Amaranth: by Cameron Lee

Deriving its name from the Greek word amarantos, “one that does not wither” and native to South America and Mesoamerica is the pseudocereal known as Amaranth. A common name that encapsulates more than 74 species, with approximately 55 native species to the Americas, and the remaining 19 native species to Eurasia, South Africa, and Australia/Oceania. Amaranth is able to grow in a large variety of climates: warm temperate, subtropical, and tropical regions around the world. “New World” amaranth was brought to Europe via the Columbian Exchange. Though underappreciated by many who live in the Western hemisphere, it has been popular in India, Nepal, China, and Russia and grown as a high quality, gluten-free grain, with the greens used as a leafy vegetable. What differentiates Amaranth from other grains are its nutritional benefits like being high in protein, cholesterol-lowering, and anti-inflammatory properties, high in vitamins A and C.

Pictured below is the red amaranth from the Red Butte Garden, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Amaranth is typically tall and has broad green leaves with bright purple, red, or gold flowers. The plant is large and bushy and can reach over 6 feet in height. The seeds are small; each one is about 3-4 millimeters in diameter and the roots of the crop are generally sparse. Although amaranth is highly adaptable to their environment, it is frost-sensitive and requires warm weather.  It is drought tolerant and can grow in a wide variety of soils but prefer good drainage. The leafy vegetable varieties of amaranth measure around 1-4 feet tall and are bushier than those varieties that are primarily for producing grain. Weekly harvesting tends to delay flowering and encourages new shoot and leaf growth. 

The leafy vegetable varieties of amaranth are highly nutritious, with African varieties notably providing up to 25 percent of one’s daily protein. Boiled amaranth leaves and stems are soft in texture and have a mild flavor with little to no bitterness. The U.S. Department of Agriculture in Beltsville, Maryland conducted taste tests for 60 participants and found that, of the 60 participants, a large majority said cooked amaranth tasted at least as good as spinach. Some even saying that the taste was similar to that of artichoke. 

Pictured below are dulce alegrias which are bars of amaranth seed and honey, often topped with nuts and/or dried fruit. This is similar to the Aztec zoale.

Part of a long and colorful history throughout the “New World” and used for its greens and grains, Amaranth was consumed by the American Indian populations in the American Southwest and Great Basin. These populations included the Navajo, Tewa, Zuni, Havasupai, Yuman, Apache, and other Pueblo Indians, who used the greens and seeds of the amaranths extensively, even cultivating several types. It is recorded that the native tribes as far north as Montana ate the leaves and seeds of the wild prostrate Amaranth. A traditional Zuni myth states that the rain priests scattered the seeds of the prostrate Amaranth across the earth; this symbolizes the cultural importance this plant once held by the native “New World” populations.

In Mesoamerica, the Aztecs also cultivated Amaranth as one of their major crops. Known to the Aztecs as huauhtli in Nahuatl (Aztec language) and bledo in Spanish, it was used to make idols of dough, called zoale, meant to represent the god of war, sun, and human sacrifice, Huitzilopochtli. These idols were featured during festivals, which took place throughout the year. Zoale was a dough made of milled Amaranth and toasted corn seeds mixed with honey or maguey sap. During the festival of Huitzilopochtli, which took place sometime in May, these idols were broken up, distributed, and eaten in a communion ceremony. Use of zoale and Amaranth was featured in at least six other seasonal festivals honoring various deities within the Aztec religion. They also used amaranth flour to make tortillas and tamales and used the greens for vegetables. However, use of the plant quickly declined during the Colonial Period due to the Spanish Christian missionaries attempting to convert the Aztecs. Because the plant was associated with pagan festivals, it was banned by the Colonizers. The importance of Amaranth in the Aztec civilization is shown when the Spanish conquistador banned the cultivation and possession of the crop. Using brutal, violent tactics, he actively sought to suppress Aztec culture, traditions, and religion. However, Amaranth is still enjoyed by some in Mexico, who continue to create a popped amaranth confection called dulce alegria which is similar to zoale.

