, and chefs aiming together to improve quality in vegetables and grains by creating, identifying, and promoting more desirable cultivars—especially organic ones. She’s got some suggestions for our 2023 gardens (including wild Sylvetta arugula, above, from High Mowing Organic Seeds).
Read along as you listen to the January 9, 2023 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
shopping for seeds, with lane selman
Margaret Roach: I see on your Instagram that you’re just back from another trip to Italy [laughter].
Lane Selman: Yes. It’s a little embarrassing. Yes, I’ve been in Italy several times this year. I’m very grateful to have been able to do that. I’ve been leading a project where we work on radicchio and we’re learning from Italian breeders and seed growers and farmers about how to better grow radicchio and get better seed sources for farmers and gardeners here in the United States.
Margaret: So that was the beginning of the Gusto Italiano Project?
Lane: Yeah, it was like another side shoot of this project. This project really is to get a lot of information that we can talk about also that is out there for our farmers and gardeners now. But I started meeting some breeders and seed growers over there and did start this Gusto Italiano Project with a company called Smarties.Bio over in Chioggia, Italy, which is a similar latitude to where I live in the Pacific Northwest, in Oregon. He’s a young guy who has been breeding radicchio for about probably 15 years. He had seed sources there. They were very difficult to get here, so they formed a partnership with Uprising Seeds that’s in Bellingham, Washington, that we’ve talked about before in the past. Uprising Seeds sells the Smarties seeds here in North America.
Margaret: Oh, O.K. So that’s where we get… Actually, Brian Campbell from Uprising, he and I did last year, we all collaborated on a “New York Times” garden column. Then he and I did a podcast about some radicchios, because there’s such a diversity, what some of the “easier” ones are to get started with, and how to. Is Gusto Italiano going to be other crops as well, or-
Lane: It’s other crops as well. It’s a wide variety of radicchio. Then there’s brassicas that are culturally important and have been heirlooms that have been grown in the Veneto in Italy as well.
There’s one called fiolaro, which is a little bit like spigariello or broccoli leaf; it’s like a sweet kale.
There’s one called Broccolo di Bassano, which is a very small cauliflower where you eat the cauliflower head as well as the leaves around it.
Then there’s a couple of cabbages.
We have that right now. We have added a storage tomato called Annarita [below]. So some people might be familiar with the types of tomatoes that are grown mostly in the southern part of Italy, where you grow the tomatoes and harvest them but they hold for six months and see them-
Margaret: Oh, you’re kidding?
Lane: … sometimes hung… Yeah, it’s amazing; hung on ristras, like you would peppers. And completely amazing, they eat them fresh. You could cook them if you wanted to as well. They also do well in a dry farm setting, so without irrigation.
Margaret: So when you say ristras, is it like they’re still on the vine so to speak, but that’s been cut so they’re in a cluster or what does that mean?
Lane: They cut them, they’re on their trusses and they cut them and they use a string that they then hang them from one another. They’re absolutely beautiful.
Margaret: So I was going to say, ahead of our conversation, I was thinking about how much of my vegetable garden, not really even intentionally, but just how much of our American vegetable gardens is Italian-inspired, really. We have our basils and we have our tomatoes and our eggplant and our peppers and ingredients that we would use in that cuisine or many other cuisines.
My favorite parsley is called—yeah, I know I’m going to butcher the name—but ‘Gigante d’Italia’ Italian giant parsley, the flat-leaf parsley. I don’t like the curly stuff. My favorite pole bean, from Turtle Tree Seed, ‘Aunt Ada’s Italian’ pole bean, I love that bean and etc., etc. So much Italian inspiration.
When you’re over in Italy, you said there are these storage tomatoes, but what’s the tomato that you see at the market? Do you know what I mean? What’s the-
Lane: Yeah. It’s very interesting, because you actually see these tomatoes, they have the folds at the top, the ribs, and they look ripe, they’re fully, consistently red. They are the ones that often are used for sauce. So that’s completely different than what we have in our head for that. So that’s like a sauce one.
Then the ones that they eat fresh… And I want to say also, it depends on where you are, everything changes. Five miles down the road, it’s totally different. But one thing that’s very interesting is then you see what we would consider plum or ‘Roma’ tomatoes that are ripe, but they do not look ripe to us because they still have the green shoulders and they’re not completely red. They are the ones that they cut up and use as fresh.
Margaret: Oh, O.K.
Lane: And they taste fantastic and it’s very confusing [laughter]. But you go to the market, and I was with someone once before and I said, “Oh, I’m going to get this, put it on a salad or something,” the one that was the folded like ‘Oxheart’-looking one. They’re like, “No, what are you talking about? You would never do that. That one you cook.” I’m like, “Oh, O.K.” So sometimes it’s confusing and it’s not what we think it’s like.
