Native American foods

By Claire Cope

Having worked as a trainee at the Botanic Garden for nearly two years I am now coming to the end of my time with the garden. I have learned more than I thought possible to learn in just two years, have gained my RHS qualifications, have had the opportunity to work with an amazing range of plants and have acquired a huge amount of practical horticultural experience. Best of all, I have had the opportunity to work alongside some very wonderful people who have shared their knowledge and passion with me and have made me feel very welcomed into this beautiful community. 

In terms of my horticultural work here at the garden, my favourite part of this last year has been my project to work on the Native American Vegetable display. This included everything from designing the planting lay out, propagating and maintaining the plants, through to harvesting the food and collecting the seeds. Therefore, for this article I want to share with you some of the fascinating information I’ve learnt about this amazing group of plants.

Firstly, I had no idea that so much of our food originated in South America and has

Squash originated in South America and was one
of the ‘three sisters’.

been being cultivated for so many years. Many plants that today we consider as staples such as tomatoes, potatoes, beans, corn, squash, and peppers were originally cultivated thousands of years ago by native civilisations such as the Inca, Maya and Aztec peoples.

In North and Central America, prior to the European invasions, it was the three crops – Sweetcorn, Beans and Squash that formed the foundation of sustainable subsistence agriculture.  These crops became known as ‘The Three Sisters’ and were grown as companion plants where the tall stems of the sweetcorn support the climbing beans, the beans fix nitrogen into the soil to feed the hungry squash which in turn provides a living mulch to suppress weeds and shade the ground for the corn. Unfortunately, due to the differences in climate and the need to protect the corn from the badgers, we weren’t able to replicate this exactly but I made these three plants the centre of the display in order to tell the story of the three sisters and to show how these ancient cultures had devised methods to work with the plants and with natural systems to increase productivity …. Unfortunately, the pesky squirrels feasted on all of our tasty corn kernels but we did get some lovely large squash and lots of purple beans!
The next thing that I found exciting to grow was the more unusual range of plants that were grown in cultivation so long ago but are only just coming into popularity now such as Quinoa. This plant is grown for its grain which is high in protein and was originally domesticated by the Andean people over 3000 years ago! The Incas held this crop as sacred and referred to it as chisoya mama meaning ‘mother of all grains’. We grew two different cultivars of Chenopodium quinoa – The first ’Quinoa’ was the more common form and the second ‘Huauzontle’ is the lesser known and is primarily grown for the immature seed-heads which can be eaten as a vegetable like broccoli. This form grew extremely tall and bushy and by October it was looking very beautiful with its pink- burgundy seed heads.   

There were also plants in this display that were more unusual and some I hadn’t heard

Cyclanthera pedata

of before which have the potential to be incorporated into western food production in the future. For instance – I really enjoyed growing the Cyclanthera pedata ‘Fat Baby’ and ‘Bolivian Giant’. These were vigorous climbers which produced very strange spikey green fruits which tasted just like a cucumber!

Then there were plants that I had always considered as ornamentals which I can now look at in a new light – such as the Dahlias with their edible tubers, Lupins with their edible beans and Nasturtium with edible leaves and flowers.

Some of the cultivars chosen for the display had really interesting stories – for example the beans we grew, Phaseolus vulgaris ’Cherokee trail of tears’, were originally from the native American Cherokee people who were driven out of their homelands by European settlers – a forced march know as ‘Trail of Tears’. This bean was one of their heirlooms which has been passed from generation to generation ever since.

We are now coming to the end of the season and soon the bed will be nearly empty again and ready for the next trainee to start all over again! What a great project to have been given, I have learnt so much and hope that those of you who saw it enjoyed the display!


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