Tag Archives: history

Heirlooms of the Americas

In all the history that it’s jammed into a school education very little of it involves plants. You get the big names quickly glanced over as you go through the history of the United States. The Native Americans cultivated corn, beans, and squash and shared them with the Pilgrims. There may even be a mention of the “three sisters garden.” Tobacco and cotton will also be mentioned but on a whole the role of plants in history is largely understated.

Though it may be poorly recorded there is more to American history than conquests, battles, and political upheaval. There’s all the everyday folks and the plants that sustained them and they’re important too. Knowing where crops came from can better connect us with the land, history, and culture. These are some of the plants that evolved in the Americas along side its people and will continue to grow and evolve to face the changing world if we continue to protect them.

Sunflowers

The sunflower is one of the many crops that was first cultivated by Native Americans. Evidence suggests that it may have been grown in what’s now Arizona and New Mexico as early as 3000 BC. In our edible flowers post we discuss its versatility as a food crop.

Amaranth

Golden Amaranth

Like tomatoes, amaranth is in fact an ancient Aztec grain. It was so important it is estimated that it made up about 80% of the Aztec’s diet at the time the Spanish arrived.

Potatoes

If you’re anything like me it can be tough to imagine a world without French fries but like many American crops, potatoes didn’t make their way into the European diet until the 16th century even though it is estimated that they were cultivated for over 10,000 years. Potatoes are actually indigenous to the Andes and were being grown in what’s now southern Peru and northwestern Bolivia when the Spanish were first introduced to them. 

Butterfly Weed

It may not be an important food crop for humans but butterfly weed plays an important role for pollinators as the name suggests. It’s native to North America and adding some to your garden can help attract butterflies. 

Tomatillos

Today in the United States tomatillos are largely overlooked except for the occasional salsa verde. However historians believe that they were probably a major part of both the Mayan and Aztec diets for at least 1000 years prior to Spanish colonization.

Sweet Potatoes

Carolina Ruby Sweet Potato

Today sweet potatoes seem to be a bit underrated in the United States. They’re mostly reserved for thanksgiving meals and we can find just a couple varieties on the supermarket shelves. However sweet potatoes have a long history. We know that they were cultivated in South America and the Caribbean by 2500 BC and that members of the Columbus expedition were the first Europeans to taste sweet potatoes in 1492. Interestingly, scientists were able to radiocarbon-date sweet potatoes to the Cook Islands (part of Polynesia) as early as 1000 AD. The working theory is that the Polynesians who have a maritime culture probably traveled to South America and brought sweet potatoes back with them. 

Peppers

Peppers actually have a rather blurry history. Though we know that they were first encountered by Europeans during the Columbus expedition when they were domesticated and by whom is still unknown. On a broad scale peppers have long been cultivated in South America however it seems as though peppers were domesticated at different times by different groups.

Tomatoes

If you ask someone to guess where the tomato comes from they might guess Italy and because almost every dish you purchase in any Italian restaurant in the United States comes slathered in tomato sauce that really is a fair guess. However it’ completely incorrect. The tomato is actually native to South America and wasn’t brought to Europe until the 16th century! Though its history is relatively unknown it’s believed that it was being cultivated by the Aztecs in what’s now southern Mexico as early as 500 BC.

Bergamot

Also called monarda or bee balm, bergamot was grown and used medicinally by many Native American tribes. It’s also a favorite of hummingbirds and butterflies.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of American varieties. There’s the aforementioned squash, beans, and corn as well as a host of other crops like blueberries, papas, avocados, cacao, chia, and quinoa. These are just a few varieties whose history is often overlooked that can easily be incorporated into a family garden. Growing, eating, and saving seed from these plants can help keep history and culture alive.

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How to Choose Plant Varieties

It’s so easy to flip through the seed catalog each winter circling varieties you want to plant only to flip back through and realize there’s more circled than not.

Despite the fact that common advice for the new gardener is, “start small.” There’s not a whole lot of good advice about how to make the tough calls when it comes around to seed order time. Hopefully these ideas will make the decisions a little less difficult.

Location, location, location.

While some varieties do well almost anywhere others need a little special consideration. If you’re from Vermont you’ll probably have better luck with a watermelon like Blacktail Mountain (73 days) than Amish Moon and Stars (100 days). This is not to say it’s impossible just that it’s easier and having some successes will inspire you to keep growing.

Grow what brings you joy.

Amy’s Apricot Mix Cherry Tomato

Another classic tidbit of advice is “grow what you know your family will eat” but sometimes I think that’s a bit over-rated. Don’t feel obligated to grow a ton of paste tomatoes just because your family eats a lot of spaghetti sauce if you hate canning so much you won’t be invested in the plants. If you’ve only got space for a few varieties and seeing a rainbow of cherry tomatoes or slicers is what inspires you and your kids to get out in the garden opt for them instead!