Margaret: Right. Right, what we have labeled as the Italian variety [laughter]. So you’re going to shout out some goodies. You were telling me in advance when we prepared for this conversation that there’s some interesting Italian varieties that you don’t typically find at the grocery stores in the United States, or even farmer’s markets in some cases. So do you want to pitch a few to us that people might want to scout the catalogs and we give them some sources as well?
Lane: Yes. And of course that is radicchio, as we talked about, and I do want to just say that we did write a radicchio zine, and that is a lot of information on growing tips because it can be very confusing on how to grow them, the different types, history, and recipes.
So other things that I feel like we don’t really see that often in grocery stores or even at farmer’s markets: One is Cima di Rapa [above], which is also called rapini or broccoli rabe, those are all the same thing. I think one thing that’s the most confusing is these things can be called a lot of different things, and then there’s different words in different places.
So Salerno Seeds, many years ago, because I was writing about Cima di Rapa on Instagram, contacted me and said, “We have…” They’re a company that imports seed from Italy, and they’re in New York, and they have different days to harvest. I think they have three different ones, maybe 40, 60 and 90 days for Cima di Rapa, that you can grow and they have garden packages. And I really love Cima di Rapa. Some people might be familiar with it that are listening right now.
But we have Brassica oleracea, which is kale, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, all of these brassicas that we know really well. But then in the turnip family, the turnip species is Brassica rapa. So it has that turnipy, mustardy, sharp flavor. So this is what the true broccoli rabe or rapini, is the Cima di Rapa. And it’s really easy to grow, just direct seed and grow it in your garden. Salerno Seeds sent me a lot, I tried out my garden, I absolutely loved it.
Margaret: And it’s so great to just… I mean, I even toss with a little oil and salt on it, and put it on a roasting pan in the oven, or just sauté it or whatever. But it’s just so delicious and-
Lane: Super-easy. Love it. I also love the… So in Italy also, salads are oftentimes arugula. There’s two different types of arugula, and the one that I think that I like the most, and the one you see there the most often is the wild arugula, which is called Sylvetta. It’s much stronger, more peppery.
I think that this is the most challenging thing, actually, and I was talking to people in Italy about this because we’re talking about fennel. A lot of times we have the toned-down version of all of these things in the United States [laughter] and it’s like, “No…” Because a lot of people don’t like fennel, they don’t like the anise flavor. I love it. It might not be for everyone. But if you’re going to eat fennel, you might as well have it really anise-y.
So I’m always looking for the seed sources that maintain that intense flavor. So the Cima di Rapa, I want the strong flavor of the turnip-y. With the arugula, I want the peppery. I just really love that. There’s one at High Mowing Seeds, there’s a couple of companies that have it, but I like that wild arugula. Again, a lot of times it’s called rocket or Sylvetta.
Margaret: Yeah. And that I noticed in the High Mowing listing that it’s more heat-tolerant and also more cold-tolerant than standard arugula; it’s also a good performer at different ends of the season. And it doesn’t get quite as big, so it grows slowly so you get a little more time. It doesn’t just shoot up and it’s done kind of thing. So it’s a good one, Sylvetta.
Lane: And one thing to be conscious of some of these that I’m mentioning might get a little weedy sometimes [laughter], so maybe have it in a contained area. Again, for me, sometimes I get busy and then I let it go to seed and you know how that goes.
Lane: So making sure that you’re harvesting it before it goes to seed.
Margaret: O.K. What’s next on the list to look for?
Lane: O.K., so there’s something called it… And it is chard, it’s Swiss chard, but they call it bietola in Italy. It’s different than chard in that it’s very flat. It’s flat, it’s not the savoy. We have a very savoy chard here. Also, the midrib is pretty large often and oftentimes different colors, which is very striking and beautiful. And I love the chard that we have here. But this bietola is a lot more mild. So I’m going the other way now, mild and sweet [laughter]. I saw it at a farm once, and then we ate it just cooked with cream and in a… Oh, I’m spacing on the word right now, but it’s early morning out here [laughter].
Margaret: But that’s O.K.. So sautéed in a little bit of cream, so it’s just wilted?
Lane: And bread crumbs on top and it was really delicious. Because chard can have a very sharp taste to it, so this was a more mild version of chard.
Margaret: So the oxalic acid then, it backs off?
Lane: Yes, I think so.
Margaret: It’s not forward-flavored oxalic acid like. And it’s solid green, I think, right? And it’s not-
Lane: Yeah, exactly.
Margaret: Like you say, the rib’s not as prominent, so it’s a little smaller.
Lane: Yeah. It’s a little bit of a boring… You’re going to be like, “Oh, this is boring” because we have such a striking chard here. But I didn’t even realize how much flavor the color in the chard really gives to the plant. And this was just a more mild version of it.
