Tarahumara Popping Sorghum Crop: by Cameron Lee

Native to Northeastern Africa, sorghum is one of the world’s most important grains for human consumption and is a staple food for more than 500 million people in over 30 countries. It is extremely versatile and can also be used for alcohol production and foraging. In the nineteenth century, sweet sorghum syrup was used as a sugar-substitute by many small communities. By the late 19th century, it was a dominant crop in the South, reaching a peak production of 24 million gallons, later declining due to the rise in corn-based glucose crops. The stem of certain varieties can be used for building, fencing, weaving, broom making, and firewood. For industrial purposes, sorghum can be used as an alternative to vegetable oil, waxes, and dyes. Sorghum should be planted shortly after corn when the soil temperatures are around 60-65 degrees Fahrenheit, allowing the crop to be planted in the spring season and can be planted until mid-summer if the rains are late. Easily adaptable to various climates, it can be grown in a wide variety of soils and is resilient in droughts. However, it is still susceptible to pests, such as birds and bugs. In temperate regions, sorghum will typically be harvested annually, whereas, in the tropics, it is a perennial and able to be collected many times throughout the year using a technique called ratooning.  The earliest evidence of sorghum was found as far back as 3,000 years ago and eventually spread to the drier regions of Africa. By 1,000 BCE, it was reported to be under cultivation in India. By the start of the Christian era, the crop spread along the coast of Southeast Asia and later to China.

Tarahumara Mexico

Sorghum’s seemingly never-ending versatility saw the crop quickly adopted by many different cultures all over the world. In China, sorghum is a critical ingredient for the production of distilled beverages such as Maotai and kaoliang and was even featured in the 1987 film Red Sorghum. In southern Africa, sorghum is used to produce many different varieties of beer, even being included in their local version of Guinness. African sorghum beer tends to be a brownish-pink beverage with a fruity, sour taste, with its alcohol content varying between one and eight percent. South Africa also uses sorghum to make a stiff porridge – also known as mabele in Northern Sotho and brown porridge in English. The porridge can be served with soured milk known as maswi or with merogo (a mixture of boiled greens) similar to collard greens or spinach. In the Indian province of Uttara Karnataka, a variety of unleavened bread is usually made with sorghum and is a staple diet throughout parts of India. In the eastern Karnataka and the Rayalaseema area of the Andhra Pradesh region, a round flatbread called roti is made using sorghum and is the staple food for the communities who live there.

Sorghum is similar to maize in many characteristics in appearance and versatility; a cane-like grass that has the potential to grow up to six meters tall with large clusters of grains branched out from the stem. The individual grains are relatively small compared to other grains, typically only three to four millimeters in diameter. Depending on the variety cultivated, the colors of the grains can vary anywhere from a pale yellow to reddish-brown to a dark brown.  The head of the sorghum is called a panicle, with spikelets paired with one another. Though they are ordinarily self-fertilized, they can also cross-pollinate. Before the 1940s, most grain sorghums grew up to five to seven feet tall, which created harvesting problems. Today, most varieties of sorghums have two or three dwarfing genes and are typically two to four feet tall and are usually called milo in the United States. 

A specific variety known as broomcorn has had a major impact for storing, cleaning, and ornamental uses. It differentiates itself from other cultivars of sorghum in that it produces heads with fibrous seed branches that can grow as large as 36 inches long. Native to Central Africa, production of this crop then spread to the Mediterranean. Use of this crop would be especially prevalent during the Dark Ages. First described in Italy in the late sixteenth century, it would be introduced to the United States in the early eighteenth century. Initially grown as a garden crop, commercial production started to gain popularity by 1834. Illinois being the largest producer of broomcorn in the 1860s before ceasing in 1967. Broomcorn was commonly used for wreaths, swags, floral arrangements, baskets, autumn displays, and like the name suggests, brooms. 

