Rare Vegetable Seeds from U.S. Government


Editor’s note: This article has been updated with important and helpful information. See Free Seeds from the Government.

DURING LAST WEEK’S #SEEDCHAT discussion group on Twitter, one of the participants brought up Plant Gene Resource Canada. I know this sounds like a boring, scholarly topic for a post, but stay with me, it’s really pretty fun and interesting for backyard gardeners.

Plant Gene Resource Canada (PGRC) is a gene bank where Canadians can get rare and unusual seeds and plant cuttings for their gardens at no cost.

This was intriguing. The thought of getting seeds for hard to find vegetable and fruit plants from the government just for the asking is right in Suburban Hobby Farmer’s sweet spot.

Think of it as an adventure. It’s kind of a flash back from the past when there were many more varieties growing in people’s kitchen gardens, and you didn’t know exactly what was going to come from the seeds your neighbor had passed to you.

Germplasm Resources Information Network

I felt compelled to look into the U.S. version of PGRC, called the Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN), which is part of the USDA Agricultural Research Service. There are more than 500,000 accessions (distinct varieties of plants) in the GRIN database. These accessions represent more than 10,000 species of plants. How many vegetable and fruit plant seeds does GRIN have in its possession? I don’t know, but I bet it’s a lot.Kwand Hsi Hung Shih Tomato

But working with GRIN can be challenging. It’s difficult to find seeds if you don’t know exactly what you want. Someone searching by name for a specific plant would find it easy. However, plant descriptions are not very detailed and there are no photos. I resorted to finding plants with names that looked promising and then Googling to find other information sources.

The search page for seeds and cuttings is on this Agricultural Research Service page.

Seeds I Selected

I settled on seeds for three infrequently-grown tomatoes:

Kwand Hsi Hung Shih, a red tomato of Chinese origin that looked promising. See the picture of a mature Kwand Hsi Hung Shih plant embedded within this post.

Pomodoro Palla Di Fuoco, a red, Italian tomato that takes as much as 5-months to ripen and has a reputation for excellent flavor.

IXL Bolgiano’s Extremely Early Tomato, a red variety that was listed in seed catalogs around 1910.

Once I settled on these varieties, I clicked on the “Request this germplasm” link and it brought me to a checkout cart to review what I had selected. Then I clicked “complete” and filled out the form on the next page with my address information, etc.

Backyard Greenhouse Projects

The Sticking Point

The one sticking point is that the information form asked what kind of research I planned and could GRIN publish the results. I explained that I was going to grow the plants, save the seeds and publish the results in my blog. We’ll see if they think this research is worthy enough to send me the seeds.

I have no idea what kind of luck I’m going to have with these tomatoes, but it certainly is a great adventure with the added benefit of very little out of pocket cost. As best I can tell, the U.S. government even pays for the postage.

On the other hand, it may be a dead end if my request doesn’t live up to their standards. I’ll let you know how this turns out.

Related posts:

1. Free Seeds: How I got 19 Heirloom Varieties
2. My “Kick Start” Seed Trading Package from DG
3. Free 30-page Seed Saving Guide
4. Free Vegetable Seeds
5. Free Vegetable Seeds, Part II
6. Free Seeds from the Government

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49 Responses to “Rare Vegetable Seeds from U.S. Government”

  1. Steve
    February 18, 2011 at 1:52 pm #

    How long was it before you recieved you request? Did they notify you that you were approved and getting teh seeds or did they just show up. I am excited! I requested for blue berry cuttings also.

    • February 18, 2011 at 2:24 pm #

      Steve — I received an email soon after the request saying that they had received my request. About three weeks later the seeds came in the mail. I didn’t even have to pay postage. That was over New Year’s, so it’s possible you could get them sooner.

      When you get the package from the ARS, can you stop back here and let us know how it works out? I’d really like to know what kind of blueberry cuttings you ordered.

  2. February 23, 2011 at 9:32 am #

    This is very helpful information. I have done tomato trials to find out what varieties grow best in my county, but it would be interesting to look at heirloom vs. hybrid.

