Woodchuck Gardening.com


Now in the east
the white bean
and the great squash
are tied with the rainbow
Listen! the rain's drawing near!
The voice of the bluebird is heard

- Navaho Indian Chant,
Songs in the Garden of the House God

I would have ended My Garden Journal in December with the Food Gifts of the First Nation Peoples of the America's, however, I didn't have room in the main text. It certainly would have been a fitting way to complete the cycle of the year in the "Journal" as "Tis the Season to Give and Receive Gifts. We need to be grateful to the indigenous people not just on Thanksgiving and Christmas but throughout the year. Oh! well. It's here all the same.

Our ancient Meso-American ancestors had an extensive knowledge of the forests, fields and wetlands. And the plants they grew contributed more to the world's food supply than those of any other continent. The world's huge debt to their wisdom is being recognized after 500 years. Some sixty percent of the foods eaten in the world today were first harvested by the peoples of the Americas. They cultivated over three hundred food crops which translate into three-fifths of the world's crops now in cultivation.

Some of the plants spread through the world by way of Europe, but most of the tropical plants crossed directly to Africa and Asia.

The African slave trade sent hundreds of ships laden with slaves across the Atlantic and returned with seeds, food and plants from the New World. Many of these took root in similar soil and climatic conditions of Africa. Native communities such as the Wampanoag and Massachusetts, shared their agricultural gifts with the newly arrived Europeans. The same was true with the Abenaki in Vermont.

The Gifts included many varieties of corn, beans, squash and pumpkins, tomatoes, white and sweet potatoes, cassava (manioc), red, green and chili peppers, summer and winter squash, garlic, wild rice, peanuts, tubers and root crops, sunflower seeds, Jerusalem artichokes, grains, citrus, chocolate, coffee, vanilla and spices like allspice and berries including blueberries, cranberries and strawberries. They all revolutionized the cuisines of Europe and Asia.

Let's not forget nuts including pecans, butternuts, chestnuts, hazelnut, beechnuts, black walnuts and hickory. Among other tree crops used for both food and shade were: avocado, cacao, papaya, guava, calabash, hogplum and sapodilla. Some other plants you don't hear much about are prickly pear, sassafras, goosefoot, amaranth, wintergreen and mints. Or how about cotton for clothing.

The America's - Paleo Indians are known to have been in the America's as early as 20,000 B.C. About the year, 1000, corn was introduced into Vermont. There were between 50 to 100 million people in the America's before Columbus, one million along the East Coast. The land was plentiful with fruits and nuts, bison roamed far and wide, fish and clams were in abundance as were turkeys, elk, moose and venison.

The Three Sister's Garden - The Native Americans, always spoke of corn as "Our Mother," "Our Life," "She Who Sustains Us." They lived and died by corn. They measured their lives by it, used it to build shelters and fences, ate it as their most substantial food, revered it and offered it to the gods. Corn shaped the indigenous cultures of the Americas and had a profound influence on the settlers and the world.

Maize was grown by Native peoples seven thousand years ago. It was adapted from a wild grass called Teosinte. The grass still grows wild in southern Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala. The Maya were one of the first people to breed corn, which made up eighty percent of their diet. They often prepared the corn as a kind of flatbread called tortillas.

The two other sister crops were beans and squash, which are grown throughout the America's. Together with corn, there is a tradition of calling these crops the "three sisters." They originated with the Haudenosaunee, the "People of the Longhouse," also known as the Iroquois. Chief Louis Farmer, an Onondaga once said. "As long as the Three Sisters are with us we know we will never starve. The creator sends them to us each year. We thank Him for the gifts."

Corn, Beans and Squash are a form of companion planting. Beans are a legume - a member of the pea family. They have certain bacteria that live in nodules on their roots. These bacteria absorb nitrogen from the air and change it into nitrates that plants use in order to grow. In this way, beans fertilize the soil for corn and squash. Three Sister gardening creates a fertile soil in which plants grow strong and resist damage from diseases and insects as well as attracting beneficial insects that prey on insects that would harm the plants.

In the Native American "Bean Woman" story, beans get the support they need by winding around the corn-stalks. The squash plants serve as a ground cover between the corn and beans. The squash leaves lessen erosion, prevent weeds from growing and increase the amount of rain that soaks into the earth. The vines and leaves also act as a barrier to woodchucks and raccoons.

Ceremonies and Songs - Plants and animals provide food, shelter and clothing but we must also give back not only with water and nutrients but with thanks in words and song. The Iroquois saw The Three Sisters as lovely maidens, who grew well and prospered together. There are numerous ceremonies and songs related to the planting and harvesting of The Three Sisters. In the Seneca Green Corn Ceremony, which takes place in August, the leader of the ceremony says, "We give thanks to you who sustains us." It's believed that the ceremonies and songs make the plants feel happy, and, in turn the plants grew better.

The Signature of the Plants - Where do the ceremonies and songs come from? The Iroquois say that they were taught to the people by the plants from a dream or vision or someone was walking in a corn field and heard a song when no one else was around. Native herbalists who use the roots, barks, leaves and fruit for healing say that the plants teach them about their powers. It is said that one cannot gather plants unless you have good thoughts. If not, the plants will hide from you. When a shaman/medicine woman came to a village to treat those who were ill, she would look to see what healing plants were growing close by such as two aromatic plants, sweetgrass and sage - used promote good health through their healing scent.