Tarahumara Popping

Highly versatile and adaptable, sorghum can be grown in harsher climates than other grains like maize and wheat while still producing an impressive yield and be used in numerous applications. Though the journey of sorghum to the Americas was relatively recent, within the past two hundred years, the crop was quickly adapted by groups that have been marginalized by outsiders. The Tarahumara, from which the variety shares its name, is one of the largest groups indigenous in North America, with a population of nearly 100,000 people, who have been cultivating this specific variety. Best known for their long endurance running, the majority of the Tarahumara are concentrated in the cool highlands of the Sierra Madre Occidental, Mexico. These highlands allow them access to lumber and land for sheep, cattle, and goats to graze. While others live in the tropical Las Barrancas or the gorges below the highlands, which allow the cultivation of fruit trees, tobacco, and other tropic-grown crops, many would migrate between the two regions depending on the seasons. Though the two areas produce different resources, both groups of the Tarahumara have similar lifestyles. As the lands around them were developed and modernized, the Tarahumara remained relatively uninfluenced by Mexican culture due to the harsh landscape of the highlands and their general reluctance to embrace outside influence. Their culture is bound to their physical environment and their way of life, the remoteness of their surroundings, making running their primary mode of transportation. Their diet was primarily vegetarian with meat usually only eaten on special occasions. Instead, they tend to use their livestock as a source of fuel and manure. They cultivate a variety of Mesoamerican crops such as corn, fruit, potatoes, beans, and squash. Occasionally supplementing their diet with hunting and gathering herbs, nuts, berries, cacti fruit, and seeds. 

Gateway Greening offers Tarahumara Popping Sorghum seed packets for $1/each.  You can purchase these packets at our office, Monday-Friday 8-4 PM or at our Demonstration Garden on Saturdays 9 am-noon.  



Sweet Potato Crop: by Cameron Lee

Native to Central and South America, the sweet potato is one of the world’s most important crops. Versatile, the sweet potato can be used in numerous applications. Famous chemist and botanist, George Washington Carver, a Missouri-born agricultural scientist, and innovator were able to discover a little over a hundred uses ranging anywhere from flour, starch, sugar, molasses, to stains, dyes, paints, and even medicine. Regarded as the world’s fifth most important crop, they can be enjoyed in a variety of ways, whether boiled, baked, or fried. Although high in starch like many grains and root crops around the world, it is also very rich in nutrients allowing it to serve as both a staple crop and vegetable (something pretty rare in the world of crops).  Therefore, multiple ethnic groups across the world have made the crop a staple in their cuisines. Although not widely known, the greens of the sweet potato are edible and very nutritious and widely used in some Southeast Asian and New Guinean cultures. 

The sweet potato is enjoyed around the world by many different cultures from Africa, Asia, and America. In Africa, particularly West African countries, the young leaves and vine tips are frequently consumed as a vegetable. In Egypt, the tubers of the sweet potatoes are known as “batatas” (بطاطا) and are common to see street vendors selling the crop. At times being baked as a snack or dessert, they are typically coated in honey. In East Asia, roasted sweet potatoes are quite popular. China typically has the yellow cultivars which are baked in a large iron drum and are also sold by street vendors. In Korea, the starch is used to make naengmyeon (cellophane noodles), even using sweet potatoes as a pizza topping. In the United States, sweet potatoes are mostly featured on Thanksgiving, but sweet potato fries among other uses have been gaining more popularity in recent years. 

There are three broad categories of sweet potatoes grown across the world.  There is a white starchy kind similar to potatoes, a hard, dry yellow kind, and the moist, sweet, and dark orange kind that is popular in the U.S., which is confused with the yam. Although sweet potatoes are commonly referred to as yams in North America, the sweet potato is a part of a different plant family. Yams are a part of the Dioscoridae family, which were domesticated in West Africa, whereas the sweet potato was domesticated in Western South America.  This confusion between the sweet potato and yams happened before the Civil War. Ships that brought West African slaves over to the United States via the Trans-Atlantic slave trade carried crops native to Africa as food for the long voyage. The crops included an African species of rice and other grains, okra, yams, and various kinds of beans and peanuts. The word yam is of West African origin with two languages having similar pronunciations of the word. In Fulani, yams translate to nyami meaning “to eat,” and in Twi, it translates to anyinam. Seeing that the two are relatively similar to one another, the West African slaves continued to use yams as the name for sweet potatoes. 