Pictured below are uncooked amaranth grains.

The suppression of Amaranth saw the crop fade into obscurity with little industrial-scale statistical data.  However, this crop has the potential to replace maize, wheat, and other grains because of its’ ability to grow in dry, drought-ridden areas.  Though commonly referred to as pigweed and misunderstood as a weed in the U.S., amaranth is a popular crop in developing nations. An easy-to-grow, nutrient-rich, high yielding food, amaranth can boost the nutrition and food security problems that affect many underserved communities, especially as climate change continues to affect climates around the world. 

“Amaranth – May Grain of the Month.” Amaranth – May Grain of the Month. Accessed July 25, 2019.

“Read “Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables” at” National Academies Press: OpenBook. Accessed July 25, 2019.

Benfer, Adam. “Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere.” Pigweed. Accessed July 25, 2019.

Davison, Jay, and Beth Leger. “The Potential of Amaranth as a New Crop for Nevada.”

Tubene, Stephan L., R. David Meyers, and William J. Sciarappa. “Ethnic and Specialty Vegetables Handbook.”

Wolfe, Kathy. “Amaranthus: A Plant of Many Faces.” From Brilliant Blossoms to Nutritious Gluten-free Grain, September 2, 2016.

Seven Top Turnips: by Cameron Lee

Turnips are a very popular vegetable for both its bulbous root and its spicy, nutritious greens.  Although all turnip greens are edible, there are specific varieties that have been bred for their prolific production of delicious turnip greens.  One variety in particular that we sell at Gateway Greening is the Seven Top Turnip. The Seven Top Turnip is part of an ancient lineage of turnips. Turnips were domesticated in two separate places with the European varieties developed around the Mediterranean region.  In fact, the Early Greeks cultivated several types as early as 300 BCE. The turnip was also grown in Asia for the past 4,000 years, theorized to have originated from Central Asia, west of the Himalayan mountain range. Modern-day turnips grew in what is now France at least as early as 100 A.D. 

Pictured below are turnip greens

The Seven Top Turnip variety was first noted in Virginia, later becoming a regular garden fixture throughout the Eastern Atlantic region and the South during the nineteenth century. The greens of the Seven Top would gain further popularity in the twentieth century as seed companies began distributing the plant around the country.  It eventually developed a strong following in Kentucky, southern Ohio, and right here in Missouri. However, despite its popularity in home gardens, it wasn’t grown on an industrial scale since it doesn’t produce the bulbous root that many like to eat. For those who love turnip greens though, the Seven Top is the standard and highly regarded in the South. Enjoyed by all, the greens are commonly featured in wilted salads, with hot bacon grease and salt poured on top. The flavor of the greens is not as sharp as mustard and more peppery than lettuce, cress, or pepper grass.

The Seven Top is part of the Brassica genus and is in the same family as mustard greens and cabbage.  Almost all parts of the plants in the Brassica genus are developed for food, including the root, stems, leaves, flowers, and seeds which can be used in various culinary recipes. Roman author and naturalist Pliny the Elder stated, “it (turnips) should be spoken of immediately after corn, or the bean, at all events; for next to these two productions, there is no plant that is of more extensive use.” Not all turnips are the same and many vary in shape, size, and color – some can potentially a weight of fifty pounds.  They can be round, flat, or even cylindrical; the colors can be yellow or white, with or without green, red, or purple near the top. They typically are planted in the fall and winter seasons, and the foliage of the Seven Top is harvested around forty-five days after planting. 

