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North American native permaculture

Native Americans from the Archaic period preparing hickory nutsBefore eastern Native Americans domesticated the crops in the Eastern Agricultural Complex, they still relied heavily on plants for their nutrition.  Between 8000 BC and 2000 BC (the so-called Archaic period), Native Americans in our area ate a variety of un-domesticated native plants, including the fruits of sumac, blackberry, grape, hackberry, hawthorn, plum, pawpaw, cherry, mulberry, and persimmon; the nuts of hickory, oak, hazel, walnut, chestnut, beech, and pecan; and the sweet insides of honey locust pods.  They also ate the fruits, leaves, or tubers of Jerusalem artichoke, two wild beans, groundnut, maypop, black nightshade, amaranth, pokeweed, carpetweed, dock, chickweed, ground cherry, purslane, carpetweed, panicgrass, hog peanut, and a spurge.  Most of these plants continued to be important in the Native American diet for thousands of years thereafter.

Native Americans used fire to encourage edible plantsIf you've ever picked up a book on eastern North American edible plants, you'll have noticed that most of the top edibles are listed above.  So the Native Americans just figured out what was edible and they wandered around all day looking for them, right?  In Cultivated Landscapes of Native North America, William E. Doolittle makes a strong case for the hypothesis that most or all of these "wild" plants were cultivated to some extent, even though they weren't domesticated.  You'll notice that nearly all of the woody plants listed aren't old growth species and instead require some space and extra sunlight to produce plenty of fruits.  Native Americans cut the competition away from favored plants, burned out the undergrowth, pruned trees and vines to make fruits larger and easier to harvest, and transplanted edible-fruited trees to the edges of their fields after they began growing domesticated crops.  A great deal of evidence exists to suggest that grapes were propagated by cuttings and planted in vineyards, mulberry trees were planted near homes, and chickasaw plums and pecans were carried east from their natural range to plant throughout the South.

Indian gardenSmaller edibles were also encouraged in much the same way that a modern gardener might let a volunteer vegetable alone once he recognizes its worth.  A wide range of small plants weren't completely dependent on the Native Americans for their care (like the Eastern Agricultural Complex was) but still benefited from a bit of encouragement and were then eaten.  Many of the plants listed in the last sentence of the first paragraph are weedy species that require some disturbance in order to grow, so they sprang up in the Native American's cultivated fields.  At the time of European contact, it was common to see maypops, Jerusalem artichokes, and other "weeds" allowed to grow in the corn fields, to be harvested for food.

Although the native North American systems of encouraging wild plants weren't as intricate as the forest gardens you see in the tropics, the widespread range and abundance of many of the species mentioned in this post can probably be linked back to the continent's earliest human inhabitants.  It begs the question --- are you really wildcrafting when you harvest the ubiquitous pokeweed growing behind your house, or are you just eating the remains of a Native American garden?

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This post is part of our Native American Paleoethnobotany lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:





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