Sweet potato vines can grow up to nine to ten feet at a relatively fast rate, and although it is a perennial in the tropics, it will not survive our winters here and therefore is grown as an annual crop. A hermaphrodite, the plant has both male and female reproductive organs. Although sweet potatoes are pretty adaptable plants, they grow best in light and medium soils that are well-drained and require full sun for best yield. Its leaves can grow up to 10 centimeters and are typically heart- or egg-shaped with unlobed and sometimes toothed-margins. In late summer they produce pale purple or white trumpet-shaped flowers similar to a morning glory up to seven centimeters long and is often darker in color inside the tube. They grow in both tropical and temperate regions that experience hot summers. Due to its need for warmer climates, they have become a staple across Asia and Africa. When cooked, the sweet potato is sweet and highly rich in nutrients with some varieties having softer skins while the dryer white and yellow types are bred for their high starch content. When it comes to storing, if handled gently and left unwashed, the sweet potato can last for several months. They should not be stored in refrigerators as they can develop an off-taste and a hard core in the center. For preparation, the sweet potato should only be washed right before cooking because moisture can promote spoilage.

There are several theories about the sweet potato and its journey across the Pacific. According to findings from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that ancient Polynesians may have interacted with people living in South America before European contact. Archaeologists have hypothesized that ancient samples found in Polynesia around 1000 to 1100 CE originated from the western coast of South America. Pat Kirch, an archaeologist at the University of Berkeley, believes that the ancient Polynesians had the technology required to make the long ocean voyage across the Pacific to South America. They were great navigators of water, and in more recent years, further evidence has accumulated that the ancient Polynesians had made landfall in South America at some point. Making the voyage in large, sophisticated, double-hulled canoes which had the capability of carrying eighty or more people and was large enough to be out at sea for months. A linguistic link between the ancient Polynesians and the ancient South Americans seems to affirm the theory about the sweet potato’s movement across the Pacific as sweet potatoes have been found in Hawaii to Easter Island to New Zealand. The Uto-Aztecan word camotli seems to be the root of all words found across the Pacific. This evidence indicates that the center of domestication for the plant located in western South America.

Further theories have emerged as some believe that the sweet potato was deliberately or accidentally put on a boat that drifted across the Pacific, although both scenarios may seem unlikely, they are plausible. Ocean currents like the Humboldt current are slow and sluggish compared to the Gulf Stream, with cold water from Antartica flowing up the coast of South America where it dissipates and eventually flows towards the west. A third theory is that the sweet potato was first brought to Europe and then later introduced to Asia following Columbus’ expedition in 1492. Later continuing its journey eastward through the Silk Road, when explorers arrived in Polynesia in the eighteenth century, the sweet potato was already ingrained in their culture. However, the crop would not be identified by European explorers until the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto made landfall in South America. Tradition states that the Spanish explorers were the first to introduce South America’s native sweet potato and the white potato to the rest of the world; with its westward journey across the Pacific guided by Portuguese voyagers arriving at the Philippines and the East Indies. However, this theory tends to be Euro-centric and discounts the maritime capabilities of the ancient Polynesians who were even able to colonize Madagascar, later becoming the Malagasy people. 

“Carver Sweet Potato Products.” List of Products Made From Sweet Potato By George Washington Carver. Accessed July 02, 2019. https://www.tuskegee.edu/support-tu/george-washington-carver/carver-sweet-potato-products.

 “Sweet Potato (Ipomoea Batatas).” Accessed July 02, 2019. https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/62941-Ipomoea-batatas.