Pictured below, Buist’s prize medal turnip seeds in the late 19th century

Mentioned by Roman agriculturalists Cato and Columella, the crop may have been introduced to England by Roman colonizers and later naturalized following the Roman evacuation of the country. However, the turnip would not gain popularity until the seventeenth and eighteenth century. John Gerard, an English botanist, would note that the cultivation of turnips as a food source centered around the village of Hackney, located on the outskirts of London. This suggests that the inclusion of the turnip into the English diet was primarily due to Dutch expatriates living in the country. In those times growing turnips required some skill, mainly to avoid the turnip fly’s devastating ability to destroy the seedling sprouts of the turnips. The farmer’s solution was to germinate their seeds in water for a day, with the more adventurous farmers using warm water and then proceeding to douse the seeds in lamp oil or lime to impart a flavor that is offensive to the fly.  Although the turnip was not fully adopted into the English diet during the nineteenth century, the United States saw a particular interest in the plant with people from every region and class enjoying it. The first turnips were brought to modern-day Canada by the Breton explorer Jacques Cartier in 1541. It would also be planted in Virginia by colonists in 1609 and later Massachusetts in the 1620s. The cultivation of the turnip would not go unnoticed by the American Indians and they would adopt the turnip for food.  

Due to the greens long growing season and high nutritional content, greens became a staple food across the South.  Influenced by the African Diaspora, southern cooking is a mix of European, African, and Native American culinary practices and traditions. Before the nineteenth century, the majority of Africans entered the United States as enslaved people, with their time spent in Africa mostly working in agriculture-related pursuits and domestic service to one another. Ironically, their enslavement was well placed to influence their masters. This influence not only extended to the dishes they ate and served but also the crops they grew, methods of agriculture, various culinary techniques, and arguably, even ideas of hospitality. Starting on the African continent, a soupy stew eaten over a starch was most certainly in effect before European contact, varying from region to region. 

Pictured above are wilted turnip greens, a traditional dish popular in the South in the U.S.

North Africa had millet and hard wheat; the west was cultivating yams and rice; the horn of Africa growing teff and eleusine. The culinary techniques primarily revolved around the three rock stove: boiling their food in water, toasting near the fire, roasting in the fire, steaming by wrapping the foodstuff in leaves, baking in the ashes, and even frying them in deep oil. These techniques would be carried over the Atlantic and would later form the foundation of the cooking in which African Americans would excel at and later add to the culinary traditions of the South. Before the advent of grocery stores and modern shipping, a person’s diet mainly depended on where they lived, especially for the enslaved living in the economically disadvantaged South. Meat such as beef and pork were expensive, leading many to rely on vegetables for nutrition.  

  1.  “Brassica Rapa (Rapifera Group).” Plant Finder. Accessed July 02, 2019.
  2.  Slow Food USA. “Seven Top Turnip.” Ark of Taste. Accessed July 02, 2019.
  3.  “Turnip.” Accessed July 02, 2019.
  4.   “Brassica Rapa (Rapifera Group).” Plant Finder. Accessed July 02, 2019.
  5.  Shields, David. “The Turnip.” The Roots of Taste. April 2011. Accessed July 02, 2019.
  6.  Anderson, Martin. “Turnip and Its Hybrid Offspring: Archives: Aggie Horticulture.” Turnip and Its Hybrid Offspring | Archives. Accessed July 16, 2019.
  7. HARRIS, JESSICA B. “African American Foodways.” In The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 7: Foodways, edited by EDGE JOHN T., by WILSON CHARLES REAGAN, 15-18. University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

Seminole Pumpkin: by Cameron Lee

One of the many plants growing in our Demonstration Garden this year is the Seminole pumpkin.  It has grown so well for us that we’ve decided to offer it for sale to the St. Louis community.  Our Seminole pumpkin seed packets are available at our office Monday-Friday and at our Demonstration Garden on Saturdays 9 AM to noon.  