    • February 25, 2011 at 7:10 am #

      I’m trying to switch over to open pollinated varieties of tomatoes. I’ve seen a noticable improvement in my brandywines after saving seeds for a couple of years. I’ve read in a number of places that, after you select the best tomatoes, the variety improves and adapts to your location.

  3. Damo
    March 13, 2011 at 1:48 pm #

    Wow, I not only already recieved my seeds but some have already sprouted. My only prob is that I recieved an email telling me that my peppers would not be sent, and have yet to recieve tomatoes.

    • March 13, 2011 at 6:04 pm #

      How long did it take for you to get the seeds that you did get?

  4. March 16, 2011 at 10:03 am #

    Very interesting! I have never heard of this program but if it means free plants, I am on it :-) Thanks for sharing!
    Ellen

    • March 16, 2011 at 10:20 am #

      Hi Ellen — Yes you can get free, rare seeds and cuttings. Please stop back and let us know how it turns out for you.

  5. Kathy Ayers
    March 25, 2011 at 12:42 pm #

    Seeds came right away for some things, however got a letter from USDA saying these are not for home gardening uses and it is a one time distribution. You are supposed to be in a group doing research. So they are free but they are strings attached. Thought that was important for people to know.

    • March 25, 2011 at 1:06 pm #

      Hi Kathy — Thanks for the update. I think many people have asked for seeds, so the ARS is probably getting tired of fulfilling requests. I suspect that if people are planning to save the seeds from the heirloom plants and publish the results of their “experiment” as I have and will, it could be considered research. What do you think? I’m pretty sure that the ARS doesn’t want to be seen as replacing seed catalogs for heirloom seeds.

  6. susan oliver
    April 29, 2011 at 3:12 am #

    hi can anyone tell me where i can get free veg seeds its for my son he just started gardening and he going to sale the food 4 the pore kids over seas

    • April 29, 2011 at 6:51 am #

      Hi Susan — The USDA ARS is not really the right place to get seeds for charity. The goal of the ARS is to continue to make rare seeds available. As you can see from Kathy’s comment below, the purpose of giving these seeds to people is so that they can do research. I would ask some of the seed companies if they would be willing to provide seeds for charity.

  7. June 28, 2011 at 5:38 pm #

    Question…I got some of these seeds and they all say in big bold lettering “DO NOT USE FOR FOOD OR FEED PURPOSES.” Did yours have the same warning and you consume the fruits and veggies? Thanks!

    • June 28, 2011 at 6:14 pm #

      Hi Lisa — Mine did not have the same warning and I will consume the tomatoes that are growing in my garden now. My tomatoes look great. Please keep in mind that before I wrote this article on my blog, very few hobby farmers had requested seeds. These seeds were intended for research purposes, not as free seeds for kitchen gardeners. Now that I wrote the article litterally hundreds of gardeners have requested seeds. I think they are getting tired of sending out seed packages. Why don’t you contact them using the site and see why they put this warning on the package? My guess is that they don’t want home gardeners asking for any more seeds.

  8. February 18, 2012 at 5:20 pm #

    Thanks so much for this info! I have class and am always last to #seedchat, and did not catch this mention! Heirloom tomatoes, here I come!! :)

  9. John Smith
    March 24, 2012 at 2:16 pm #

    I think there is too much beating about the bush without any real info about getting free seeds!

    • March 24, 2012 at 3:08 pm #

      John — I’m sorry that you feel that way. I’ve been really please with what the government has sent me. It’s pretty amazing when you think about it. It’s quite an adventure to grow plants that very uncommon. Plus the government sends you the seeds at no cost … you don’t even pay postage.

  10. March 30, 2012 at 8:39 am #

    Just interested in getting some heirloom tomato seeds from the government. Can someone help me?

  11. May 21, 2012 at 4:15 pm #

    I hope they decide to grant your request. It probably would help if you had a name for your school and that you were going to publish the results of your “trial.” Even publishing it here on SHF might be a plus. A note here in the comment section would probably be enough.