In a similar vein, there are herbs and plants today which help to sustain our health. The Biodynamic Herbal/Animal Preparations have a healing effect on the soil and thus provide us with more wholesome food. Biodynamics is one of The Top Twenty Garden Questions and Answers in The Woodchuck Returns to Gardening website. You can also learn more about Biodynamics in The Woodchuck's Guide to Gardening on Companion Planting and Planting By the Stars.

The Sacred Teachings - When food was foraged and harvested, there were ceremonies of gratitude to receive the gifts of the Good Spirit. There was the Strawberry Festival and the Green Corn Festival, in which a search was made for the "Corn Mother" and the perfectly formed ears of corn. Seeds were saved for there strength and used in next year's bounty and for generations to come. Hunting rituals payed homage to the spirit.

As you can see, native cultures had a close relationship with the creator and planting by the stars and the moon. They lived with the sacred teachings and had a direct instinctive-intuitive relationship with the mineral, plant and animal kingdoms. This included clairvoyant visions. They understood the relation that existed between humanity and nature. They sat between the inner and outer world, between spirit and matter, between the masculine and the feminine.

Out of Balance - Today, we have lost our connectedness and balance in the natural world. Our urge is to dominate nature. Our world is more one of extraction and breaking things into parts rather than seeing the whole and oneness. Profit in the short term is our motive. We reduce nature and then try to put it all back together again. It's called reductionism and it doesn't work.

Just look at what modern gardening and farming have done to the soil, plants, animals and our health. We've lost more than half of the richest top-soil in the Mid-west. Our rivers and lakes are filled with manure runoff, chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Eighty percent of antibiotics produced are given to animals which are housed in tight jail-like pens. We feed them genetically modified corn and soybeans grown with chemical fertilizers and pesticides. They are injected with antibiotics and growth hormones that have been linked to cancer in humans and I could go on and one. What it comes down to is that the values inherent in giving back to the land have been lost. Modern methods of growing food go against the Native American Way of "Living In Harmony with Nature."

Caring for the Earth - It is sad that many of the Mayan stories have been lost such as the ones in Chiapas in the province of Mexico. Along with this came the loss of caring for the earth.

Seventy five years ago, the province was green and moist with the jungle teeming with thousands of varieties of birds, animals, insects and plants. Maya tradition does not allow the trees to be cut down indiscriminately. Today, there are many dusty roads and few trees in areas where the jungle has been clear cut for lumber and pasture for animals. In areas in Chiapas where the Maya protect the land, there is green and the forests are full of trees along with wind sounds and birds and the rain is heard again.

Seed Saving - Over the course of many generations, by carefully selecting and planting seeds from preferred plants, Native Americans chose certain varieties of plants for their gardens. 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. The Cherokee people still plant varieties of corn that are found only in the eastern North America. Maize seeds planted in eastern woodlands are planted one to three inches deep versus Hopi and Navajo farmers of the dry Southwest planted corn seeds some much deeper at 8 inches. This dryland corn must be able to grow up through inches of topsoil.

It's critical to preserve a diversity of seeds - of wild and garden varieties in order to make sure that future generations of plants can survive - in terms of pest resistance, adaptation to various soils, heat, cold and drought tolerance and nutritional value.

Some of the Native local beans still around in Vermont are Red Cranberry, Jacob's Cattle, Gray pole bean and Soldier bean. Bear Claw is a popcorn as is Tom Thumb. Corn varieties include Roy's Calais flint corn for corn meal. Summer squashes include Yellow squash and scallop; winter squashes include butternut, buttercup acorn and hubbard; pumpkins include New England pie and Connecticut Field.

* Native seeds can be purchased through Seed Saver's Exchange in Decorah, Iowa; Native Seeds/SEARCH in Tucson, Arizona; Seeds of Change in Santa Fee, New Mexico. Organic seeds can be purchased from High Mowing Seeds in Vermont, Fedco and Johnny's Selected Seeds in Maine. Biodynamic seeds can be purchased from Turtle Tree Seeds in Copake, New York.

The indigenous populations also created hybrids by making sure that pollen taken from the flowers of one desirable plant fertilized the flowers of another chosen plant. The new hybrids shared the desirable characteristics of both parent plants. In these ways, many varieties of Native corn were developed for size, sweetness, arid conditions and short growing seasons. For example, the Tohono O'odham people developed a corn that grows close to the ground and conserves water by having a small amount of leaf and stalk.

Corn Notes: Tasseling, Staking and Fertilizing

Native Gardening and Farming Methods

Traditional cultures farmed and gardened for thousands of years. First, an area that has rich well drained soils like along rivers was used to plant crops. As well, some of the forests were cleared by slashing and burning the trees and undergrowth. Small trees and root crops were planted to hold the soil in place and keep nutrients from being lost.

Techniques were used such crop rotations, weeding, layering, hilling (raised beds), companion planting, mulching, and fertilizing to raise crops. After three to seven years of gardening - depending on the soil, old plots were left fallow (unplanted) for anywhere from five to ten years, depending again on the climate, the kind of soil and how quickly it could replenish itself. I heard a story of how - when an old woman who died on the land, it was left fallow for a number of years in remembrance to her. Tools were made from wood, stone and bones including wood digging implements made from an antler rake.

Many tribes of the Huron and Iroquois moved their gardens and fields to allow the land to lie fallow and rejuvenate. In some cases, they also moved their villages. Closer to my home the Abenaki fields along the Connecticut River followed this principle of fallowing.

