By Michael Caduto
Native communities of the early 1600’s, such as the Wampanoag and Massachusett, taught the newly-arrived Europeans how to plant seeds individually rather than sowing seeds by broadcasting them on the ground, as was the custom in Europe. Over many generations, by carefully selecting and planting seeds from preferred plants, Native Americans encouraged certain varieties of plants for their gardens.
Native gardeners also created hybrids by ensuring that pollen from the flowers of desirable plants fertilized the flowers of other chosen plants. Hybridization was sometimes done by transferring pollen from flower to flower or by planting certain varieties close together so they cross-pollinated naturally. Each new hybrid shared the desirable qualities of both parent plants.
Using these methods, many varieties of Native corn, for example, were developed that had colors of red, yellow, blue or purple; could grow in arid deserts of the southwest or in wet areas; thrived in the mountains or coastal plains and could bear a crop after growing from as short as sixty days to as long as three months or more. Corn was bred with a husk to shield against disease, insect pests and bad weather. Tohono O’odham corn was developed that grows close to the ground and conserves water by having a small amount of leaf and stalk. These practices have given rise to at least 150 varieties of corn.
Native gardeners have always stored the invaluable seeds of indigenous crops for the next growing season, and for future generations. Mayan peoples stored corn in underground grain stores called chultuns. The Pawnee and Hidatsa peoples stored their food and seed in grass-lined pits. Some eastern peoples, such as the Abenaki, often lined storage pits with bark. Many cultures of the dry southwest stored seeds in above-ground containers.
Plants bred and saved for local conditions are known as heirloom seeds, folk varieties, crop ecotypes and land races. Heirloom varieties preserve the genetic “memory” of all the generations of seeds that came before them.
Three out of every four of our modern foods are native to geographical North America, such as corn, tomatoes, beans, peppers, squash and peanuts. Tragically, our genetic heritage is rapidly disappearing as biological diversity among food plants has plummeted during the past century, largely due to habitat loss, over-picking of wild edible and medicinal plants, relying upon a limited number of varieties of garden plants, commercialization of the seed-producing industry and poor care of our soils. Since 1900 more than one half of all food plant species have disappeared. In the United States alone, some eighty percent of our original varieties of flowers, fruits and vegetables are gone. Despite the fact that some 75,000 plants in the world have edible parts, only twenty plant species now provide most of the calories that we obtain from our modern foods, including corn, rye, millet, wheat and rice.
By saving seeds from our own gardens, and by planting the seeds of native and heirloom varieties, we can help to perpetuate threatened and endangered varieties and preserve biological diversity for the future.
Photo credit: Photo by Macey Bundt on Unsplash
Portions of this article were adapted with permission from Native American Gardening: Stories, Projects and Recipes for Families, by Michael J. Caduto and Joseph Bruchac.
What You Can Do:
Harvest ripe seeds from each of the crops in your garden and preserve them for planting next springtime.
Enough seeds from each of the crops in your garden to plant a new crop next year; clean old sheets; enough small, clean, dry glass jars (the kind used for preserves) with rubber-sealed lids so that you have one for each kind of seed you want to save; sticky labels for the jar; pen.
- Gather seeds from each of your crops as they ripen. When a vegetable is ripe, the seeds are also ready to harvest and begin drying. Make sure you have enough seeds to plant a new crop next year.
- Clean the seeds of any remnants of dried flower parts, husks, stalks, capsules and so on that may still be clinging to them.
- Lay the seeds out on the old sheets in a clean, dry, well-ventilated place for a few weeks until the seeds are dry and hard.
- Place the seeds from each crop in a preserving jar of their own and screw the cap down securely until sealed.
- Label each jar as you fill it. Include on the label: the name and variety of the crop the seed is from, whose garden it was grown in, the date of storage and who is storing the seed.
- Store the seeds in a cool, dark, dry place until you need them next growing season.
Start researching native and heirloom seeds now to plant in your 2023 garden! Here are the websites of some great seeds sources:
- Solstice Seeds: http://www.solsticeseeds.org/
- J. L. Hudson, Seedsman http://www.jlhudsonseeds.net/
- Vermont Bean Seed Company: https://www.vermontbean.com/
- High Mowing Seeds: https://www.highmowingseeds.com/
- Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds: https://www.rareseeds.com/
- Johnny’s Selected Seeds: https://www.johnnyseeds.com/
- Fedco Seeds: https://www.fedcoseeds.com/seeds/