Hold the seeds of Hokianga red corn in your hand and they gleam like burnished gems. They are considered to be treasure of the most precious kind by the Koanga Institute, a non-profit charitable trust that has been saving rare and unusual heritage vegetable and flower seeds, bulbs and fruit trees for almost 30 years.
It has been a lifelong quest of Kay Baxter, a permaculture garden guru, to save the best-tasting, nutrient-filled heritage plants for future generations to enjoy.
“Since 1900, the world has lost more than 90 per cent of the global genetic biodiversity in our food plants,” says Baxter. “These plants have disappeared largely as a result of the industrialisation of our food production.
“In particular, the Koanga Institute is saving the seeds that are New Zealand heritage seeds, those that were brought to Aotearoa by our ancestors and grown in gardens here.”
Kay and dedicated groups of volunteers have spent decades hunting for original seeds, bulbs and trees.
The search has taken them to remote farmland where lone fruit trees produced the last of their kind, and to meet relatives of old-time gardeners who want to protect the legacy and integrity of the seeds that their ancestors have guarded for hundreds of years.
It is a big job growing seed lines and trees that are sold to gardeners around New Zealand, and it’s becoming more expensive, too.
The Koanga Institute is based on a remote block of land near Wairoa, about a two-hour drive south-west of Gisborne, where these unique vegetables and trees can safely be grown without the worry of cross-contamination by modern varieties.