Coe, Sophie D. America’s First Cuisines. University of Texas Press, 2015.

Bryant, Alice, and Ashley Thompson. “Many Food Names in English Come From Africa.” VOA. February 12, 2018. Accessed July 11, 2019. 


“Ipomoea Batatas (L.) Lam.: Plants of the World Online: Kew Science.” Plants of the World Online. Accessed July 02, 2019. http://powo.science.kew.org/taxon/urn:lsid:ipni.org:names:1101088-2.

Cantaluppi, Carl, and Gwen Rubio. “Sweet Potato History-Did You Know?” NC Cooperative Extension News. Accessed July 02, 2019. https://granville.ces.ncsu.edu/2013/09/sweet-potato-history-did-you-know-2/.

 Doucleff, Michaeleen. “How The Sweet Potato Crossed The Pacific Way Before The Europeans Did.” Food History and Culture. January 23, 2013. Accessed July 02, 2019. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2013/01/22/169980441/how-the-sweet-potato-crossed-the-pacific-before-columbus.

“Who Are the Malagasy?” Exploring Madagascar, a Land of Cultural and Biological Richness. Accessed July 02, 2019. https://www.wildmadagascar.org/overview/FAQs/who_are_Malagasy.html.

Soil Your Undies Lesson: By Rachel Wilson

There is a lot happening in the soil of your garden that you can’t see without using a microscope!  Did you know there are more soil microorganisms in a teaspoon of healthy soil than there are people on earth?  The Soil Your Undies Challenge was recently popularized by American farmers to help promote the importance of healthy soil, but it’s also a great activity to use with children in the school garden or in the backyard.  Bury a pair of cotton underwear in your soil for two months to learn how healthy your soil is!

We followed GGI Educator Tonia when she co-taught this experiment with Mrs. Flanders’ kindergarten class at Mallinckrodt.  Mrs. Flanders found the experiment in the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Xplor magazine and thought it would be a great way to connect to the school garden. 


The class chose two spots in their school garden – one in a raised bed and one in the grass lawn – for their test sites.   Then, they shoveled into the soil 6” under the surface and buried a pair of 100% cotton underwear in both holes.

Mrs. Flanders asked her students to make predictions on what they think each underwear will look like in two months.    The majority of the students believed that both sites would have healthy soil.


            After waiting two months, the class recalled their predictions and dug up each pair of undies.  The underwear in site #1 in the garden bed was dirty and severely shredded leaving almost just the elastic waistband.  This meant that their soil has a healthy soil food web with lots of hungry critters! 

When they dug up the underwear at the site #2 in the grassy lawn, they found the pair was more intact and less of the cotton had been eaten.  The students learned that the soil in this spot is losing its nutrients and the critters need their help.  They brainstormed ways to revitalize the soil like mulching and loosening up the soil and adding more plants.

Tonia advises that this experiment worked well using a garden bed that was full of growing plants because the live roots attract microbe activity – and eat your undies!  Having a second site helped students to compare and brainstorm what needs to be changed in an area without healthy soil. 

Mrs. Flanders says, “It’s a hilarious and fun way to get students discussing healthy soil and decomposers!”

More soil health facts: https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb1101660.pdf 

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. https://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/grain-month-calendar/amaranth-may-grain-month.

“Read “Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables” at NAP.edu.” National Academies Press: OpenBook. Accessed July 25, 2019. https://www.nap.edu/read/11763/chapter/3#34.

Benfer, Adam. “Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere.” Pigweed. Accessed July 25, 2019. http://www.aihd.ku.edu/foods/Pigweed.html.

Davison, Jay, and Beth Leger. “The Potential of Amaranth as a New Crop for Nevada.” https://www.unce.unr.edu/publications/files/ag/2012/fs1219.pdf.

Tubene, Stephan L., R. David Meyers, and William J. Sciarappa. “Ethnic and Specialty Vegetables Handbook.” https://extension.umd.edu/sites/extension.umd.edu/files/_docs/EthnicVegHandbook2008.pdf.