    Please let us know how it turns out. I might be interested in requesting the same blueberry bush, too. My area is also rocky due to glacial deposits. My older high bush berries, especially the late ripening variety, seem to be doing well this year. There are lots of flowers.

  12. July 16, 2012 at 12:57 pm #

    How long does the shipping take?

    • July 16, 2012 at 1:11 pm #

      Jacob – It depends on how busy they are. The first time I ordered seeds I think it took about 3 weeks from the time I entered the request. The second time, I had given up hope that they were going to send seeds because it took about eight weeks. ONE CRITICAL POINT: BE SURE TO MAKE A CASE THAT YOU ARE USING THE SEEDS FOR RESEARCH, EVEN IF IT’S ONLY TO WRITE ABOUT IT IN A BLOG OR USE THEM FOR HOME SCHOOLING. Otherwise, they may refuse your request. As you might expect, GRIN doesn’t want to be seen as taking business from seed companies.

  13. Yazan Akkam
    July 28, 2012 at 2:31 pm #

    How many varieties can you get whats the limit. Also, how do the seeds come: in a packet? And also are they labeled so someone can know which variety is which?

    • July 28, 2012 at 2:51 pm #

      Yazan — There is no real limit. I know one person who started a seed bank and received many, many varieties. They come in a padded bag that contains individual envelopes that are labeled with the type of seed, seed count and country or origin. The ARS does a very nice job of sending them to you.

      • August 24, 2012 at 6:49 am #

        I was denied of any free seeds. They want more information on why I need these seeds. Man, They have so many donors and then they do this…..i guess i will look around town to see clearance items on seeds.

  14. Yazan Akkam
    August 7, 2012 at 1:01 pm #

    I was wondering how many times you can order from the usda I ordered seeds for a rare Turkish black radish and a rare species of tomato and the my order has arrived and I have already planted the radish, but I just remembered that I also needed seeds for beets and I did not order them last time, so I was wondering if it is okay to go ahead and order or if I do will they refuse my order my goal is for an experiment and research so I’m not sure what to do.

    • August 7, 2012 at 1:48 pm #

      Yazan — I think you should give it a try. I don’t know of anyone else who’s ordered twice during the same season, but I don’t think there’s a stated policy against it. Give it a try, and good luck with your radishes. It should be an interesting experiment.

  15. Bruce Perrygo
    January 1, 2013 at 3:16 pm #

    In the early fifties my father helped develop a tomato with the assistance of the Bolgiano Seed company of Washington and Baltimore. He saved the seed each year until he was pretty old. However, in his later years there was a group that raised the plants for sale at a D.C. garden center. He would get plants from them each year. Then one year he went back and was told they had dropped that variety. No one in my family has been able to find seeds since.

    They were called American International Cross. Most people referred to them as Internationals. They were an indeterminate, red tomato. By today’s standards they would be called small to medium in size. He staked them to six feet, but they would grow taller and bend over. They were noted for there very small seed pockets and a great, old fashioned tomato taste. I would love to find some seed.

    It was in the late 70’s or early 80’s that my father could no longer get plants. I don’t know if the seed were ever listed in a commercial catalog, as my father had always kept his own. I did see on a web site this quote, “Several heirloom tomato varieties grown today are descended from Bolgiano stock including: Greater Baltimore, John Baer, and IXL Extremely Early.” By description, they might have been in the parentage of the International.

    I am interested in all the old Bolgiano (sometimes called Maryland) line of tomatoes.

    • January 1, 2013 at 6:29 pm #

      Hi Bruce — As I mentioned in my email, I’ll send you my left over seeds from the batch that the USDA sent. But I suggest that you request some from the USDA using the information from this article on Free Seeds from the Government.