Margaret: Then I think does Adaptive… Who sells that? Does Adaptive Seeds [photo above from Adaptive Seeds]?
Lane: Oh, yeah. So Adaptive Seeds has that. Yes, they’re out here in Oregon and I saw that on their website, yes.
Margaret: Yeah, they’re organic as well, which is great and we’ll talk about a little bit more about that later. So what’s next on the list to be scouring the catalogs for?
Lane: I know. This was really exciting and it’s been in this catalog and I didn’t know what it was. It’s called sculpit. This is from Uprising Seeds. It’s a very beautiful looking herb. It produces beautiful flowers and little pods. I thought, “Oh, that’s cool.” I saw it in the catalog many times and didn’t think much of it. I never grew it.
Then I was in Italy just this past May, I was with a radicchio grower and we were standing out in a field and it just grows wild there. They call it carletti, there’s like a ton of different names for it. So we’re out in the field and he’s showing us this thing that grows along with other things.
Then we sat down for lunch and they made this risotto. And I have to say, this was the most amazing risotto I ever had. They always make everything very simple, so it was just risotto with this flavor. I said, “What all is going on in here?” And it was just green. They said, “Oh, it’s carletti.” And they’re like, “It’s what was just in the field. We use this oftentimes in a lot of dishes.” And it tastes like tarragon and radicchio and arugula all on one. It had so many different layers to this one little plant that was just a weed there.
Margaret: And it’s a Silene, it’s in the genus Silene. I think it’s Silene inflata. So people might recognize the little bladder-like… They have a little… I don’t know how to explain the shape of the flower [above].
Lane: It’s a little pod thing, and it’s closed.
Margaret: It’s a Silene, anyway, people can look it up. It’s sows around, a wild little thing. So what do you do? They don’t let it stretch up and bloom, they cut the-
Lane: Right, they use it when it’s young.
Margaret: …the young leaves at the base, I guess?
Lane: Yes. And then they just use it as an herb. And it just really was the prominent flavor of this risotto. So simple, but absolutely just delicious.
Margaret: Yeah. It’s like these little balloons, the flowers are like. And the bees love to go inside the little flowers. So it’s a good bee plant, too, so that’s fun. And if you let it go to flower, you can use the flowers in bouquets. So what’s to not love?
But again, sculpit is one of the common names, and Uprising Seeds has it. But who would’ve thunk, you know what I mean? It’s like you might recognize the flower from other Silene, but who knew that it was an edible? And there you go. Like you say, it has this distinctive flavor, so sounds great.
Lane: Yes. I was very excited about the flavor.
Margaret: So on to the next candidate.
Lane: So when I was online on the Uprising under the herbs, I noticed that they had a couple of other Italian things that I’ve grown and really enjoy.
One is borage. Probably most people are familiar with this. It can get weedy, so we have to be careful. We use the flowers, can be edible flowers. But the young leaves, before they get super fuzzy, are fantastic just eaten plain, cooked, or in a salad. There’s a farmer that lives here in Portland, Oregon. She’s an urban farmer and also a chef. I made this little video with her, she asked me to make. She’s like, “I want to focus on borage.” And I thought, “That’s cool” because she’s like, “I have so much of it in my garden.” We made gnudi and it was absolutely delicious. I, since then, started using borage more.
Margaret: I mean the flower, the blue color is just like, “Whoa.” I mean, you can just see that from a mile away.
Lane: So striking.
Margaret: It’s really vivid.
Lane: Yeah. And it really fancies is up a salad. You have friends over and then you go out and that’s oftentimes blooming. So you could put that in your salad or on top of a dessert. I’m really into making bundt cakes because I am terrible at making the cakes look good. So a bundt is pretty easy to make look nice. Then I just go out into the garden, and I just decorate it with flowers.
Margaret: Right. Good idea. And boy, the borage ones are just gorgeous.
Margaret: It’s an easy little plant. When you say they can spread around, these plants, what you said earlier about one of the others, and I forget which one it is, what we have to not do is let them all go to seed if we want to control them. They’re just trying to reproduce, so they’re going to sow around, and if you let them do that… And a lot of the herbs are like that.
Margaret: I remember the days gone by when I used to have a lot of, what was it called? It almost looks like basil, but it’s not. Purple-leaf shiso. The-
Lane: Oh, yes.
Margaret: I would have a trail of shiso on… Perilla, Perilla it’s called …
Lane: Oh, yes.
Margaret: … on the way to the compost heap. You could see where I had pulled out the plants and some of them had seed, and I’d walk to the heap back and forth, to take the dead plants away. And I planted it in the lawn on the way to the heap [laughter]. So we can deal with that by deadheading, right?
Lane: Exactly. And the bees, the pollinators love borage [above; Uprising Seeds photo].
Margaret: Yes. It is very attractive to beneficial insects. That’s absolutely true. So a fun little thing to grow. So next?
