Jeri L. Dobrowski: Gardening in the West
February 5, 2013
For all the bravado associated with the West – and mentions of hardtack, beans, biscuits, salt pork, and coffee – wise inhabitants consumed edible native plants and cultivated gardens. True, the basic staples were relatively easy to transport, but soldiers, pioneers, prospectors, chuck wagon cooks, and the cowboys for whom they cooked, longed for something fresh in their diets. Beyond providing a change of pace, fruits and vegetables helped prevent scurvy, a vitamin C deficiency. Better known as the bane of seafarers, scurvy rivaled cholera as a dreaded frontier killer.
While vitamin C's role in preventing scurvy wasn't identified until the early 20th century, wisdom of the day pointed to a produce-and-greens-rich diet. In 1885, French cattle baron Pierre Wibaux brought a professional gardener to the plains of eastern Montana to landscape the grounds of his 10-room house and keep the household supplied with fresh vegetables. Military post surgeons were charged with planting a garden to augment standard rations. In the interim, they scoured the countryside in search of indigenous flora. Among those sought after were the lowly pigweed, wild onions, dandelions, semi-aquatic watercress, and herbs.
The Native American diet was rich in herbaceous plants, berries, and fresh, raw meat including fat, adrenal glands, and organ meat – all sources of vitamin C. This region's Hidatsa and Arikara tribes cultivated corn, squash, beans, and sunflowers. Consequently, they weren't subject to scurvy like the immigrant population.
Last year I happened across a book at a used book store detailing the field preparation, planting, harvest, cooking, and preservation of the Hidatsas' staple crops: Buffalo Bird Woman's Garden by Gilbert L. Wilson, Ph.D. (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1987, 129 pages, photos & illustrations, paperback ISBN-13: 978-0873512190). Originally published as Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians: An Indian Interpretation, copyright 1917 by the University of Minnesota, it is a useful gardening guide nearly 100 years later. We implemented several of the techniques in our 2012 garden with great success.
The book is available from online sellers. It is also offered at no cost from the University of Pennsylvania Digital Library at http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/buffalo/garden/garden.html.
Spurred on by the narrative, I went in search of seeds Buffalo Bird Woman would have planted. I found the small red Hidatsa beans at Seed Savers Exchange. They also had the yellow Arikara bean that the Lewis and Clark Voyage of Discovery ate during the winter of 1805 while camped at Fort Mandan. (And, I was able to purchase hard-to-find ground cherry seed, a plant I remember fondly from my childhood. The husk-shrouded fruit makes a marvelous pie.)
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Located in northeastern Iowa, Seed Savers Exchange has been promoting the preservation and utilization of heirloom varieties for 37 years. Their mission is to conserve and promote America's culturally diverse but endangered food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants. It is one of the largest seed banks of its kind in North America, storing varieties in back-up locations at the USDA Seed Bank in Fort Collins, CO, and at Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway.
Shop the online catalog or request a printed copy from Seed Savers Exchange, 3094 North Winn Rd., Decorah, IA 52101; (563) 382-5990; http://www.seedsavers.org/.
Along with seeds, seed potatoes, and tomato and pepper transplants, Seed Savers Exchange offers a selection of gardening and food preservation books in addition to titles on beekeeping and raising poultry. I can vouch for the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, edited by Judi Kingry and Lauren Devine (Robert Rose, 2006, 448 pages, photos, paperback ISBN-13: 978-0778801313). I've used it for several canning seasons and have given it as a gift.
After much deliberation, I narrowed down my list of likes to one book I felt would be the most beneficial in our no-nonsense, homestead-inspired yarden: Edible Landscaping by Rosalind Creasy (Sierra Club Books, 2010, 384 pages, photos and illustrations, paperback ISBN-13: 978-1578051540). It is chock-full of ideas for raising produce in spaces previously considered floral territory. Examples include formal and casual designs, raised beds and containers. Creasy's eye for the practical and whimsical have me anxious for spring.
Nearly half of the book is given to "An Encyclopedia of Edibles," a helpful compendium of plants that provide delicious food and beautify the home landscape. Each entry comes with a hardiness zone rating for perennial, shrubs, and trees and an effort scale to give aspiring gardeners an idea as to the time involved in planting, weeding, harvesting, use, and preservation of the crop.