  16. January 10, 2013 at 1:44 am #

    Gregory Bratton.
    Executive Director.
    I Grow Chicago NFP
    415 E Northwater St #2503
    Chicago, Ill 60611
    (312) 315-5487
    gbratton@yahoo.com

    To whom it may concern:
    First and foremost, I would like to thank you for allowing me the opportunity to tell you a little about our wonderful community garden projects. The greater community is very grateful for previous help we have received from Heifer International to help maintain our gardens. As you might not know but the Buffalo Senior Inspirational Community garden and the Bush Garden of Hope, both located in a small neighborhood of Chicago known as the Bush, are just two of the gardens that I Grow Chicago works on. This neighborhood is bordered on three sides by a former steel mill site and on the fourth side by US Route 41. It is troubled by poverty, unemployment, and many of the attendant evils, but just maybe with every cloud there is a silver lining.
    The Bush Community Garden of Hope (BCGOH) was founded on city-owned land with the assistance of the Chicago Department of Environment. Local community organizations, such as the Bush Homeowners and Tenants Association, Healthy SouthEasat Chicago, Intergenerational Growing Projects and I Grow Chicago joined forces with community activists to turn five vacant city lots into community-managed vegetable gardens. We are very proud of our accomplishments and it showed when the Buffalo Seniors Inspirational Community Garden won First Place award in 2006, 07, 09, 10, 11, & 2012.

    The donation of seeds received from Heifer International was shared among those five gardens:
    the Buffalo Senior Inspirational Community Garden, 8250 S. Buffalo;
    The Bush Community Garden Of Hope, 8559 S. Buffalo;
    The Hot Wheels Senior Community Garden plots, 8900 S. Brandon;
    The Woodlawn Community Garden, 6201 S. St. Lawrence.
    Heal-thyself Community Garden, 8233/35 South Burley.
    The Hot Wheels Senior Community Garden plots were given to us by the Artists Garden, also at 8900 S. Brandon, which is a larger community garden located in an adjacent neighborhood to us. This year we not only provided plants, but also helped them expand their growing area and improve their soil. Each garden shared a variety of plant seeds, such as: Onions, Leeks, Red Cabbage, Eggplant (Dusky & Snowy White), Bell Peppers, Georgia Greens, Tomatoes (Beef master/ Better Boy/ Big Boy/ Cluster Grande), Marigold Plants (6 flats), Mini Bush Roses (6), Mums (6 flats), Lavender Plants (6 flats), Potatoes, Melons, Squash, Cucumbers, Lettuce, Sweet and Hot Peppers/Chiles, Chives, Basil, Thyme and Pumpkins, which will be needed all over again for next year 2013 planting.
    Over the past three years we have also planted trees on some of the parkways. The total number of trees planted includes 110 shade trees and 16 fruit trees. This year a portion of both gardens, (BSICG) and (BCGOH), was planted with dwarf fruit trees and have room for about six more.. Unlike some community gardens, we do not assign individual plots. Volunteers who work in the garden share the harvest, with surplus placed on a self-service picnic table or brought to the local senior center. In 2009 we sold some tomatoes and herbs to a local restaurant but it appears that the overall community feeling is that extra food should be available to neighbors who need it before we become a commercial venture. Decisions about what to plant are made at meetings held during the winter months.
    This year our main new additions were the fruit trees and Asian vegetables.
    Our community is mostly African-American and Latino, so we already grow many of the vegetables traditional to those cultures. This year people wanted to explore another culture through gardening, and the choice was to focus on Asian vegetables. We recruit volunteers in a variety of ways: flyers, word-of-mouth, and most importantly, person to person, community to community. Some people are motivated by the desire for fresh vegetables, others by an interest in working with neighbors or enjoying our potluck lunches.
    Organizations which have assisted us and/or continue to provide assistance include the Chicago Department of Environment, Green Corps, Green Net, Neighbor Space, Illinois Department of Public Health, South Chicago Art Center, Bush Homeowners and Tenants Association, Healthy South Chicago, Heifer International, South East Environmental Task Force, and local merchants and individuals have been generous financially. Ace Hardware has even donated seeds and a few tools every year. Even with the help we have received, we never seem to be adequately supplied with enough seeds. Our supplies are limited, and because of these factors we are asking for assistance in your donating some vegetable seeds so we can grow more effectively. Thank you.
    Gregory Bratton.
    Executive Director.
    I Grow Chicago NFP
    415 E Northwater St #2503
    Chicago, Ill 60611
    (312) 315-5487
    gbratton@yahoo.com

  17. April 13, 2013 at 3:40 pm #

    Just curious. When you requested the order I know you said you got a confirmations email of your requests. Did the actual distributor contact you to let you know that your request was going to be fulfilled? Or did they just send the seeds with no questions asked? I’m asking because I recently made a large request and some distributors contacted me while the bigger universities did not. Just want to know if I need to find other means of obtaining the plants I’m looking for. Thank you for your time!

