Marysville pea’s tall tale starts with King Tut

A pea patch growing in Marysville has roots in ancient desert sands, thousands of miles away.

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 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; jholtz@heraldnet.com.

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