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History - Digging for history

Cultivate an interest in the past by growing 'heritage seeds'

Cultivate an interest in the past by growing 'heritage seeds'

The beans on my plate have a story to tell. They are called White Tears and are direct descendants of the beans the Cherokee people took with them when they were driven from their ancestral lands in Tennessee, US. In the winter of 1838, they were forced to march a thousand miles west to new settlements in Oklahoma. It was bitterly cold. The Cherokee had little clothing and many were barefoot. Some were given used blankets from a hospital where a smallpox epidemic had broken out. Of the 13,000 who set out, about 4,000 died. The Trail of Tears, as the march has become known, remains one of the most shameful episodes in American history.

Yet the descendants of the beans they carried are crossing continents as "heritage seeds", which would make a fascinating subject for a school gardening club.

If I were more of a scientist, I might be equally intrigued by the fact that the beans on my plate are white. The original beans were black, but 5-10 per cent of their yield is white: they are a genetic throwback, or a "sport", as they are technically called. Plants grown from the white beans have a significantly higher yield than the black and the beans are bigger. But there is another twist: a spontaneous production of black beans from the white beans in 5-10 per cent of cases. Teachers searching for examples of recessive and non-recessive genes need look no further.

School gardening clubs should not miss out on the stories of heritage seeds. A glance through charity Garden Organic's 2012 catalogue throws up beans from Somerset with medieval origins and a sweet pea linked with the expedition that discovered Tutankhamen's tomb. The veg patch has the potential to be a seedbed of historical inquiry.

Martin Spice was the principal of an international school in Borneo before becoming a freelance writer


Introduce and explore Native American beliefs in a discussion lesson by jbenstead1.

Learn about early relationships between Europeans and Native North Americans using a lesson plan from nationalarchives.

In the forums

Check out a handy conversation on textbook recommendations for Years 7 and 8 in the TES history forum.

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