Rosie Reilly ’07: Planting Rare Seeds for a Biodiverse Future

Chaotic. Organized. Rewarding. Humbling. That’s how Rosie Reilly describes life working as a sous chef at Mission Taqueria in Center City and as a volunteer at Roughwood Seed Collection, a nonprofit heirloom seed farm in Devon, PA. Although she often worked 65-70 hours a week at the restaurant cooking Mexican fare, Rosie’s passion for the economic and nutritional benefits of eating locally motivates her to find time to help care for the thousands of rare seeds at the Roughwood garden.

“Roughwood is a seed collection of over 4,000 varieties of heirloom kitchen plants that has been cultivated by William Woys Weaver. What William and his garden manager, Owen Taylor, are doing is growing these rare seeds to provide the larger community with species of plants and food that have been wiped out from GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and pressures of commercial farming,” said Rosie.

Rosie has been fascinated with how the rare seeds can shed light on some history of the world, and one example she discussed was corn.

“Corn is a product that has been cultivated for thousands of years, but we’ve genetically modified it ourselves through the growth cycle,” said Rosie. “Every year, farmers select the best corn cobs, weeding out bad traits of mold or fungus. What happens though is any sort of biodiversity is eliminated. Biodiversity is incredibly important to not only nutritionally sustain humans, but also give other plants and animals like bees and butterflies more to eat and pollinate. So at Roughwood, they are growing varieties of corn you can’t find anywhere else, like Oaxacan Green Dent corn, to showcase how beautiful and tasty food was from an earlier time on earth.”

By growing the seeds out, Roughwood hopes to preserve the seeds for culinary use and organize public workshops on the historical and nutritional value of heirlooms and the process of seed saving.

As a volunteer, Rosie helps with the intensive labor that is needed to maintain the collection. Beginning in early spring, the grounds are tilled and prepared before 50-200 seeds of each plant can be buried in the ground. With thousands of seeds requiring continuous weeding, watering, and labeling, the garden becomes an immense manual task.

“With so many varieties of plants, there are times when it feels like the amount of product is overwhelming and we’re not getting much done,” said Rosie. “There was one day where all I did was plant 23 different species of potatoes!”

In May, Rosie also helped organize a benefit dinner at Brick and Mortar to give Roughwood a platform to sell their seeds in the city and an opportunity to share the importance of the collection. “At the dinner we were able to showcase the beautiful food that’s grown at the garden so people could experience the flavors of the farm,” said Rosie.

Previously, Rosie has worked as the opening sous chef at Blue Bell Inn in Blue Bell, PA and as a line cook at Moshulu in Philadelphia. She graduated cum laude with a degree in culinary arts from The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College in 2012.

A bed of heirloom potato seeds from the Roughwood collection have been planted in the MFS Community Garden near Hartman Hall.  

“My eyes were first opened at MFS to recognizing our collective responsibility for our community and earth,” said Rosie. “We were shown how being eco-friendly is incredibly important. Now it seems so cyclical for me to know potatoes from Roughwood are growing at MFS. Roughwood and MFS have given me such an education and both promote keeping your curiosity up, while always being willing to learn and do more.”

To read more about volunteering or donating to the Roughwood Seed Collection, visit http://www.roughwoodseeds.org.