Although normally this blog is dedicated to our weekly farm activities, we’re going to veer slightly off topic this week. My life basically revolves around plants, both at my “real” job where I study the native plants of the longleaf pine ecosystem, and on the farm where I cultivate, harvest, and consume a wide variety of food crops. However, rarely do these plant-centric spheres intersect.
Until now! The last couple of weeks I’ve gotten to work with an ethnobotanist from Emory University. She and her crew are collecting plants known to have been used as food or medicine by Native Americans. The crew has collected, dried, and ground samples from more than 150 plant species so far. They’ll take these samples back to Emory to examine them for bioactive compounds that could serve as novel medicines. You can follow their work on their website, which includes links to their social media where they’ve been documenting their collecting expedition. Definitely worth checking out!
Most of the species of known food plants that the crew has been collecting make me wonder how hungry you’d have to be in order to harvest them. One plant, known by the common name “tread softly”, is covered in stinging hairs that make your skin itch and burn when you so much as brush up against it. However, it also has an edible potato-like tuber (though the two plants are unrelated) that grows about 4 feet underground. If you’re able to scout out enough plants, dig for an hour or so, and risk some skin irritation, only then can you put dinner on the table. Sounds exhausting (and perhaps why it never became a widely used food crop?)! On the other hand, our common morning-glory, also known as wild sweet potato, looks exactly like what you’d buy from the store (or Calamint Farms!), and, not surprisingly, is very closely related to the domesticated sweet potato, which is native to South America.
Wild sweet potato (and the occasional blackberry or blueberry I snack on while roaming the woods) aside, since we don’t have a lot of easily recognizable food crops in our native landscape, I did a quick search on the origins of domesticated food crops. The first hit was was the website of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture. This website summarizes a 2016 paper specifically examining food crop origins. It contains a wealth of information and contains a great infographic showing regional origins of 151 global food crops. Only 6 of the 151 (cranberries, blueberries, grapes, pumpkin, strawberries, and sunflowers) were originally found in the U.S. or Canada. It’s not an exhaustive list, as surely pecans and others should have made the cut from North America; nonetheless, it gives you an idea of the centers of diversity of our food crops, and the tropics definitely win out.
Tropical regions are home to our veggies that thrive all summer long: eggplant (native to Southeast Asia), peppers (the Caribbean, Mexico/Central America, and tropical South America), and okra (origins uncertain, possibly West Africa, Ethiopia, or South Asia). Tomatoes, which will begin to fade out the farther we get into summer, are from the Andes, so no wonder southwest Georgia is not an incredibly suitable environment for them!
Closer to home, the rain this weekend (about 3.5 inches) kept us from getting too much done outside. We made yet one more batch of pickles, this time with baby whole cucumbers, plus got some squash and tomatoes in the freezer. We’re looking forward to some additional relaxation time due to the mid-week holiday, and hope you also have an enjoyable and safe 4th of July!