In Search of the Unexpected: Are Ancient Crops in Our Future?

My dad couldn't tear me away from a stickball game to help him with his rose bushes. It was more than a few years later, a Vietnam War, a marriage and divorce, and I was growing things and developing a deep love of plants. It was at this time that I experienced the parasitic plant "dodder" first hand, before I understood it and learned about it. Passions are like that, from my first houseplant to today. What a pleasurable journey it has been so far.

In the mid-nineties I became enraptured by a plant and seed catalog that I read cover to cover: "Oregon Exotics Nursery - Subzero to Subtropical - The adventurous gardener's guide to rare crops of the world!" The very title was the beginning of a new and different seduction. I soon learned I was in wonderful company in thinking beyond our traditional boundaries.

At about this same time some local Sullivan County farmers were thinking entrepreneurially. What an exciting thing to experience! Local men and women were willing to try growing new crops. The produce they planned to grow was for the most part unproven in Sullivan and Ulster counties, but proven in the New York City restaurant trade and the Green Market at Union Square. Fingerling potatoes, red, yellow and purple marble potatoes, Russian banana potatoes - these were a few. Varieties of heirloom tomatoes from around the world were being grown in Sullivan County, many for the very first time.

Heirloom vegetables and fruits are the rage these days, and Farmers' Market vendors supply as much and as many varieties as their customers will try. Many people want to eat the real whole foods of their ancestors. There are countless new introductions as well as heirloom varieties that most of us have never tasted, much less attempted to grow.

On Feb.15 of this year a scientific study announced finding fossil evidence of a 6,000-year-old chili pepper that was grown and traded throughout Central and South America.

As if on cue, this week I received a Regional Report from The National Gardening Association titled "Goji Berries: A Nutrient Powerhouse". One nursery sells potted plants 12-18 inches tall for $24.95, and seed growing kits with an accompanying DVD for $29.95. They claim Goji berries are easy to grow. Another company sells the fruit for $14.95 a pound, and powdered for $29.95 a pound.

Well, guess what? I went back to my early copies of Oregon Exotics Nursery's catalogs, and there it was on page 28: "Kou-chi" - Chinese wolfberry, aka Lycium chinensis. A tomato-family-plant, hardy to Zone 5, this is a "fruit bearing medicinal/edible shrub common to the northern and western provinces in China". It was available for $10 in 1998 for one-year-old plants.

Why am I telling you this? To stimulate your appetite for growing something different. Something new and just maybe unknown could be in your future. Did you know there is a very solid market for garlic scapes (seed stalks)? Most garlic growers have known this for a long time. You could put in some garlic this year and experience garlic scapes from your own garden. And, you'd have garlic bulbs to harvest as well. It is one of the easiest crops to grow on a small scale.

The same can be said for ramps with their short productive season. Back in those mid-90s, some farmers were asking me if ramps could be transplanted and how and when was the best method and time. Some edible plants are scarce enough to enlist these kinds of questions.

Visit farmers markets and see what is being grown and harvested. Try some of the new and surprising lettuces, potatoes, and tomatoes. Have you ever tasted Minutina lettuce, Arugula flowers, Cippolini onion shoots, Yellow Romano beans, Lemon cucumbers, Broccoli spigariello, Petite Hearts of Fire, Black salsify, Wild stinging nettles? Confused? Never heard of some of these?

Once you become acquainted, you might be happy to try growing or purchasing some. An acquaintance tells me that he and his wife will never be without fresh clipped mesclun mixed greens again. They have experienced the joy, and will grow it every year. They are experimenters!

Potatoes are the most widely grown tuber crop in the world. Four thousand varieties have their origins in Peru. Potatoes as a fresh produce crop are fourth in the world after rice, wheat, and maize. They are easy to grow and there are so many new choices to try.

As recently as 2004, a relative newcomer, crosnes (pronounced krones), small edible tubers, became the darling of the upscale restaurants and their ever-vigilant and necessarily competitive chefs. First recorded in Chinese literature in the 14th Century, it was introduced to France from Japan in 1882. After being absent from French cuisine for several decades, it was rediscovered in 2004 and was selling for between $27 and $40 per pound. Returning to my old friend, Oregon Exotics, there it was: Choro-Gi (Crosnes du Japan), 6 plants for $12, 12 plants for $18.

Now I'm not suggesting you put in a crosnes patch, or, for that matter a Goji berry plantation. You won't get rich doing either. It won't happen. What I am suggesting is that you open yourself to new possibilities.

If you have even a mild interest in growing plants, I'll bet you have at least a half a dozen plant and/or seed catalogs already. Be an explorer, an experimenter, or an adventurer for a single season. Can you recall dining out and eating something that was grown in the earth that was especially memorable and delicious? If you've never grown it, find out how and give it a try? The rewards will likely far outweigh the time, labor and expense involved. It might even become a regular at your table and spur you to grow other lesser-known edibles.

I remember the first time I ate the fruit of the Kousa dogwood tree. What a pleasant surprise. I envisioned a new jelly/jam sensation. My old friend, Oregon Exotics, informed me of its edibility. It said of Chinese Dogwood (Cornus Kousa Chinensis) "A very hardy dogwood which can be grown as a tree or a shrub. The flowers are white and open in June... It has a red edible fruit which resembles a strawberry and tastes like a Paw Paw!" At that time, 18-24 inch trees were $8.00.

But, don't confine yourself to edibles. There are bushels of varieties of flowers introduced in the 1800s and almost forgotten in modern gardens. There are many native annuals and perennials, too. There are new strains that are a result of breeding breakthroughs that exhibit the strength, beauty, and fragrances of some of the antique flower subjects of our famous artists.

More and more catalogs are carrying heirloom seeds for every thing that grows. Investigate some of these and your garden might become a conversation starter or maybe, even a centerpiece. Don't overlook natives, either. They are called natives for a good reason. You might be surprised at what you find out there. It's all up to you. Be daring.


From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on March 07, 2007

© 2007 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.