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. http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?taxonid=261918&isprofile=0&cv=5.
  2.  Slow Food USA. “Seven Top Turnip.” Ark of Taste. Accessed July 02, 2019. https://www.slowfoodusa.org/ark-item/seven-top-turnip.
  3.  “Turnip.” Accessed July 02, 2019. https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Turnip.
  4.   “Brassica Rapa (Rapifera Group).” Plant Finder. Accessed July 02, 2019. http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?taxonid=261918&isprofile=0&cv=5.
  5.  Shields, David. “The Turnip.” The Roots of Taste. April 2011. Accessed July 02, 2019. http://www.common-place-archives.org/vol-11/no-03/shields/.
  6.  Anderson, Martin. “Turnip and Its Hybrid Offspring: Archives: Aggie Horticulture.” Turnip and Its Hybrid Offspring | Archives. Accessed July 16, 2019. https://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/archives/parsons/publications/vegetabletravelers/turnip.html.
  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. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5149/9781469616520_edge.6.

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. https://www.slowfoodusa.org/ark-item/seminole-pumpkin.

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. https://www.growables.org/informationVeg/documents/50NativePlamtsEthno.pdf.

3. “Cucurbita Moschata.” Cucurbita Moschata – Plant Finder. Accessed June 18, 2019. http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?kempercode=e451.

4. Slow Food USA. “Seminole Pumpkin.”  https://www.slowfoodusa.org/ark-item/seminole-pumpkin.

5. History Web Committee. “Seminole Indian War.” History: Town of Jupiter. Accessed June 18, 2019. https://www.jupiter.fl.us/DocumentCenter/View/2186/Seminole-Indian-War?bidId=.

6.  “Seminole History.” Florida Department of State. Accessed June 19, 2019. https://dos.myflorida.com/florida-facts/florida-history/seminole-history/.

7. Campbell, Richard. “Attack of the Seminole Pumpkins.” Edible South Florida. October 31, 2016. Accessed June 18, 2019. http://ediblesouthflorida.ediblecommunities.com/food-thought/attack-seminole-pumpkins.

8.  “Seminole Pumpkin.” Seminole Pumpkin – Gardening Solutions – University of Florida. Accessed June 19, 2019. http://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/plants/edibles/vegetables/seminole-pumpkin.html.

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

School Garden Spotlight – St. Francis of Assisi

Mike Herries and his wife, Paula, are the garden leaders at St. Francis of Assisi parish and school.  As the STREAM Coordinator at the school, Mike is passionate about connecting the garden to his curriculum.  He joined St. Francis of Assisi School as a substitute teacher when he returned to St. Louis after Hurricane Katrina destroyed his family’s home.  His engineering background (and excitement for learning) allowed him to transition easily into his current full-time position leading the STREAM curriculum. In 2017, he discovered Gateway Greening’s Youth Garden Program and decided to start a garden. The parish and faculty were immediately on board and continue to be huge supporters of the garden. 

The St. Francis of Assisi garden is particularly busy this spring with Gateway Greening’s First Peas to the Table Contest!  Using Gregor Mendel’s pea plant studies, Mike’s students performed their own crossbreeding experiments with peas they’d grown in the garden. Though Mike doesn’t expect a large harvest of peas, (last year, they won the award for “Most Patient” peas!) the contest has attracted more students to participate in the garden. 

Mike found that sending out a monthly email with garden updates has engaged more teachers to get involved.The students enjoy getting outdoors and are often shocked to learn where their food comes from. They’re always excited to try new vegetables growing in the garden! Several teachers incorporate the garden into their classrooms and try to get the students to walk through the garden every day. The pre-K teachers take their students through the garden each day and are growing tomato seedlings in their classrooms. 