Most of the food produced in the Eastern Woodlands and along the rivers were grown in small and large communal gardens in the fertile river valleys. It was a tradition among many Native North American gardeners to plant more of each crop that was needed so there would be enough to share with the wild creatures. Corn, beans and nuts were buried, meats were smoked and dried, fruits were dried and maple syrup was stored in earthen containers and it goes on and on.

Beyond Corn, Beans & Squash

The Abenaki and other tribes of the Northeast foraged in the forest and fields and grew plants for food, medicinal, and spiritual purposes. They managed the forests of nut trees by using controlled burning of the undergrowth and they harvested many kinds of nuts including chestnuts. One out of four trees in the Appalachian chain were chestnuts until a pathogenic fungus caused by a blight in early 1900's decimating the trees by 1940. Other foraged nuts included butternuts, hazelnuts, walnuts, hickory and beechnuts. Nut meats were nutritious foods. They were also used for sap, oil and dyes. A variety of Ground nut saved the Pilgrims from starvation.

Pemmican - The favorite energy bar of the day was Pemmican, a concentrated mixture of fat and protein used as a nutritious food. It was the "beef jerky" of the day. Pemmican comes from Cree word pimihkan, which is itself derived from the word pimi or fat/grease. It was invented by the Native peoples and adopted as a high-energy food by Europeans involved in the fur trade and later by Arctic and Antarctic explorers. The ingredients used what was available; the meat was often bison, moose, elk, or deer. The meat was mixed with the fat from the animals. Fruits such as cranberries, blueberries, currants, chokeberries were sometimes added.

Jerusalem Artichokes, a member of the Sunflower family, is native to Vermont. It has stalks ten feet tall and by the end of the summer produces dainty sunflowers. I grow them in my community garden plot in the Intervale in Burlington. They're best known for what's under the ground. The knobby, tasty tubers are harvested in fall and mashed, baked or fried. They're low in carbs and therefore a good substitute for starchy vegetables for diabetics. The tubers contain inulin, a starch with fewer glucose units in them. Other vegetables with inulin are yams, onions and garlic. They help to reduce glucose and cholesterol.

Blueberries, elderberries, currants, raspberries, chokeberries, black berries, black cherries, fire snow berries and grapes were harvested for eating during the season and dried for the long winter months.

Many greens were harvested such as purslane, lambsquarters and pigweed - a type of Amaranth. The leaves were eaten and the seeds ground up for flour. Amaranth has become one of the most important cereal grains in the diets of highland peoples in India, China, Pakistan, Tibet, and Nepal.

Wild Rice - Unlike regular rice, which grows in semitropical areas, wild rice thrives in the coldest parts of the northern tiers. It grows after passing the winter in lakes that freeze for four or more months each year. This unusual crop has become popular as a luxury food, and cooks often mix it with white rice to accompany gourmet dishes. The full potential of the plant is yet to be explored.

Just as the potato was eaten only by the rich for the first two hundred years after its introduction to Europe and only later became a staple for common people, perhaps one day wild rice may find its role in the feeding of large populations in cold swampy areas such as the Siberian tundra.

In the marshy ponds that dot the terrain of Minnesota and Wisconsin, the native peoples for centuries gathered a water-grown grain which the whites later called, "wild rice", even though it is not an Old World rice. Despite the emphasis on "wild", the plant grew under human care, for during the harvesting the Ojibwa farmers dispensed the seed for the next year's crop. The Ojibwas also introduced wild rice into pods where it had not grown before. In this way they spread the plant into new areas, but they also controlled the type of plant grown in ponds by selecting for particular characteristics preferred by various groups of Ojibwas. Thus lakes and ponds became associated with particular types of wild rice. Recently, a group of seed scientists from Minnesota came to Vermont to select hardy varieties of the wild rice that grows in the northern wetlands of Lake Champlain along with pickerel.

My favorite spring roots grow in the wet areas along the Winooski River in my neck of the world. Two of my favorites are wild garlic or what some call ramps - and cattails. The word Winooski means onion. Native Americans harvested a small barley plant called Little barley for its edible seed. They used bedstraw for cushions. Black mustard, sassafras and mushrooms were prized for food and medicine. Tobacco and Sweetgrass were used in religious ceremonies And of course the sap from the maple sugar tree was tapped for the sweetest syrup in the world.

Book Sources:

Indian Givers
by Jack Weatherford

Indian New England Before the Mayflower
by Howard Russell

New England: Indian Summer, 1865-1915
by Van Wyck Brooks

Indian New England 1524-1674: A Compendium of Eyewitness Accounts of Native American Life
by Ronald Dale Karr

Keepers of the Earth, Keepers of the Animals, Keepers of the Nights, Keepers of Life and Native Plant Stories
by Michael J. Caduto and Joseph Bruchac

1491 - New Revelation's of the America's Before Columbus
by Charles Mann

Additional Information on Maize (Corn)

Maize has been spreading its kernels around the world for thousands of years. The first nation peoples of the Americas began the process of planting corn by selecting each kernel of corn and placing them one by one into the ground rather than grabbing a handful of seeds and spreading them upon the earth. Whereas the Old World grains came from only a few varieties, this process of selecting seeds allowed the indigenous groups to develop hundreds of varieties of dent corn, sweet corn, popcorn, flint corn, and others. They ranged in color from yellow and red to blue and purple. Some ripened in as little as sixty days and others took several months.

Corn is more versatile than other grains. It grows easily in soils that receive too much or too little moisture for wheat and rice. Rice grows best in semi-tropical zones and wheat flourishes primarily in temperate zones, but maize thrives in both. The indigenous nations cultivated rapid-growing varieties in areas as cold as Canada and the highlands of Chile, while other types of corn flourished in the wet areas of the Amazon. Inca farmers cultivated it on the terraced sides of the Andean mountains, and Hopi farmers irrigated it and made it grow in the hottest and driest deserts of the United States.

