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Native and Historic Crops

by Don Janssen, Extension Educator

Version with graphics

Imagine your vegetable garden without corn, squash and beans. These native American crops soon became staples to early European settlers of North America, who were taught how to grow them by the indigenous people.

Potatoes and tomatoes also originated in the New World. Though tomatoes were first grown in Europe as ornamentals rather than a food crop, potatoes taken to the Old World from the New quickly became so important that a disease outbreak in the potato crop caused widespread famine in Ireland in the 1800s.

Today's vegetable gardener probably takes advantage of the variety of crops and cultivars in his or her favorite seed catalogs unaware of how many of those crops originated with the first gardeners here.

What the catalogs refer to as Indian corn is actually a mixture of types of corn developed by native people for different uses. That process has been continued by today's plant breeders to develop the dozens of varieties of sweet corn that gardeners can choose from now.

Jerusalem artichokes are another native crop, a perennial grown for its crunchy tubers. It's a member of the sunflower family, which also gives us annual sunflowers with their tasty seeds.

In the squash family, today's Connecticut field pumpkin is considered an heirloom variety. It's a direct descendant of the pumpkin that Native Americans were growing when the first European colonists arrived on these shores. Other varieties available today that would be appropriate for a garden featuring historic crops include Boston marrow, green hubbard, summer crookneck and white bush scallop squash, black Mexican corn, small-fruited gourds, Russian mammoth sunflowers, and Kentucky wonder or scarlet runner pole beans.

The original bean pole was the cornstalk. Corn was planted in hills surrounded by hills with bean seeds and, farther out, hills planted to squash, gourds and pumpkins. An outer circle of sunflowers completed the planting. The beans were trained to climb up the cornstalks and the vining crops filled in the circle.

(This resource was added July 2005 and appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star Newspaper Sunday Edition. For information on reproducing this article or using any photographs or graphics, read the Terms of Use statement)

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University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension in Lancaster County is your on-line yard and garden educational resource. The information on this Web site is valid for residents of southeastern Nebraska. It may or may not apply in your area. If you live outside southeastern Nebraska, visit your local Extension office