Amaranth seeds moved northward along trade routes to Arizona and to the Hohokam, becoming an important part of their food system, too.
Of course, the mainstay of the early Hohokam diet was corn, another example of a domesticated wild grass-like plant, called Teosinte. About 9,000 years ago, people began to breed Teosinte, selecting those attributes which suited them, eventually producing the hundreds of types of corn we know today. Some varieties are specialized for grinding into flour, others for popping, and also sweet varieties for eating fresh.
Teosinte is sometimes still planted alongside fields of corn because cultural traditions say it “strengthens” the corn. This belief has scientific merit based upon the idea that it broadens the genetic diversity of the harvested crop.
Corn was usually planted together with beans and squash—a practice known today as “companion planting.” The tall corn stalk formed a foundation upon which the beans could climb. Both plants then shaded the more delicate, sun-sensitive squash, sown below. This practice was common to Native Americans throughout North America and became known as the “Three Sisters.”
Since the common bean struggled with the hot, dry Arizona climate, the Hohokam replaced the ‘bean’ sister with an arid-adapted tepary bean. Pods could be eaten fresh when young and tender, or saved as dried beans from mature pods.
All sorts of squash developed. Summer squash, similar to zucchini, was eaten young and fresh. Those same small fruits, left on the vine, matured into a hard-shelled variety, similar to pumpkin, that stored well into the winter, hence the name “Winter Squash.”
When the Spanish Conquistadors and early missionaries arrived in the Americas during the 1500s, they brought seeds for new crops. In the late 1600’s, Father Kino, a Jesuit missionary, visited the indigenous people along the Salt and Gila River Valleys, an area he mapped, calling it “Pimeria Alta.” He brought gifts, including fruit trees, grapes, and wheat.
Surprisingly, many of the Native American fields he saw along the way were already ripe with melons, peas, onions, and other imported vegetables—Gifts brought by earlier missionaries visiting Mexico and other southern locations. The prized articles quickly traveled northward up trade routes, rooting themselves in the fields of the ancestors of the Gila River Pima and Tohono O’odham, even before Father Kino’s visit. Some of the new crops, such as onions and wheat, expanded the tribes’ ability to plant in the mild Arizona winter—producing a year-round crop.
Since then, the local Native Americans have continued to grow crops, year after year. With each planting season, the grains and vegetables became better adapted to the hot Arizona sun, alkaline soil, and limited supply of water. For example, the perennial Tohono O’odham multiplying onion went dormant in the summer to escape inhospitable conditions. Tepary beans learned to thrive in hot sun and dry sand. All of the crop varieties adapted and became genetically special . . . because they knew how to survive.
Many of these arid-adapted varieties of food crops have already become extinct. Most of those remaining, are rare and threatened.
They belong to a larger group of plants called “heirlooms,” which represent varieties of grains, fruits, flowers, and vegetables that are at least 50 years old, are uniquely adapted to some local area or microclimate, and are often endangered.
The next time you plant a garden, consider sowing Arizona heirlooms. In addition to producing delicious vegetables that grow well in our hot Arizona climate, you’ll also be helping to save precious endangered plants. This is a great activity for parents and children of all ages, as it teaches about food, gardening, climate, history, conservation, and family togetherness.
If you want to know more about Arizona heirloom crops, look at these non-profit links:
The Kino Heritage Fruit Tree Project
Budding Botanists Continue Work
Alice Neal and Nancy Martin
The science program for the White Tank Mountains Conservancy continues to thrive as Cass Blodgett and Dawn Goldman lead the “budding botanists” through washes and up rugged trails exploring the abundant wildflowers and plants that are blooming this spring.
Dawn reported that that they collected one plant that has never been collected in the White Tank Park, the Phacelia affinis. So far the Asteraceae, or Aster family, tops the list of most specimens collected with the grass family, Poaceae, running a close second.
She also indicated that they have collected a number of invasive species including two “big bad” ones—Sahara Mustard (Brassica Tournefortii) and Buffel Grass (Pennisetum ciliate). Dawn’s favorite collection so far has been the Bursera microhylla, which is commonly known as Elephant Tree. She emphasized that they got it in full fruit!
Some of the budding botanists who have been categorizing the plants include Nancy Martin, Bruce Martin, JoAnn Paderi, Sharon Beal, Scott Kanzusch, and Cindy Smith. They have been on the Goat Camp trail and the Sonoran Loop as well as others.
Jane Fricke, Volunteer Coordinator
We had 16 new Stewards at our February 11th New Steward Orientation. Several attended the Citizen Patrol Training on the 25th as well. A few attended the Annual Awards Banquet.