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Indigenous Food Crops

As we reach the midpoint of the winter season, many people are eager to begin gardening again. This includes annual vegetable gardening, and while people may be familiar with the few perennial indigenous food crops to North America that are commonplace, such as Cranberries, Blueberries, Persimmons, or even Sunchokes, not everyone knows of the indigenous and land race vegetable crops that can also be grown at home. These plants have greater adaptability to the climate and growing conditions of our area, having evolved in the region for thousands of years, growing wild or while being cultivated by humans. As someone who gardens with permaculture principles in mind, it is imperative to include as many indigenous and landrace plants as possible to not only make it easier for the gardener, but also support the beneficial wildlife and ecosystem we are a part of.

This year, I've chosen a few choice crops based on their regional nativity to Long Island and history growing in the region. For the most part, North America does not have many indigenous annual food crops, although this is not for lack of trying on the native peoples of North America. The Eastern Agricultural Complex was one of the ten independent centers for plant domestication in the prehistoric world, dating to 5300 BCE. The reason we are not sitting down to eat Goosefoot seed porridge is largely due to most of the crops being abandoned partway through development due to the influx of superior food crops from Mesoamerica. As trade between the various Native American Nations brought new crops from the south, they were quickly adopted by their new cultivators. Here, these plants either adapted to their new climate to become what is known as a landrace variety or underwent domestication courtesy of humans. Beans, Corn, Squash & Pumpkins, Tomatoes, Peppers and more made the journey up north where they continue to be a modern staples - all over the world.

Long Island Cheese Pumpkin

(Curcubita moschata)

A squash with a complicated history. Believed to be the landrace squash grown by the Native Americans on and around Long Island and favored in the region for pie making. One pumpkin is usually enough for two pies and a pot of soup. May possibly be a recreation of various heirloom "cheese pumpkin" varieties. Resistant to Squash Vine Borer. Supports native Squash Bees and other pollinators.

Succotash Pole Bean

(Phaseolus vulgaris)

The bean historically cultivated by the Narragansett tribe of Rhode Island for thousands of years. Ideal for northern coastal climates. Used in the indigenous dish succotash-a, which is believed to have been served at the first Thanksgiving by some historians. Common Beans were domesticated both in Mesoamerica and the Andes of South America ~8-10,000 years ago. Supports Bumblebees, Carpenter Bees, and Hummingbirds.

New Hanover & Aunt Molly's Ground Cherry

(Physalis pruinosa syn. Physalis grisea)

Heirloom cultivated varieties of our native Gray Ground Cherry, New Hanover was developed in Pennsylvania while Aunt Molly's was developed in Poland - before returning to North America. Both offer extremely sweet, juicy small fruits inside a husk, reminiscent of their relatives the husk tomatoes and tomatillos. Supports Bumblebees and other pollinators, small mammals, as well as game and songbirds while also hosts native Sphinx Moth species

Wethersfield Red Onion

(Allium cepa)

This is the only Old World species on my list. While I already grow native perennial wild onions I thought the history of these was interesting. It is a old New England Heirloom from Wethersfield, Connecticut dating back to the 1600's. At the height of the Wethersfield Red Onion industry, this little New England town was exporting over 5 million pounds of red onions to the other colonies and the West Indies. If allowed to flower, will support pollinators such as Hover Flies.

Amish Butter Corn

(Zea mays)

An heirloom grown by the Pennsylvania Dutch since the 1800's. A buttery-tasting popcorn variety. All corn originates from wild Teosinte plants and were domesticated in Southern Mexico ~10,000 years ago. Being a wind pollinated grass, not much pollinator action occurs, but corn is readily consumed by a variety of wildlife from Chipmunks and Squirrels to Deer, Turkey, and Songbirds- but then you'd miss out on the popcorn!

Chiltepin Wild Pepper

(Capsicum anuum)

A rare wild Chile that is the ancestor of today's peppers both spicy and sweet. With a stronghold in the canyonlands of the American Southwest and Mexico, the Biota of North America Program's North American Plant Atlas considers this species native, yet adventative in New York State. Flowers profusely, supporting many pollinators and the fruit is enjoyed especially by game and songbirds who are immune to the spice of the capsaicin. A commonly available cultivated variety would be 'McMahon's Bird Pepper', named for the aforementioned palatability to songbirds.

Cherokee Purple Tomato

(Solanum lycopersicum)

This is an heirloom originating with the landrace tomatoes that the Cherokee Nation historically cultivated in the Southeast of the of the country. These tomatoes are large, plump, and delicious. They are personally one of my favorites. Supports pollinators like Bumblebees, is host to native Sphinx moth species which are considered agricultural pests although favored by songbirds so I have never had an issue.

"Matt's Wild Tomato"

(Lycopersicum esculentum var. cerasiforme)

This is a wild Tomato that requires absolutely zero care. It literally grows like a weed in my garden and we are able to freely harvest clusters of cherry tomatoes all summer. As mentioned above this species also hosts native Sphinx Moth species, whose larvae are readily consumed by songbirds. Bumblebees are supported by the many small yellow flowers that continue to grow on this indeterminate, vining type tomato. Blooms until frost providing added benefit to Bumblebees. Like other tomatoes, songbirds sometimes consume the fruits.

Annual Sunflower

(Helianthus anuus)

Although we have a few native perennial sunflowers to Long Island and New York at large, Annual Sunflower is originates in western United States, where it still grows wild today. Interestingly, genetics have shown that it was in eastern North

America that Native Americans domesticated the Annual Sunflower ~4000 years ago. Sunflowers host 40 species of caterpillar to help feed our songbirds, while being considered of high value to pollinators. The nutritious seeds are sought out by many forms of wildlife including small mammals and songbirds which is increased in the case of larger-seeded (and higher nutrient content) domestic varieties. Both heirloom and modern cultivated varieties are available as well as wild-type and Native American varieties such as 'Hopi Black Dye,' which is used as a natural dye to this day. Mine originated as Black-Oil Seed-seed type plants and have since feralized, leading to multiple small flowers, with increasingly small seeds.

This is only a small variety of the kinds of indigenous, landrace, and heirloom vegetable crops that can be grown in our region to supplement your other culinary crops and native plant gardens. These plants can be planted in an effort to provide additional habitat to pollinators while providing a homegrown food source. These plants have a rich history with the people who originally called this land home as well as the people who have since colonized it. Growing, saving seed, and preserving these varieties helps keep this history alive.

I recommend always sourcing your indigenous food crop seeds from a Native America- owned business or non-profit such as the Native Seed Search or companies that specialize specifically in preserving rare and heirloom seeds such as Baker's Creek.

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Jan 27, 2022

I am so happy to see that there are plants that I can grow to feed myself and the wildlife who share my yard. It makes me happy when I see that someone is enjoying life in my garden and we are supporting biodiversity.

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