Native Cultivars

Native cultivars for me is about planting a vegetable garden that is adapted to the climate of where I live. 

Reader Contribution by Renee Benoit
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Photo courtesy of Native Seed/SEARCH in Tucson, Arizona
Mayo watermelon.

I’m focusing on native cultivars this season.

Native cultivars for me are about planting a vegetable garden that is adapted to the climate of where I live.  This is a very exciting proposition. I’ve been gardening in either Iowa or California and this is the first time I have a chance to plant 100% native.

The high desert of southeastern Arizona is a whole new world.  Fortunately, incredibly smart and resilient people have preceded me, so I don’t have to figure it out from scratch. Over thousands of years of inhabiting this climate the native peoples of the southwest have figured out what nutritious and satisfying foods are easily grown.

I’m starting with: Mayo watermelon, Santo Domingo melons, Anasazi sweet corn, Navajo popcorn, amaranth, and tepary beans.

What native fruits and vegetables can you grow that are adapted to your area’s climate? Here’s a short list to inspire you:

American Persimmon: Native from Florida to Connecticut, west to Iowa and south to Texas. It’s high in vitamins A and C, fiber, and antioxidants, low in calories and fats. The trees are low maintenance. The fruit is used to make cakes, bread, soups, ice cream, and candy.

Blue Camas: Native to the Pacific Northwest, from the Rocky Mountains of Canada down to California and Utah, Blue Camas has carbohydrate and protein-rich roots. Cook the bulbs in a slow oven to make them edible and sweet.

Candy Roaster Squash: First grown by the Cherokee tribes of the southern Appalachian Mountains. Used in soups, pies, butters, and breads and still grown according to the traditional practice called Three Sisters, in which squash, corn, and beans are grown together to prevent weeds and retain soil moisture.

Chiltepin Pepper: These very hot wild chilis that grow in the southwest U.S. Domestic peppers originated from them. They are very spicy and pungent and can be eaten sun-dried, as well as added to cheese and ice creams, or fermented into sauces.

Highbush Cranberry: Not a true cranberry but can be cultivated. It is native all along the border of Canada. It can grow without irrigation, fertilization, or any other invasive or intensive farming practice. The berries are eaten raw or used to make jams, jellies, sauces, and fruit wines.

Mesquite: This small tree is native to the southwest. The seed pods can be ground into meal and used to make cakes and flat bread, or to thicken stews. Tea is made from the flowers and leaves. Flower tea may have laxative and headache-relieving properties.

Ostrich Fern Fiddleheads: These plants grow in northeast. It is the only native Canadian vegetable that has been successfully commercialized. It was originally harvested by the Mi’kmaq of eastern Canada and Maine. It has a taste similar to asparagus, with an added nutty quality. Boil or steam before eating. They are a good source of protein, manganese, and iron. They are also high in antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, and fiber.

Pawpaw: Pawpaws are the largest edible fruit native to North America. They originated in the mid-southeastern states. They have a tropical flavor reminiscent of mangoes and bananas and are a good source of vitamins and minerals. They can be used to make bread, pies, jam, and beer.

Calais Flint Corn: Originally cultivated by the Abenaki people of Vermont this corn grows well in areas like the U.S.-Canadian border that have cold climates and short growing seasons. It is more flavorful than other industrially produced corn, and is used to make cornmeal, flour, and hominy.

Seminole Pumpkin: This squash is native to the Everglades region of southern Florida. It is tolerance of heat, drought, insects, and powdery mildew. It can be baked, boiled, mashed, or used to make pies and bread. The seeds can be roasted or hulled and ground. The young shoots and leaves can be cooked like greens, and the flowers can be fried to make fritters.

Amaranth: This is a staple of pre-Hispanic people from Mexico to Peru. It grows well in arid regions, is gluten-free, rich in protein, and its leaves contain iron levels greater than spinach. The leaves are used in salads, and soups. The seeds can be toasted and used in sweets. When mixed with corn flour, amaranth flour is used to make tortillas, cakes, and biscuits.

Tepary Beans: These beans originated in the desert of the southwestern U.S. and northwestern Mexico. They have been important to the diets of desert people for thousands of years. They are highly tolerant of heat, drought, and alkaline soils. They are not suitable for wet climates or clay soils. The beans contain high levels of protein and soluble fiber, which helps control cholesterol and diabetes.

Ramps: Ramps are perennial wild onions that grow in eastern North America and are easily grown in your garden. They were foraged by Native Americans as food and medicine. Somewhat sweet and slightly pungent, their edible leaves, stalks, and bulbs can be eaten raw or cooked.

For a wide variety of seeds adapted to desert regions, high and low, check out this Native Seeds based in Tucson, Arizona.

Renée Benoit lives in southeastern Arizona. She can see Mexico from her living room! She and her partner Marty are in the process of transforming their property into a sustainable homestead. Right now they have 2 dogs, 2 horses and 1 cat to keep them company. She also enjoys traveling to new places to discover native foods as well as wildlife. She writes creative non-fiction and gardens, hikes, reads, sews, cans, ferments, bakes, cooks and needle felts in her spare time.

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