Growing Out Eastern Native Staple Crops

Did you know that four or five thousand years ago agriculture arose independently in eastern North America? A whole suite of eastern native crops, including grains, beans, and oil seeds, began to be domesticated. Forms were selected whose seeds stayed tight to the head when harvested rather than shattering and dropping seed when touched. Seed size increased and other important changes took place. If Mexico had not been so close by, today hundreds of millions of people might today enjoy the seeds of chenopod (Chenopodium berlandieri), maygrass (Phalaris caroliniana), woolly beans (Strophostyles helvola), hog peanuts (Amphicarpa bracteata), and groundnut tubers (Apios americana). But around 1,000 years ago corn beans and winter squash made their way up from Mexico (though Cucurbita pepo, which brings us acorn squash and zucchini, was probably independently domesticated in the southern US before that time). These Mexican supercrops were quite a bit farther along in domestication, and largely displaced the suite of native crops known by archaeologists as the Eastern Agricultural Complex.

hog peanut

As I read about this forgotten crop group, I learned that we were already growing many of the species. Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus), sunchokes (H. tuberosus) , amaranth (Amaranthus spp.), hardy passion fruits (Passiflora incarnata), black nightshade (Solanum ptycanthum), ground cherries (Physalis species), hog peanuts, and wild perennial beans (Phaseolus polystachios) had already found a way into our garden because they are excellent native wild edibles. Jonathan and I were fascinated to learn that they had been cultivated thousands of years ago. But there are also a number of annual species that we had never heard of. We decided to grow them out that year in our greenhouse as part of our efforts to explore the potential of native food crops.

perennial ground cherry

For crops that were once a staple for many thousands of people, these species are awfully hard to come by these days. I found woolly bean seeds growing on a gravel pile behind a Department of Public Works in Alabama. Some seeds we had to order from the USDA Germplasm Collection. A few things we were unable to track down that year, though we keep trying. So we ended up substituting a few indigenous crops from other parts of the United States. For grains we tried little barley (Hordeum pusillum) and Sonoran panic grass (Panicum sonorum). The panic grass turned out to be about eight feet tall, and the tiny, dwarfed ten inch plants a little barley growing in their shadow don’t look very impressive. We also grew an amaranth ostensibly for seed, though in fact we really love to eat the leaves. We tried a native lambs quarters (Chenopodium berlandieri) which was once grown for the quinoa-like grain, and a Mexican form of the same species which is grown for the “broccoli” called huauzontle. The north side of the greenhouse is full of those woolly beans I found in Alabama. My friend Gus Heard-Hughes had sent me some more seeds, so Jonathan and I felt that we had enough to cook up about a dozen of them and try them out. We boiled them for an hour and found them the equal of any cultivated bean, though they are small in size like a mung or adzuki bean. Our goal was to grow some to eat but mostly seed to give away to our friends of this fascinating and neglected native edible crop.

sunchoke-hog peanut

The explosive success story of our greenhouse that year has to be bottle gourd (Lagenaria siceraria). Originally brought to this continent over 10,000 years ago, part of the suite of domesticated organisms that included early dogs and possibly crows, this crop has accompanied human beings for a long, long time. The gourds are used for musical instruments, birdhouses, beehives, water bottles, dippers, bowls and cups, and even floats for fishing nets and rafts. The young fruits are edible, the seeds are edible and a source of oil, and the shoot tips (the last 10 inches or so) are a surprisingly savory vegetable.

As soon as I learned bottle gourds were domesticated before the dawn of agriculture, and that they were part of the Eastern Agricultural Complex, I knew we had to grow them that year. We had grown them at the Nuestras Raices farm, were they covered fences very vigorously and made four foot-long zucchinis that made a wonderful bread. We planted a few out in front of the house and two or three in the back corner of the greenhouse. Within three or four weeks they had reached the ceiling and began to outgrow the trellis we had provided for them. By July they had climbed out to the greenhouse window and began to sprawl over the blueberries outside like a green tidal wave. If we had not pruned them they surely would have grown fifty or seventy feet in every direction. I would not grow them in such a small greenhouse again, but their incredibly enthusiastic vigor made me smile every time I walk into the greenhouse or wander behind it to pick an Asian pear and see them reaching once again across the path.

outdoor living room