Dr. Will K. Kellogg of Battle Creek, Michigan, discovered that he could take corn, flatten it into a flake and toast it. This one innovation of flaking the corn rather than grinding it created the first corn flakes and the start of the American breakfast-cereal industry. The corn flake, hominy grits, the tortilla, and the tamale all share a close historical and nutritional position in our society whether one looks at the Americas today or the Americas of a millennium ago.

In our own backyard in Vermont, as late as the 1930's, the history of flint corn and Vermont agriculture are intimately connected. Flint corn was stored in slatted wooden corn cribs and then as needed, taken down to the water-powered mills in the towns and ground up into feed for the animals. Garland and Calais flint were two of the favorite Vermont varieties. Most people today can't remember when there were husking bees and farm families would go from farm to farm, removing the husks from the flint corn. That's how potluck suppers became part of life in the Green Mountains.

Most of the traditional Old World grains had very small seeds like barley and wheat that the farmer broadcast by the handful. The indigenous populations used a different method when planting corn. They selected each kernel of corn and placed them one by one into the ground rather than grabbing a handful of seeds and spreading them upon the earth. This process of selecting the seeds allowed the native Americans to develop the hundreds of varieties of each plant they cultivated.

Whereas the Old World grains came from only a few varieties, the indigenous groups developed hundreds of varieties of dent corn, sweet corn, popcorn, flint corn, and others. They ranged in color from yellow and red to blue and purple. Some ripened in as little as sixty days and others took several months.

Versatility - Corn is more versatile than other grains. It grows easily in soils that receive too much or too little moisture for wheat and rice. While rice grows best in semi-tropical zones and wheat flourishes primarily in temperate zones, maize corn thrives in both. The Native Americans cultivated rapid-growing varieties in areas as cold as Canada and the highlands of Chile, while other types of corn flourished in the wet areas of the Amazon. Inca farmers cultivated it on the terraced sides of the Andean mountains, and Hopi farmers irrigated it and made it grow in the hottest and driest deserts of the United States.

Genetics - The Native Americans were the first plant geneticists. To make the corn grow the farmers had to fertilize each plant by putting corn pollen on its silk. They knew that by taking the pollen from one variety of corn and fertilizing the silk of another variety, they created corn with the combined characteristics of the parent stalks. The farmers developed the many corn varieties through generation after generation of trial and error. For example, they bred corn to have a husk which prevented it from being infested with insects. What this meant was that reproduction needed the assistance of a human being. Present day science understands the genetic reasons behind this process called hybridization.

Technology - In Central America and Mexico the simple tortilla resulted from a delicate and sophisticated process. The woman would soak the corn in water to which they would add lime or ashes to produce nixtamal. Later on they would put the nixmatal on a stone metate and grind it with another stone to yield masa from which they made tortillas.

Twentieth-century nutritional research has revealed that soaking the corn in a heated alkali solution, as these woman have done for centuries, changes it into a form that allows the human body to absorb the maximum amount of niacin in the corn. This process makes the protein more easily available.

Many varieties of corn have thick hulls protecting each corn kernel. They are often too difficult to grind and to thick to eat when boiled; therefore they must be removed. Removing each hull by hand was too much time and effort, but some ancient groups discovered that lye would eat away the hull and not damage the interior. Such lye could easily be obtained from wood ashes.

The people called the hulled corn hominy taken from the Algonquian language or mote in Latin American. The English called it lye corn. The indigenous people ate the hominy as it was or ground it to make hominy grist, which became popular in the American south and was known as grits, a completely native dish.

For some reason, the people in the north never learned to like either hominy or grits, but they continued to experiment with these dishes. Dr. Will K. Kellogg of Battle Creek, Michigan, discovered that he could take the corn, flatten it into a flake and toast it. This one innovation of flaking the corn rather than grinding it created the first corn flakes and the start of the American breakfast-cereal industry. The corn flake, hominy grits, the tortilla, and the tamale all share a close historical and nutritional position in American society whether one looks at the Americas today or the Americas of a millennium ago.

Maize Spreads Its Kernels All Over The Earth

The Native Americans had no traction animals and no horses. raised no cattle and drank no milk. When the Europeans came the indigenous groups immediately offered them maize as well as beans, squash and many other wonderful vegetables and fruits, which were to change the eating habits the world over. The Europeans brought their great beasts over in ships- and proceeded to feed them on maize, an act which was sacrilege to the natives, for maize was of the gods, and man alone among creatures could eat it.

The Spanish wasted no time in taking the new grain back to plant at home. American corn has been cultivated in the Iberian peninsula since the 16th century. The Native Americans showed the Spanish and Portuguese how corn must be dried before it can be safely stored, and how to safeguard it from predators while it dries. The Spanish version of the early corn cribs were made of stone called horreos, some of which are still in existence.

Very soon after Columbus's journey slaves were brought from Africa to work the new America lands for European colonists.

The slave trades used maize to buy slaves from Africa: corn traveled well across the ocean and it was eagerly receives in exchange for men. The Africans called the grain manputo.

North Africans were familiar with maize as the Moors, who were expelled from Spain, carried it there around 1500. Some scholars suggest that Africa even had maize earlier: the Arabs, who are known to have navigated the Atlantic as early as 1100 AD might have encountered it and brought it across the relatively short stretch of ocean from Brazil to Africa. One thing is for sure. After 1492, maize spread over the world with extraordinary speed. It was hardy; it traveled; it grew quickly; it provided plenty of food.

