Sarah Ross: The Seed Restorer

The Georgian works to perpetuate the South’s heirloom crops

Illustration: Barry Falls

The twelve-hundred-acre Wormsloe estate in Savannah, with its maritime oak and longleaf pine forests, has been held by nine generations of the same family since it was first established in the 1730s, as a plantation and an outpost to fend off Spanish invaders. But thanks to the work of Sarah Ross, the president of the Wormsloe Foundation and executive director of the University of Georgia Center for Research and Education at Wormsloe, today the estate supports an astonishing range of interdisciplinary research programs in ecology, environmental engineering, geography, hydrogeology, forestry, landscape design, historic preservation, habitat restoration, archaeology, organic gardening, and heirloom seed saving.

Ross had already served as the director of education for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the national education coordinator for the National Marine Sanctuary Program when Craig Barrow—the fourteenth Wormsloe owner, who lives on-site with his wife, Diana—tapped her in 2007 to both preserve and innovate at Wormsloe. So Ross got to work, turning an estate built on the backs of enslaved Africans into a place that gives back to the community through projects as diverse as excavating artifacts, measuring butterfly heart rates, and reseeding longleaf pines. But Wormsloe’s restoration of the South’s heirloom cultivars lies closest to her heart. Under the aegis of the nonprofit Social Roots, Ross has grown almost five hundred heirloom varieties of Southern vegetables at Wormsloe, some strains of which—such as Sonoran wheat and upland rice—had not been planted for more than a century. She gives all the seeds away, sharing them with chefs across the region, among others. Next year Ross, who is sixty-three, plans to take the seeds into schools across Georgia to teach children how to garden. “Our cuisine carries the heritage and history of Europe, Africa, Central and South America, even Asia,” she explains. “Our recipes and gardens are a map of our past and our future.”


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