In addition to its great horticultural properties, the Seminole pumpkin also has a rich and fascinating history.  Once highly sought after, the plant is native to Florida’s Everglades and bears a similar sweetness to butternut squash.  Found throughout Florida, this variety of pumpkin was previously cultivated before the arrival of the Spanish in the sixteenth century. Though the pumpkin shares its name with the Seminole tribe, it was widely consumed and grown by the Miccosukee, Creek, and other tribes indigenous to Florida. The Miccosukee named the Seminole Pumpkin, “Chassa Howitska” or “hanging pumpkin,” referring to the method in which the pumpkin hangs on the bare limbs of the tree. Planted at the base of girdled trees, its’ vines grow up the tree’s trunk, allowing the fruit to develop. This particular method produced large yields of the crop, allowing immigrants from Europe coming to Florida to cultivate hundreds of acres. The pumpkin was a staple food for the early Indian tribes and later the Seminoles, with the fruits and flowers still being used today in soups, breadmaking, or eaten as a vegetable.

Pictured above is an immature seminole pumpkin growing from the base of a girdled tree in north Florida.  You can also see the unique white/silvery color the foliage usually gets.

    The Seminole Pumpkin will typically feature velvety-hair, that can range anywhere from shallow to deep lobes, with broad-ovate to kidney-shaped leaves with toothed margins.  It’s leaves often have white spots on the veins and are silver-lined, creating an almost-shiny reflection that deters pests when in direct sunlight. In late spring, single axillary flowers will bloom that are typically a creamy white to orange-yellow color. The pumpkin itself is pear-shaped or spherical with an incredibly hard rind.  The color of the shell can be deep gold to a light salmon and pinkish buff color. Inside, the flesh is beige to orange and has a fine-grained texture.

The Seminole Pumpkin has a long history of cultural and historical significance to the indigenous groups in Florida. The first inhabitants of Florida consisted of multiple tribes; the Calusa, Tequesta, Tocobaga, Jobe/Jaegas, Ayes, and the Apalachee. These Floridian tribes would later become collectively known as the Seminoles, a name meaning “wild people.” The majority of the Seminole population would be an amalgamation of the earlier tribes and it would later include runaway slaves who found refuge in Florida. The Seminoles would continue living in Florida until the turn of the nineteenth century when run-ins with American settlers became more frequent as they sought Seminole land and their former slaves returned — threatening Seminole autonomy and their ancestral lands.

A U.S. Marine boat expedition searching the Everglades during the Second Seminole War.

Further transgressions against the Seminoles later escalated into a series of wars collectively known as the Seminole Wars. Beginning shortly after the passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830, the U.S. government attempted to relocate the Seminoles to a reservation in Oklahoma.  Chief Chekika, a chief of Spanish and Indian descent, led a series of attacks against American settlers and traders. Shortly after Chief Chekika’s attack on the town of Indian Key, General Walker Armistead authorized Lt. Col. Harney and ninety soldiers from the 2nd Dragoons and 3rd Artillery to conduct one of the first Special Forces operations in U.S. Army history. However, Chief Chekika proved to be elusive and further frustrated Lt. Col. Harney. In one instance, Harney discovered an abandoned Seminole campsite with pumpkins left behind, hanging from the trees, seemingly taunting the American soldiers.  No written records have been found regarding who fired the first shot, but in the end, all the pumpkins lay broken. Although there was no clear explanation to why the pumpkins were shot at; however, one possibility was to deny and eliminate food supply intended for the Seminoles. In other regions of the U.S., Native Americans of the time frequently buried their gourds, pumpkins, and dried meat in the ground in order to avoid the destruction of their food supplies. However, in the Everglades, the wet ground is unsuitable to storing foods because of spoilage so the Seminoles used the Seminole pumpkin for food storage, taking advantage of the pumpkin’s ability to grow as a vine in the canopies above and its naturally long storage life.