Maize is an important crop in Africa. African farmers felt the corn kernels were too valuable a feed for animals but they did provide the livestock with the cornstalks and hulls. The Yorubas of Nigeria eat corn as ogi, a mush which required painstaking soaking, grinding and washing for several days before it is boiled. The same preparation wrapped in banana leaves and cooked is agidi, an important dish in Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast. Corn grows more reliably than the traditional African staples of millet and sorghum.

The New Americans - By the mid-eighteenth century the newcomers to North America had accepted Indian corn as their staple food. They had corn for breakfast, lunch, and supper. American soldiers captured in Canada in the War of 1812 and imprisoned at Halifax, Nova Scotia, expressed their deepest need- for the corn they were accustomed to eating daily. Their cry for `mush and milk' was incessant, wrote the superintendent of the camp.

Europeans - Today, European farmers have learned to grow corn, but most of them never learned to eat it except for the Norte Italianos. They use it as a mush and call it polenta which is cooked much as it is in Africa, and served with squid or tomato sauce. But corn did play a role as animal feed in Europe. Potatoes may be eaten by some animals like pigs, but not by others, such as cows or chickens whereas corn can be eaten by all these animals. Corn did for the animal population of Europe, what the potato did for the human population. The new animal feed increased the supply of eggs, milk, butter and cheese and these products increased the European intake of protein.

Fresh Sweet Corn - Fresh corn on the cob, whether lightly steamed or roasted on the grill is one of the best summer garden treats. Of course, you'll have to wait till next summer for those delicious morsels unless you happened to have frozen some for the freezer.

When I was a kid growing up along the banks of the Ohio River in Louisville, Kentucky, we preferred white sweet corn over yellow. My mother also fried the kernels in oil with onions and a touch of salt. Nothing could be finer than fried corn along with fried green tomatoes and a plump red tomato. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. The golden kernels offer many choices for our palate. We partake of this unique Native American grain in ways you can't begin to imagine.

The Supermarket - Try and buy anything in a North American supermarket which hasn't been touched by corn. Over 50 percent of the processed food you buy in your supermarket comes from corn and soybeans.

Where does our milk, cheese, butter, beef, pork and chicken come from? Beef animals are fed a corn and soybean ration as are dairy cows and chickens and other livestock. Frozen meat and fish have a light corn starch coating on it to prevent drying. The brown and golden coloring of soft drinks and puddings come from corn. Corn oil is not only used as cooking fat but also for making margarine, mayonnaise and other salad dressings. The taste-bud sensitizer, monosodium glutamate or MSG, is commonly made of corn protein.

High-fructose corn syrup is the basis of soft drinks, candy, ketchup, and commercial ice cream. Most of this corn comes from genetically modified sees. It provides body where "body" is lacking in sauces and soups. Corn starch, which is white, odorless, and tasteless is found in baby foods, jams, pickles and yeast.

It is essential in anything dehydrated, such as milk or instant potato flakes. It is the universal, neutral carrier for the active ingredients in thousands of products, from headache tablets, toothpastes, and cosmetics to detergents, dog food, match heads, and charcoal briquettes. North Americans eat only one tenth of the corn they produce, which includes milk, soft drinks, oil, poultry, cheese, butter and meat. Did I forgot to mention grits or "Johnny" cakes? Or how about some Mexican food like tortillas, tacos and corn chips. And please pass the polenta.

The Fruit of the Grass - In the English dictionary, the word corn denotes the staple grain of a country. For example, in the British Isles, wheat is "corn" as it is the staple grain. Oats is "corn" to the people that eat oats. When the Europeans arrived in the "new world", they found that maize was the basic food, so they called it, "Indian corn." In Europe, it is called, mais, and is differentiated from wheat.

The Nature of Corn and How it reproduces - Corn is a complex carbohydrate that is low in fat and calories and high in fiber. It is a giant grass which bears a large seed. Each kernel is really a fruit with an oily germ or seed surrounded by starchy nutrients and is enclosed in a skin or hull. The plant is a genus all unto itself and is the only species in the genus. Its botanical name is Zea Mais: zeia means "grain" in Greek and the Haitian word mais can be translated as "the stuff of life."

The indigenous populations of the America's knew that different types of corn could cross and produce offspring with characteristics derived from both parents. The silks, which hang like bunches of hair from the cobs, are the female element. The male maize flowers are borne on the tassel and they produce the pollen, 25 million grains per tassel. When the pollen is ripe it is shed and drifts in the wind over the cornfield. Each time a pollen grain falls on the sticky thread of a corn silk, a kernel is conceived.

Types of Corn

Corn can be picked and used or eaten at many different stages, from the immature stage as sweet corn, later on for grinding for corn meal, and then as hard feed-grain for animals. The main varieties are popcorn (everta), sweet (rugosa) corn, dent (indentata) corn, flint (indurata) corn and flour corn. The dent and flint types are the ones grown for general farm use. There are both hybrid and open-pollinated strains.

What's amazing about corn is that it grows more in the night than during the day. Under ideal conditions, a plant can grow 4 1/2 inches on a hot muggy July night. There are hundreds of accounts of American farmers who have heard their corn growing. On a warm windless evening try sitting in a cornfield and listening to the vegetable kingdom at work with the gentle rasp of the unfurling leaves.

