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As I Think of Garden Seeds

We have mental pictures of Plains Indians on horses – and rarely do we think of them with hoes.  Still, as we approach gardening season, it may be appropriate to think of how many of the world’s crops were developed by the American Indian, and were spread across the world after Columbus.

It may be called the “Irish Potato” – but the potato was grown in the Andes mountains for at least 4000 years before it arrived in Ireland.  There are at least another half-dozen root crops developed by these ancient Peruvian residents that don’t even have names in English.  They raised corn – though that is believed to have been developed in Mexico, and amaranth (in Mexico used for beer by the Aztec) and quinoa – developed alongside the potato.

In those days before Columbus, the Old World had wheat, rye, barley and oats in Europe, rice was developed in the far east, and sorghum and millet in Africa. 

From the Caribbean came a root crop called the batata.  The Andean potato was called papa by the Quecha . . . but the first root crop exported from the Americas was the batata.  The name was changed to potato, then the papa showed up, took the name potato, and the batata became sweet potato.  China is the world’s largest producer of sweet potatoes.

The Old World had beans when Columbus sailed the ocean blue – but after Cortez, more varieties were shipped from Mexico – the French bean, the Rangoon bean, Burma bean, Madagascar bean, kidney bean, string bean, snap bean, common bean, pole bean, navy bean . . . most of the domestic beans have American Indian origins.

The peanut moved from America to become an African staple.  The domestic sunflower became a Russian staple food.  Just as the potato led to a population explosion in Ireland, the cassava led to a population explosion in Africa.  (We tend to call cassava tapioca)

Peppers, cacao for chocolate, squash, tomatoes – when Columbus landed, the only pepper known in Europe and Asia was Piper nigrum (black pepper).  The New World peppers were an entirely different species – the Capsicums.  These American Indian spices have helped develop Indian cooking, which must have been bland before adding the Capsicum frutuscens. 

One of the American Indian squash varieties landed in Italy, and there received the name we use – zucchini.  Italian cooking must have been bland before tomatoes and peppers arrived.  I don’t know what the word is for pizza without tomatoes.

We could get into nuts and berries – but this story comes from a memory of a lecture I gave when I taught Indians of North America.  Someday I’ll find my notes and add my sources.

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