Lane: Well I put mentuccia on here, which is a mint.
Margaret: It’s a calamint, right? Like Calamintha-
Margaret: ... nepeta or something. Yeah, yeah.
Lane: Nepetella I think is the same thing as well, different name for it, and it has a mint and oregano, marjoram flavor. It’s really nice. I was reminded of it when I went to Italy because it grows everywhere, and you smell it when there’s a breeze. It’s really nice with mushrooms. It’s classically used with artichokes there. So it’s just really nice to have, I feel like in your garden, this mint.
Margaret: And this is a perennial.
Margaret: This Calamintha, I think it’s a hardy to Zone 5, a perennial, and it makes a good edger, too. If you had an herb garden or something, you could put this along the edge. Again, another bee and butterfly type of plant. So it’s going to look good if you used it right, again along the edges or something. It could be a design choice as well as an edible choice as well as a pollinator choice. So that’s great. And that it’s perennial means you’re not going to be having to replant it every year. And I think Uprising, do they have that as well?
Lane: They do. Uprising does, yes.
Margaret: Mentuccia, O.K. Mentuccia, Calamintha nepeta is its Latin name. Then I think you had one that wasn’t Italian at all [laughter]. How uncharacteristic of you!
Lane: Yes. And I thought of one other one that was Italian, I should say really quick is cardoon.
Margaret: Oh, yes. And Brian and I think have done it. I think we did an interview about that, Brian from Uprising. I think we did an interview about that. Cardoon’s an interesting plant. Yes.
Lane: It is. And depending on where you are, I mean, I love cardoon to eat, but it’s a labor of love so I’m usually not eating it that often. But the plants grow very, very well where I live. And so I just landscape with them and they get huge and they come back every year. They’re died back right now in my yard in the wintertime. But then they’ll come back and grow enormous and just make really lovely landscape plants. They bloom just like an artichoke would when it opens up, the purple. They attract so many beneficial insects. They’re just a really wonderful plant, I think.
Margaret: So one more plant, and then I want to ask you for some catalog recommendations.
Lane: Sure, yes. So Mexican tarragon is the other one. It’s not a true tarragon, it’s I think in the-
Margaret: It’s a marigold. Yeah, crazy.
Lane: Lovely, lovely flavor and beautiful little, teeny marigold type flowers. And I love the plant. I used to grow it when I lived in Florida and I was reminded of it when I was looking through these seed catalogs and I’m like, “I have to plant that this year.”
Margaret: So it’s a marigold, but it’s called Mexican tarragon. Tagetes lucida, I think is its species. Yeah. So that’s a great one [above, photo from Uprising Seeds].
Yeah, I wanted to ask you where you can shop for all of these. But a couple we mentioned, Uprising and Adaptive and High Mowing and Salerno. Do you have a couple of others that we should be paging through that we might not know?
Lane: Yes, there are so many. So I’ll just give some highlights. Wild Garden Seed, of course, your friend.
Margaret: Yes, yes.
Lane: Frank Morton, my friend, too. Wonderful for greens, for a lot of things. He’s been working a lot with flowers. Flowers are a big thing I feel like right now with seed companies.
There’s the Underground Seed Company, which is a new company here in Oregon that has some interesting things.
If you’re looking for tomatoes, Fred Hemple has Artisan Seeds down in California that are fantastic. Organic, open- pollinated tomatoes.
There’s a new company called Plant Good Seed down in California that has some really interesting things.
Then I was thinking about ones that specialize in different types of plants. And Grand Prismatic is out of Utah. James used to work for Frank at Wild Garden Seed. He really specializes in plants that you can use for natural dyes, which is really cool. He does indigo, he does that butterfly plant that makes everything blue with the flower when you harvest, it makes all the drinks blue, like your margaritas [laughter]. But he traveled down to Mexico and learned from some folks about what plants to grow for natural dyes.
Margaret: Great. Those are some great ones.
Lane: We have the Cucumber Shop, which I…
Margaret: Yes, yes.
Lane: The Cucumber Shop with a guy named Jay. Some really interesting cucumbers as well as immature melons that he sells interesting seed of.
Sistah Seeds is a Black- and women-owned company. It’s new. She [Amirah Mitchell, above from the Sistah website] used to work with True Love Seeds. Also, they have seeds with cultural significance and Sistah Seeds focuses on African and Afro-Caribbean heirlooms.
Margaret: Yeah. I mean, that’s what I want to do, is I want to click around new places and learn about new things and just expand my horizon. So thank you, that’s great. So Lane Selman of Oregon State and of the Culinary Breeding Network. It’s good to talk to you.
Lane: Thank you so much for having me and good luck with everyone and their gardens.
Margaret: Yes, thank you. Thank you. Onward.
prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 13th year in March 2022. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the January9, 2023 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).