Storage - One of corn's main attractions has been its adaptability to storage: corn is the ultimate "long shelf-life" food. Many North American indigenous bands kept stocks of kernels under earth-mounds for the winter and times of war. These fed the earliest European settlers. It is still customary in Zambia and other maize-growing countries in Africa to save dried corn-kernels underground in covered pits. The corn cob and its seed is covered entirely with a durable husk. The green envelope makes the cob easy to harvest and feed livestock, easy to store and transport. It protects the grain from damage during mechanical harvesting. One might say, the corn cob was the original packaged food.

* Corn and soybeans make up most of the Genetically Modified (GM) crops in the United States. GMO stands for any crop planted using genetically modified seeds. For more information on the dangers of GMO's and the herbicide used with it, go to The Top Twenty Questions and Answers.


Cassava - Africa began importing cassava from the America's hundreds of years ago and now they are two of its most important crops. Cassava assumed a particularly important role in Africa because it grows in poor soils that will not produce any other food crop; thus it does not compete with corn or other grains for land. Cassava has the added advantage that its roots can be harvested within any time in a two year period after becoming mature. It therefore makes an excellent food bank that can be preserved in the ground in times of scarcity. The drawback with cassava is that it has poor nutritional value being almost pure starch. It is a major source of calories ad an important crop in preventing famine but it did not improve the nutrition of the African diet.

Asia-Sweet Potatoes - Asia adopted the sweet potato from the America's with the same eagerness that the Africans adopted cassava, and it had much the same impact on their diets as the common potato had for the Europeans. The sweet potato helped the Chinese to ameliorate the cycle of feast and famine that their dependence on rice had so long made inevitable. The sweet potato yields three to four times as much food as rice planted on the same area of land, and it can grow in weather and soils that are difficult for rice to grow on. Even though the stereotype of Oriental food is that it is all rice-based, the common people depended to some extent on the sweet potato. China is the largest producer of sweet potatoes; the Chinese enjoy them plain or ground into flour to make noodles, dumplings and other dishes.

The Spanish Conquest - The Incas of South America produced other tuber and root crops, such as oca, anu, achira, liza, luki and maca, none of which have names in English. The Peruvians grew corn in just as many varieties and diverse habitats, and they cultivated the native American grain crops that in Quechua they called kiwicha or amaranth. The success of these early experiments remain visible today, not only in the variety of food crops but in the extensive agricultural ruins of the Urubamba Valley stretching from Machu Picchu to the Inca capital city of Cuzco. One can still find remnants of the irrigation canals in the valley which once brought water from the melting snows high in the mountains to the terraces. Where miles of green terraced fields and warehouses once stood now, parched parcels of land, crumbling terraces, and destroyed bridges are all that remain.

The conquest by the Spanish with their armies, clergy and disease, swept through the Urubamba valley as well as through most of the America's. Whole villages were destroyed and the people taken away to work in the copper and silver mines. The valley of the Urubamba River, which had supported millions, now has only a fraction of its former population. While these fields lie neglected, the government of Peru, "the land of the potato", imports potatoes to feed its people.

The Andeans, the Potato and the World

The native Americans of the Andes cultivated the potato on their mountainsides and valleys for thousands of years. At the time of the Spanish conquest, the early 1500's, they were producing about three thousand different types of potatoes. This contrasts with the mere 250 varieties now grown in North America. Of these no more than twenty varieties constitute three-quarters of the total harvest.

The humble potato eventually spread to the rest of the world. It is difficult to imagine what Ireland would be like today without the potato which became the staple food there by the end of the seventeenth century. What would the Russians, the largest potato producing country in the world be today? And how about the Germans and Poles or the Scandinavians and McDonalds fries.

For centuries, the northern European countries suffered periodic famines when their grain crops failed. Unpredictable weather always threatened the food supply. For two centuries, the Europeans resisted the New World crops of potatoes and corn. For them, the staples were the grains which were used for porridge and bread. The monarchs eventually learned that a field of potatoes produces more food and nutrition more reliably and with less labor than the same field planted in any grain. Farmers found that the potato required none of the extensive milling and processing of grains. The potato could also be dug from the field and stored until the next planting season. Las Patatas could be served baked, boiled, roasted, fried, or could be made into soups, pancakes, dumplings, souffles and pies.

One major problem encountered when tracing the history of the potato derives from its being misnamed from very early history in the English-speaking areas. The native Americans of the Andes called it papa. The word batata was used by the Taino Indians for sweet potatoes. Their land is known today as Haiti and the Dominican Republic. When the papa arrived from the Andes, the English mistook it for the Caribbean sweet potato and called it the potato. In Latin America, fried potatoes are called papa fritas.


Let's now look at one other important food crop of the America's like the bean. The protein supply of the Old World increased with the great variety of beans brought in from America, principally from Mexico, where beans, corn, and squash had been the mainstay of the diet. Different parts of the Old World adopted one or more of the American beans, including kidney beans, string beans, snap beans, the Mexican frijole as well as the butter, lima, navy and pole beans. Can you imagine not having beans in your diet?


In Africa the American peanut or groundnut also helped to increase the protein intake. The peanut found a large following in Asia as well as Africa, but in Europe it never became anything more than a snack, a source of oil, and animal fodder. Of course it became very popular in North America. In West Africa, peanut butter is mixed with hot peppers and sold in the streets as a tasty and nutritious snack. Can you imagine life without a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?