So why should the Seminole pumpkin be cultivated? Aside from the Seminole pumpkin’s ability to store for long periods, the pumpkin is very resilient to heat and humidity, which makes it great for growing in hot St. Louis summers.  The pumpkin is resistant to downy mildew, diseases, and pests like the dreaded squash vine borer that is difficult to control and kills most squash. Squash bugs will still feed on the Seminole pumpkin, but they are not harmful and won’t disturb its growth.  Seminole pumpkins also require little maintenance for the gardener, some even claiming that the pumpkins thrive under neglect. This particular variety is quite productive, though its vines are capable of reaching twenty-five feet in height, making space a necessity. Once harvested, the pumpkin can store without refrigeration for an average of six to twelve months. Though it was and still is common to plant Seminole pumpkins at the base of girdled trees, use of trellises have been met with success and offer a great alternative.   Its flavor is very similar to butternut squash and can be used as a baking pumpkin – it’s 6” size makes about 1 ½ cups of pureed pumpkin! 

The Seminole Pumpkin’s flesh is beige to orange and has a fine-grained texture

1.Slow Food USA. “Seminole Pumpkin.” Slowfood USA. Accessed June 18, 2019.

2. Allen, Ginger M., Michael D. Bond, and Martin B. Main. “50 Common Native Plants Important In Florida’s Ethnobotanical History.” Accessed June 18, 2019.

3. “Cucurbita Moschata.” Cucurbita Moschata – Plant Finder. Accessed June 18, 2019.

4. Slow Food USA. “Seminole Pumpkin.”

5. History Web Committee. “Seminole Indian War.” History: Town of Jupiter. Accessed June 18, 2019.

6.  “Seminole History.” Florida Department of State. Accessed June 19, 2019.

7. Campbell, Richard. “Attack of the Seminole Pumpkins.” Edible South Florida. October 31, 2016. Accessed June 18, 2019.

8.  “Seminole Pumpkin.” Seminole Pumpkin – Gardening Solutions – University of Florida. Accessed June 19, 2019.

Garden Spotlight: Britt Tate and Columbia Elementary

Britt Tate is the art teacher at Columbia Elementary and Bryan Hill Elementary.  Columbia Elementary is one of Gateway Greening’s Seed to STEM sites, where GG educator Nick Speed teaches weekly garden classes with each grade. 

The second you step into Britt’s classroom, her passion for plants and social justice is immediately obvious.  She has a large collection of plants from various points in her life and is a proud plant mom to “the weirdest, coolest plants.” Her passion for teaching children about the living world inspired her to start recycling efforts at the school, which snowballed into starting a garden and growing vegetables for the school.  

Britt pulls inspiration from what Nick teaches and they often collaborate on what’s happening in the garden. On Mondays, Nick checks in with Britt to share his lesson plans for the week so Britt can connect what she’s teaching in her art classroom with the garden. She keeps a mini-fridge in her classroom to store extra harvested vegetables to use in a lesson or a spontaneous student taste test. 

Britt proudly takes a nonconventional, unique approach in her classroom. Her teaching style focuses on the therapeutic process of making art, why we make it and examines the experience, rather than the end result. Similarly, the garden provides a space for students to learn the journey of where their food comes from and the work that goes into it. The garden is not only inspiration for the art they create, but also allows Britt to teach cross-curricular subjects in a visual way – like a lesson she gave on bees pollinating in the garden.  Britt asked her students to illustrate the role a bee plays in the garden ecosystem, using various styles of art. The outcomes were adorable, but more importantly, they represented how each student learns and expresses themselves differently. 

Britt’s “living classroom” doesn’t just include plants, it is also home to the classroom pet bunny, Vanilla, and two chicks.  This past school year, Columbia participated in MU Extension’s chick hatching program and had three incubators at the school to raise chicks.  During a lesson with the chicks, one student was upset when they made the connection between chicken wings and their new fuzzy friends. Britt believes the students’ daily interactions with animals and animals encourages them to buy responsibly and hopefully makes them more conscious consumers in the future.  The students appreciate the garden for providing food for Vanilla while learning how to care for an animal.   

Britt enjoys finding the overlap between art, science, and sustainability in her classroom and encourages other teachers to not be afraid to fail or try new things.  She says, “life is a science fair project.”  

Written by Rachel Wilson, Education VISTA