    • April 13, 2013 at 6:55 pm #

      I didn’t have any distributors contact me. I received an email shortly after processing the order. I received the seeds directly from the USDA. There were no universities involved. They really sent the seeds with no questions asked. Hope that answers your questions.

      • Leah
        June 12, 2013 at 9:29 pm #

        Last year, I requested and recieved seeds and cuttings from GRIN as well.

        Most were medicinal based or herb plants, with a few vegetables, that have flourished.
        With the seeds, some of the GRIN senders sent a letter that stated (among other things) that while they don’t apply seed treatments, some of the seeds they receive and distribute may have been treated, and therefor, stated that I “should NOT use for food or feed purposes.”

        Obviously, there’s no way to know which ones were, and with what- but it also seems like a huge waste to not use some of what i grew. I wondered if you ate your tomatoes? Or if you know any reason or type of seed treatment that would make the seeds I got potentially dangerous? I realize this means there’s no way to determine if they’re organic or genetically modified, but I can’t think of any seed treatments that would make the stuff inedible or unusable. Do you have any thoughts on this? Do you think that the seeds are safe, but this is just the GRIN’s way of covering themselves from any liability or risks? What could they possibly have put on seeds that would make them inedible? It would be much appreciated.

        • June 19, 2013 at 12:19 pm #

          I think you are right. This is GRIN way of covering themselves. My opinion is the seeds are OK. I certainly haven’t seen any ill effects.

    • Beth
      August 10, 2013 at 5:12 pm #

      Tracy-
      GRIN is actually comprised of dozens of individual storehouses, per say, so if you requested a large variety of things, you will get the seeds from several places. Usually you get a single confirm email right after placing the request with GRIN, but then each requested item is routed to the proper storehouse, and those facilities may or may not confirm by email. Not getting an email confirm does not necessarily mean you won’t get the seeds; I’ve gotten several requests that didn’t email confirm.

      Something else to bear in mind is that some facilities will only ship the requested item during certain time periods, relative to planting. For example, I received several stem cuttings and rhizomes in the mint family, months after requesting them.

      When you do get the items, many facilities ask you to email confirm receipt; some include a form, while others ay they’ll send one out later, which they want to you to use to report your findings.

      Lastly: This year, there was a lot of notices stating that GRIN would not send out requests for personal use, community gardens or community projects, or educational experiments for younger students. At the time of request, you would have outlined your project/purpose, and occasionally, some facilities will determine them unqualififed, and send you a letter explaining so, and why they’re not sending the seeds. Meanwhile, other items requested from different storehouses may still be sent.

      There are quite a fe websites and forums that mention GRIN, and I imagine that may have caused an increase in requests that they are not able to meet- this may be why they’re getting more strict about who they send out to.

      Hope that helps :)

      • August 21, 2013 at 3:31 pm #

        Beth — Thanks a ton for sharing your experience with us.

  18. Bruce Perrygo
    August 9, 2013 at 4:39 pm #

    The IXL seeds I got from you turned into nice plants. Here in southern Md. we had a crazy spring. May 1st is considered safe frost free date. 90 degrees in middle of April. Scattered frosts in early May. Very rainy, then very dry, then wet all summer.

    I picked from the IXL by July 4th. That is considered very early, if nothing special was done to promote early ripening. They have been prolific and not too bad on blights.

    I did contacted the USDA in Jan. and received a reply in a few days that they got my request. I never heard any more from them.

    • August 9, 2013 at 11:07 pm #

      It’s good to hear that you got plants from the seeds. Blight is often a problem with heirlooms. Will you be saving seeds from the IXLs? It doesn’t seem like the USDA will be sending you seeds.

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