Farther north in Europe where the cold hampers peanut cultivation, large amounts of oil and animal feed were made from another American staple, the sunflower, which is native to the United States plains and was domesticated by the indigenous tribes of the west. Next to the potato the sunflower is the most important plant the Americans gave to Russia. Neither olives or nor oil-producing grains grew very well in Russia however the sunflower grows well there and provides a reliable source of oil. As with the potato, the former Soviet Union is today the world's largest producer and consumer of sunflowers. Can you imagine what the birds would say without sunflower seeds in the wintertime?

* Jack Lazor of Butterworks Farm in Vermont grows sunflowers commercially and presses the seeds for oil, which he sells locally.


America also gave the world some new grains that offered more nutritional value than any of the Old World grains. For the most part the Europeans ignored the amaranth from Mexico and quinoa from the Andes. In the last years before the conquest of Mexico, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan received an annual tribute of twenty thousand tons of amaranth grain from its seventeen provinces (mostly in native Mexican varieties of Amaranthus hypochondriacus and A. cruentus).

Because of its high protein content of 16 percent, compared with 7 percent for rice and 13 percent for wheat, amaranth is considered more nutritious than most grains. It also has twice the lysine found in wheat and as much as in milk, making it far more balanced in proteins than most plant foods.

* By the way, the protein quality of wheat has diminished over the last 75 years due to the use of chemical fertilizers. This is not case when wheat is grown organically. The protein quantity and quality increase with organic practices and even better yet, using Biodynamic methods.

The Aztecs respected amaranth so highly that each year they publicly celebrated it by eating amaranth cakes made with honey and human blood shaped into the forms of the gods. The Spanish interpreted this as a black mockery of the holy communion and consequently forbade the cultivation, sale, or consumption of amaranth under penalty of death.

In the twentieth century, scientists discovered that native farmers high in the valleys of the Andes and in remote parts of Mexico still cultivate amaranth. Now international research groups encourage its production to help feed the third world. Amaranth went on sale in health- food stores in the U.S. in the 1970s, and quinoa followed in 1986, but the great potential of these two great grains has not yet been tapped worldwide. However, amaranth has become one of the most important cereals in the diets of highland peoples in India, China, and Pakistan, Tiber, and Nepal. Cultivation has spread so widely in the past century that Asia now cultivates and consumes more amaranth than do the Americas. What would life be like without the grains?


The history of chocolate beings in the Amazon in Mesoamerica some 4,000 years ago with fermented, roasted and ground beans of the Theoborma cacao, which can be traced to the Mokaya and other pre-Olmec people. Chocolate played a special role in both Maya and Aztec royal and religious events.

The Europeans sweetened and refined it by adding sugar and milk, two ingredients unknown to the people of Mesoamerica. In the 19th century, Briton John Cadbury developed an emulsification process to make solid chocolate creating the modern chocolate bar.

The origins of the word "chocolate" probably comes from the Classical Nahuatl word xocalatl meaning bitter water. Chocolate comes from the seed of the cocoa tree.


The best book I read in 2013 was 1491- New Revelations of the America's Before Columbus. It was written in 2005 book by Charles Mann. Mann radically alters our understanding of the Americas before the arrival of Columbus in 1492. The Western hemisphere was vastly more populous and sophisticated than ever thought.

The book argues that the human populations in the Western Hemisphere (the indigenous peoples) in the America's were more numerous, had arrived earlier and were more sophisticated culturally, and controlled and shaped the natural landscape than was previously known.

Mann dispels the myths with the mystakingly called "Squanto' who with the Pilgrims to the villages of the Amazon Rain Forests to Cahokia, near modern St. Louis- the long vanished city of the North American Mound Builders - from the cultivation of maize to why it was the Incas who developed the wheel but never used it for anything but a child's toy. Two of the six independent centers of civilization in the world arose in the Americas: present day Peru and in Mesoamerica - Central America. The conquerors called the land the New World.

The Europeans assumed that the Indians never changed their environment from its original wild state. This was all a myth. The native peoples managed the land superbly. The so-called New World was not a wilderness at the time of European contact, but an environment in which the indigenous peoples altered the land for thousands of years to feed its people. They managed the land superbly and created a world of natural environments, from seeding the Amazon basin with fruit and nut trees to terracing the mountains of Peru with potatoes and maize.

The Pre-Columbian Indians were not sparsely settled in the new world in a pristine wilderness; there were hugh numbers of Indians who actively molded the land around them. Europeans imagined a pristine world of natural beauty and few people except for perhaps for the Aztec and Mayan civilizations of Central America and the Incan state of Peru. They assumed that the Indians never changed their environment from its original wild state. The astonishing Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan had running water and immaculate clean streets, and was larger than any contemporary European city.

It's been estimated that there were 112 million people in the Americas before Columbus arrived - more than all the people who lived in Europe. Ninety five percent of the indigenous people were wiped out by the microbes of smallpox, typhus, diphtheria and influenza from Europe.

The native peoples were not living lightly on the land when Columbus came in 1492, but were landscaping and manipulating their world in ways we are now only beginning to understand.

Mesoamerican agriculture shaped the natural landscape in Andean culture. Maize had a dynamic effect on the rise in crop surpluses, populations and advanced cultures. Indians bred maize from scratch, as it had no wild ancestor - unlike wheat, barley and oats, which have wild relatives which can be harvested and eaten. Maize's nearest relatives, the teosintes, are essentially not edible. Maize was grown on a milpa, an intricate system of planting multiple crops like corn, beans and squash. These three sisters were nutritionally and environmentally complementary and promoted sustainabiliity.