Consider your how much room you have.

If you want to try a ton of varieties but only have a small garden just make sure you select space saving varities. Opt for a bush type squash like Table Queen instead of letting Burgess Buttercups sprawl all over your garden. If you have a fence you may want to grow pole beans up it instead of growing rows of bush beans.

Plan out your space.

On the same note if you have at least a general plan of what your garden will look like this year you can write down a general idea of what you need before opening the catalog to help you stay on track. For example you’ll know how much space you have dedicated to carrots and therefore a better idea about how many varieties you may want to try. You can find Southern Exposure’s garden planner here.

Ask local gardeners and farmers.

Other growers in your area will know about certain varieties that work well or don’t in your specific location. They’ll also have ideas about their personal favorite varieties that you might want to try.

Grow what’s hard to get.

If you’re short on space or time you may want to pick varieties that aren’t readily available in your area. For example if you know there’s a lot of organic spring greens and radishes available at your farmers market you may want to use an area of your garden for snap peas instead.

Fall in love with a story.

Belle Isle Cress

Not every variety comes with a really cool history but some do. If there’s a story that really stands out in your mind like how “Radiator Charlie” paid off his house after developing the Mortgage Lifter Tomato or how shipwrecked Portuguese sailors survived a Canadian winter on Belle Isle Cress pick that variety. Your excitement will help keep heirlooms alive everytime you share that story with someone visiting your garden.

Try to find a variety that connects you with your heritage and culture.

Not that far in the past everyone had a garden and cooked from scratch. If you can find out what your grandparents favorite varieties were or more generally what varieties you share some heritage with you can help re-awaken cultural food ways. You may even find yourself more inspired to maintain family gardens and recipes.

 

Above all else choose what you love. Don’t let worry about having a “good” garden control your choices. If you love spending time in your garden with the varieties you’ve chosen that’s really all that matters.

 

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The Importance of Heirloom Seeds

As we begin to plan and gear up for the 2018 season we’re reminded of the importance of keeping heirloom varieties alive. At Southern Exposure we define heirlooms as open pollinated varieties developed prior to 1940. While some believe that hybrids and GMOs are the answer to our current agricultural dilemmas we know that these old varieties hold incredible value and potential.

Diversity

As growers have shifted away from heirlooms we’ve seen drastic decline in crop diversity in the United States. Keeping heirlooms alive means increased diversity which in turn increases resilience. When you only grow one crop variety it only takes one problem to wipe out the entire crop. Planting multiple varieties helps to ensure your crops survival.

A diverse source of food is also better for our health. You may have heard that you should always try to eat a variety of vegetables but that’s also true for specific varieties. The purple, yellow, green, and multi colored heirloom tomatoes all have different nutrients than the couple of red varieties offered at the grocery store. The same is true for other crops as well.

Adaptability

As heirlooms have been handed down from generation to generation they’ve become adapted to specific places and climates. They’ve evolved natural defenses to certain diseases, pests, and weather patterns. These defenses mean organic farmers and gardeners can beat their local problems without resorting to chemicals.

They can also continue to adapt to different localities. If you save seed from your favorite corn variety year after year, always picking the best and most productive plants to save seed from you will adapt that variety more and more to your climate and challenges.

Flavor

Depending on who you talk to this may just be heirlooms best characteristic. Heirlooms are often the tastiest produce because seed varieties that didn’t taste great just weren’t saved. Heirlooms are those lovely varieties that were bred by small farmers around the world before they had to worry about choosing varieties that kept for weeks and weeks or shipped well.

History

Each heirloom variety is a little piece of living history. They tell the story of the people that grew them and the place that they farmed. Keeping these seeds alive maintains a connection to cultural roots, ancestral ways, and the earth.

Having a local food culture not only has an impact on the environment but on people’s health. If people once again had a tradition of growing and eating specific heirlooms they would be less likely to replace important customs with proccessed foods.

Independence

The last great thing about heirlooms is that they allow farmers and gardeners independence. Because heirlooms can be saved from year to year growers don’t have to rely on big companies to supply their gardens each year. They’re financially independent.

At SESE we believe these traits give heirlooms immense value. They’re important for growers that want independent, resilient farms and homesteads. They’re perfect for the chef who wants to create healthy dishes with unique, rich flavors. They’re the seeds that keep us connected.

Hybrids certainly have their charm but when you’re selecting seeds this year consider adding a few heirlooms to your garden. Whether it’s for their flavor, charm, or usefulness we know you’ll fall in love.

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