Seed Expert Travels the Planet
in Search of Rare Finds
Published: January 11, 2015 | By Christopher Hoffman
The Hartford Courant
You could call Joseph Simcox a Johnny Appleseed in reverse.
The self-proclaimed “botanical explorer” has spent much of his life, especially the last eight-plus years, circling the globe in search of seeds. His travels—he has spent as many as 350 days a year on the road—have taken him from the deserts of Namibia to the Andes of Peru, from the jungles of Borneo to the plains of Ohio, all in pursuit of edible plants and, most importantly, their seeds.
Simcox, a Wethersfield-based consultant for the local seed firm Comstock, Ferre & Co., estimated his seed collection at almost 15,000. He believes he has the largest private collection of tropical vegetable seeds in the world.
“Why did I take it to such an extreme?” he asked. “It was the thirst to discover the diversity of the planet. There’s an endless array of things to discover.”
Asked his favorite or most fruitful country to find seeds, Simcox, a wiry 6-foot-plus man with Albert Einstein hair, dismisses the question. “You can imagine that question comes up all the time,” he said. “My answer is every single of the them. The diversity of the planet, it’s just unfathomable.”
Simcox may be a fanatical seed collector, but he is no hoarder. The whole point of his relentless quest is to share what he has found, he said.
“My goal is to fascinate people with nature,” Simcox says. “It’s a voyeuristic thrill of living through another person’s discovery. I’m reliving my own discovery. It’s a symbiotic thrill.”
On a recent freezing weekday, Simcox could barely contain himself as he gave visitors a tour and a tasting of plants he is growing in Comstock, Ferre’s greenhouse. They included orange eggplants from Borneo, green egusi (a type of pumpkin) from Equatorial Africa, mini-tomatoes from Fiji and 20 varieties of South American peppers, some not much bigger than the head of a pin.
Simcox kept up a running dialogue on each plant, describing its origin, its scientific name, its flavor and how he found it. He picked a leaf off from the “toothache” plant, found in Madagascar and parts of South America, and beckoned his guests to try it. Within seconds, the mouth went numb with an overpowering, mint-like taste and began to salivate. In small doses, the plant, Simcox explained, is a natural MSG, and is a flavor enhancer common in Madagascar that he first tasted in a soup at a restaurant in France.
That desire to find alternatives to chemicals, pesticides and genetic engineering drives Simcox’s work. Like Comstock, Ferre owner and heirloom seed magnate Jere Gettle, Simcox is a harsh critic of genetically modified plants and foods, chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
The solution to feeding the world is not genetic engineering, but tapping the world’s huge diversity of plants, Simcox said.
“There’s a tunnel vision,” he said. “They want to take corn and make it resistant to drought. Do they already know that there are plants that produce grain in the desert, and they’re not being studied? It’s really the money trail that is allowing things to become more and more myopic.”
Simcox also is deeply disturbed by the patenting of genetically modified seeds by Monsanto and other large agribusinesses. That means farmers are legally prohibited from planting seed gained from a harvest, as they have done since the dawn of agriculture, he said.
“Why does a corporation own the source of food?” he asked. “When you own seeds, you own the world.”
Simcox’s criticism of corporate America, however, hasn’t stopped companies from seeking him out for his specialized knowledge. He makes a good living consulting with everyone from Fortune 500 firms to small companies, as well as farmers, seed banks and chefs.
But the seed impresario sets ethical lines. He believes in capitalism, but not at the sacrifice of communities that cultivate the plants big business wants. He cited an example of a large corporation that wanted to synthesize the active ingredient of a natural sweetener instead of growing it.
“I shut the door on cooperation,” Simcox said. “If we were to go forward, my stipulation would be, you have to source it naturally and propagate its cultivation or domestication so there’s some benefit to the people where it comes from.”
Late in the interview, Simcox called his brother, Patrick, who has spent the past six months in Peru collecting seeds. Earlier, Simcox had shown off his brother’s most recent shipment, gushing over the dizzying variety of unusual corn and bean seeds, including black and yellow lima beans and thumbnail-sized pink and purple corn kernels.
Patrick had exiting news: He was hot on the trial of the world’s first bright green carrot — which might exist or might just be an Incan legend.
“I’ve dreamed of it, but dreams can come true,” Patrick Simcox said.