Indigenous people transformed their lands with fire; it was used to burn shrubs and trees, open up areas to sunlight that created grasslands. Burning encouraged an abundance of animals the native people hunted. This type of husbandry was quite different than the European method of domesticating animals. Because the Europeans did not burn the land, the forest grew thicker.

The Amazon - The Amazon's first inhabitants cleared small plots and then selected tree crops along with manioc. If the 138 known domesticated plant species in the Amazon, more than half are trees. Sapodilla, calabash,, tucuma, babacu, acai, wild pineapple, coco-palm, American palm oil - the Amazon's wealth of fruits and nuts and hardwoods like peach palms , and palms. Visitors are amazed that you can walk in the forest and constantly pick fruit from the trees. Bundles of orange and red fruit hang like clusters of bocce balls. The fruit is soaked with oil and is rich in Vitamin C, beta carotene, and protein. Peach palm can thrive with no human intervention. None of these crops would exist without human activity.

The Beni tropical savanna grassland in Northern Bolivia was an agricultural area some 2,000 years ago. Located in the Amazon basin, it covered thousands of acres. The streams were filled with fish weirs to trap fish, fire was used to clear unwanted trees and undergrowth, and fire-adapted fruit and nut trees were spared. Earthworks included raised fields, mounds, canals, causeways, and water reservoirs built around the floodplains.

There were thousands of forest islands. Each island was hundreds of acres across - above the floodplain. This allowed the fire-adapted fruit and nut trees to grow. The forest islands were linked by raised berms. Charcoal was made from the other trees.

In a 1541 early historical account, the Spaniard Francisco de Orellana's journey depicted a densely populated region along the Amazon river. Archaeologists have found hundreds of areas of fertile soil scattered about unfertile land. These soils, known as "Terra Preta do Indio" or Amazon Dark Earth are not natural but were created by humans. This dark, fertile soil is found throughout the Amazon basin. Terra preta owes its name to its very high charcoal content. It was built by adding a mixture of charcoal, bone, and manure to a poor soil along with pottery shards, organic matter such as plant residues, animal waste, fish and other nutrients. These soils can also be found close to living quarters where there were cooking fires and what were called kitchen garden middens. Terra preta is also called biochar which can be purchased - of all unlikely places - here in Vermont.

Most terra preta sites are on low bluffs at the edge of the flood plain. Typically, they cover five to fifteen acres. The layer of black soil is generally one to feet deep, but can reach down to six feet. It has much more phosphorous, calcium, sulfur, and nitrogen then is common in the rainforests.

Cahokia and Monk's Mound

Close to East St. Louis in southern Illinois - where the Missouri and Illinois rivers empties into the Mississippi, a city called Cakokia numbered twenty thousand people - the largest ancient city in America north of Mexico. It's located across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. Cakodia had 120 earthen mounds over fourteen hundred years ago. These are among the greatest earthen mounds ever constructed. The smaller mounds were topped with tall wooden palisades.

Monk's Mound has a greater volume and overall size than Egypt's largest pyramid of Khufu (Cheops). Close by stood a gigantic circle, built a thousand years ago. This giant solar calendar was used to track the seasons and the movement of the sun as well as a planting and harvesting guide.

It's evident that great cities like Cahokia could only be built where the soil was rich and crops could feed the people. Cakokia was built about the same time that the hoe and new kinds of maize (corn) were brought to this region from Mexico in the tenth century.

The city was ringed by a network of irrigation and transportation canals and fields of maize. Cahokia was a busy port where canoes flitted like hummingbirds across the waterfront. Hunting parties brought back elk, deer and buffalo. Fish was plentiful.

Cahokia was a product of geography, which in turn was a product of the Ice Age: When the glaciers melted, waster rushed forth creating the great river systems. Crops included marsh elder, may grass, tobacco and little barley, and later on, maize. Cahokia and the other regional groups formed the Mississippian cultures.

Most of the soil was a heavy clay that is hard to till and prone to floods. The American Bottom Clay, as it's called, absorbs water, expanding, and when dried, shrinks in size. Overtime, this created much instability on the top of the mounds. To minimize instability, the Cahokians kept the top of the mounds at a constant moisture level. They also added sand as a way to keep the soil from expanding and contracting too much.

Disasters and Change - Unfortunately, Cahokia suffered a number of disasters. Overpopulation brought calamitous results. A massive earthquake knocked out much of Monks Mond and the other smaller mounds in the area. Similar faults occurred years later.

(The New Madrid Seismic Zone potentially threatens the St. Louis and the surrounding area. It's a major seismic zone and a prolific source of intraplate earthquakes. The New Madrid fault system was responsible for the 1811-18112 massive earthquakes. Since 1812, smaller earthquakes have been recorded on the area. Seven states in the region are affected by the quakes. The zone has had four of the largest North American earthquakes in recorded history.)

Politics played itself out as did increasing larger populations. Crops could not keep up with rising populations. Poor practices of tree cutting for wooden palisades and other uses led to major disasters when flooding waters overwhelmed the city. The soil could not hold the water. Thousands acres of maize were washed away. The Cahokians began to learn from their mistakes. They replanted large belts of woodland and orchards for nuts like hickory's and fruits. Hillsides were terraced and rivers were diked.

* There were numerous Iroquois communities along the major river systems like the Hudson and Susquehanna valleys where large orchards of apples and peaches grew along with thousands of acres of corn and beans.

* I would suggest reading the book 1491. Towards the end, the author writes about how the concept of "democracy" and it principles were given to the white man by the native Americans. Many native societies operated by using democratic principles.