Cherokee Nation Seed Bank, Pat Gwin and Mark Dunham

Mark Dunham, Natural Resources Specialist, and Pat Gwin, Director of the Cherokee Nation Natural Resources Department, began a seed exchange five years ago, with the thought of preserving the seeds that Cherokees historically grew in their gardens.
Jewel Gourds
“You grew a garden to stay alive in the winter,” Gwin said. “Spring, summer and fall there was plenty to eat in the wild but crops had to sustain families throughout the cold months. The primary crops they needed were flour corn for cornmeal (not sweet corn), long-storing winter squash and beans to dry.”

Pat Gwin

The potatoes they grew for winter food were actually wild potatoes, Apios Americana or Ground Nuts. Ground nuts are a vine in the pea family, related to soybeans. The tiny tubers that grow along the roots are the ground nuts (they are not peanuts). The tubers are peeled and often boiled or roasted.
Collecting seeds to grow, in order to create the seed bank, was a matter of contacting fellow Cherokee gardeners around the country.
Carl Barnes in Turpin OK is known for his heritage corn and he contributed the original seed Gwin and Dunham grew. The ears of his Cherokee Long Ear Small Popcorn have shiny kernels of red, blue, orange, white and yellow.

Prairie Willow, Salix Humulus

Dunham said, “All four varieties of the flour and ceremonial corn we have grow 14-feet tall. You have to bend the stalk down to pick the one or two ears of corn on top.”

The Minneapolis American Indian Center sent Gwin and Dunham exactly nine native tobacco seeds that they then grew at the Cherokee Nation Center in Tahlequah. Now they have a supply large enough to share.

Cherokee plant rescuers Tony and Karra Harris of Atlanta, recently donated plants used by Cherokees for medicine, food, weapons and hunting. They are now in the Cherokee Nation garden that Gwin and Dunham are developing.

Each year since the seed exchange began, the Cherokee Nation Natural Resources Department has distributed over 7,000 packs of seeds to Cherokees and to educational institutions and programs.

Although the seeds are free to Cherokee gardeners and educational programs, everyone who receives seeds is asked to contribute seeds back to the seed bank if they have a successful crop.

Several plant varieties will be available upon request for the 2012 growing season but not beans and squash. Last year’s extreme weather prevented a good enough seed crop from being grown.

 “The heat and drought really cut our inventory and prevented us from replenishing our seed bank with certain varieties,” said Dunham. “Fortunately, some seeds were sent to us from other Cherokees, allowing us to still be able to have seeds to give away.”

Dunham said they have jewel gourd seeds this year, though.  Jewel Gourds mature at 2-3 inches in diameter and were probably worn ornamentally by Cherokees.  An advantage to growing jewel gourds is that the plants are relatively small compared to basket gourd plants.

Mark Dunham

“You see designs sometimes that show people wearing jewel gourds on old eastern woodlands pottery,” Dunham said.
For more information about the seed exchange, go to the Natural Resources Department webpage at, or email
Cherokees and educational institutions may request two seed varieties. Include your name, a copy of your Cherokee Nation citizenship card (blue card) or program name, mailing address, and if requesting tobacco seeds, proof that you are over 18.
Seeds available:
Corn (Cherokee White Eagle, Cherokee Colored/Yellow/White Flour)
Popcorn (Red, Bronze, Colored, Green)
Gourds (Basket, Dipper, Jewel, Jewelry and Buffalo)
Native Tobacco (Nicotiana rustica)
If you do not qualify to get seeds from the Cherokee nation, go to

A stand of native River Cane, Arundinaria gigantea, at the Cherokee Nation garden in Tahlequah


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