Marysville pea's tall tale starts with King Tut
Dan Bates / The Herald
Lynn McKee's King Tut peas are growing nicely, but not yet bloomed in the garden of a friend in Marysville. TOP: McKee keeps the seeds, along with a note and and news article, tucked inside an old vase.
Dan Bates / The Herald
Lynn McKee keeps her King tut pea seeds, along with a handwritten note and and news article tucked inside an old vase.
Dan Bates / The Herald Lynn McKee keeps a note and an article with her King tut pea seeds in a zip lock bag, tucked inside an old vase. Photo Taken: 061112
Dan Bates / The Herald Lynn McKee keeps her King tut pea seeds, along with a handwritten note and and news article tucked inside an old vase. Photo Taken: 061112
As the story goes, King Tutankhamun's servants planted and harvested these peas, which then were secreted away in the pharoah's tomb along with gold and silver to provide for the boy king in his afterlife.
The King Tut peas have grown into a tall tale, debunked by experts, but kept alive as family tradition by Lynn McKee, 72, of Lake Stevens.
Like King Tut's legend, which had been forgotten in the centuries between the pharaoh's death and the discovery of his tomb, McKee's family forgot about the King Tut peas.
They were misplaced in the bottom of a clay pot and in the recess of memory until "Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs" opened at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle.
The exhibit's publicity stirred McKee to search again for her father's pea seeds.
She found them, and because McKee lacks a green thumb, a gardener friend in Marysville sowed the seeds. The friend was able to germinate several, now thriving, plants.
"She's babying them like they're gold," McKee said. The Marysville gardener declined to have her name reported, fearing people may invade her yard to abscond the special peas.
Although experts agree that the seeds likely originated in early 20th century English gardens, not in ancient Egypt, McKee and her friend hold onto a vine of the old story -- that McKee's father received seeds derived from some found in Tut's tomb.
"I told a couple of people," McKee said. "They said, 'Sure Lynn.'"
According to the legend, the seeds sat undisturbed for nearly 5,000 years until Howard Carter found King Tut's tomb on Nov. 4, 1922.
From there, the story says, Carter slipped some seeds out of Egypt back to England, where the plants germinated and propagated.
The seeds were shared, first with an acquaintance in Florida, and in 1950 with J.D. "Jarvin" Molstad in Calgary, Alberta, according to an article published in the Calgary Herald. Molstad was McKee's father.
"Seeds from an original pod of garden peas taken from the tomb of King Tut Ank Ahmen in Egypt after 4,970 years of neglect have been planted in the garden of J.G. Molstad ... and have yielded a stalk which is 6 feet, 8 1/2 inches tall to date and is still growing," the Aug. 22, 1950, article says.
The article explains how Carter found the seeds in a "hermetically sealed jar," and then delineates the chain of possession, from gardeners in England to Canada, from Carter to Molstad.
Born in 1899, Molstad raised his family in the Canadian plains before moving west to Vancouver, where he continued to grow his King Tut peas until his death about 40 years ago, McKee said.
"He planted these things and they grew," she said, but not for consumption.
"Don't touch them," she remembers her father saying.
The plants seemed to grow with an other-worldly vigor. Rising two inches or more a day, they outgrew Molstad's tall, 6-foot frame, McKee remembers. The purple flowers and peas never were sweet.
Bob Dawson, McKee's son, recalls visiting his grandfather and discussing and harvesting the King Tut peas.
"They weren't very pleasant tasting, they were pretty bitter," Dawson said.
His account differs from the Calgary Herald report which described the taste as "most appetizing. The taste seemed to be a combination of the ordinary garden pea and the black-eyed pea," the story says.
Seeds were a frequent find in ancient tombs. Carters' records, which are searchable online, indicate seeds were found in debris but not in a sealed container.
"Only seven pea seeds were found in Tutankhamun's tomb, as an admixture of other crops," said Rajveer Sihota, a spokesman for the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in England. The gardens hold Carter's botanical collections. "It is therefore highly unlikely that the peas in question come from this tomb," Sihota said.
Although many attempts have been made, experts haven't been successful growing ancient seeds, said Salima Ikram, a professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo.
"Various people have tried to plant and grow seeds from tombs, but with no luck," Ikram said. "They are too old to germinate."
Documents from Kew support this. Records show that despite many stories of germinated seeds taken from ancient Egyptian tombs, there are no scientific records supporting the claims.
"This aside, the conditions within Egyptian pyramids are very dry and would permit seed longevity in certain species to extend to thousands of years," one document said.
The Fortean Times, a website dedicated the world of strange phenomenon, says that many so-called "Mummy Seeds" were sold as souveniers in the 19th and early 20th century, at the height of the Egyptian craze that captivated the West, including England.
There also could be a simple explanation to how the peas were flavored with the story.
"It is sometimes said that Tutankhamen's Pea originated on the country estate of Lord Caernarvon, who financed Howard Carter's search for King Tut's resting place and was subsequently named in honor of Caernarvon's claim to fame, rather than the plant's origin," the web site said.
Even Terroritorial Seed Company in Oregon sells a Sweet Pea-King Tut. A spokesman wasn't certain of the seeds' true origins.
Despite all this, McKee and her friend are keeping a close eye on the quickly growing vines.
The old newspaper story has been laminated and McKee handwrote her memories on a piece of paper, now folded and kept inside the ceramic pot, the seeds sealed inside a Ziploc bag.
Even if the seeds aren't from King Tut's tomb, they are growing after sitting in a jar for 40 years, which still is magical.
"They're damned old," McKee said. "It's something I grew up with. It's just a thing we all were amused at."
And maybe the peas provide a glimpse at the diet of the ancients.
"They ate just like we do," McKee said. "You wonder what was on their menu."
Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3447; firstname.lastname@example.org.