While Mike works primarily with middle schoolers, he’s able to interact with students of all ages in the garden. He and Paula are particularly proud of their pumpkin graveyard lesson in the fall, where the students observed their pumpkin harvest decompose. 

Mike prides himself on the fact that the St. Francis of Assisi garden “is all about learning, not production!”.  He is not afraid to lose some vegetables to pests and says that “bugs are a learning opportunity!”  Most of the produce is eaten right off the vine, but when there are leftovers, the harvest is given to members of the parish. Providing experiential learning for the students is very important to Mike, and the garden plays a key role in his lessons.  Mike hopes to include a pollinator garden, sensory beds, a chicken coop, and bees in the future. 

His advice for other school garden leaders: “Collaborate with other teachers to find out what they enjoy doing.  If the garden doesn’t feel like a chore, they’ll be more eager to participate.”


Written by Rachel Wilson, Education VISTA


Youth Garden Spotlight: Girls Inc. Garden and Sheila Irving

Girls Inc. is a nonprofit that provides educational and cultural after-school and summer programs in safe environments for girls and encourages them to realize their potential.  They offer after-school and summer programs for girls K-12.  Learn more about the organization here.

Sheila Irving has been the garden leader since she started with Girls Inc. over seven years ago.  She had no gardening experience prior to the job, but saw they are empty, forgotten raised beds as a challenge!  Since her very first planting of tomatoes and onions, the garden has grown to 12 raised beds, producing a variety of vegetables.  Sheila proudly shares that they’ve grown everything from watermelon and cantaloupe to broccoli and cauliflower!

Students in the Girls Inc. After School and Summer programs contribute to the garden’s maintenance and are able to use the produce they’ve grown to experiment in the building’s kitchen.

In the spring, the students start seeds at the school and take them home to care for until they are ready to transplant into the garden.   The seed starting “homework” empowers the girls to be responsible for their seedlings and allows them to observe the plant life cycle.

Sheila is also involved with the Eureka! STEM Career Development program at Girls Inc. and finds ways to incorporate the garden into the curriculum.   The program provides hands-on STEM experiences and personal development activities, increasing the likelihood that they will pursue higher education and careers in STEM fields.  Sheila encourages the girls to dream big – this winter, a group of her Eureka! students designed a 3D model for a future garden plan that included an irrigation system and greenhouse. The project won a Eureka! STEM competition and the girls plan to use their prize money to make their designs a reality in the Girls Inc. garden.

Over the summer, the garden is still buzzing with excitement from girls K-12 who are a part of the Girls Inc. summer program.  Having this program allows the students to interact and learn in the garden during the summer months when a school garden is often forgotten.

What Sheila enjoys most about being in the garden is seeing the girls outside working hard and having fun.   Throughout the gardening season, Sheila and the students hold mini-market stands to sell their produce to parents during after-school pick-up. Sheila credits these interactive moments for the success of the garden: “The students are excited, so the parents get excited, and they all go and tell their friends about the garden, and it spreads throughout the community.”  Sheila hopes to continue promoting the garden into the community and providing opportunities where the students at Girls Inc. can teach their peers about gardening.

Sheila proves that you don’t need horticultural experience to lead a school garden, just dedication and not being afraid to get dirty!

By Rachel Wilson, Education Americorps VISTA

Central Reform Congregation Garden: Growing Food & Community

Wendy Bell and Karen Flotte, CRC Co-Garden Goddesses

Karen Flotte and Wendy Bell are very involved at the Central Reform Congregation, but their role as “co-garden goddesses” is what they are best known for.

CRC is one of the largest public green spaces in the area, but growing food wasn’t part of the garden until Wendy installed vegetable beds in 2016.  However, Wendy credits Karen joining her gardening efforts in 2017 as when “the magic happened”. Together, the two of them created a plan to grow produce at the CRC garden solely to donate to local families in need.  They recruited a team of volunteers and during that first year, grew 80 lbs. of produce. In the last two years, that number has increased exponentially, but 100% of their produce is still donated. (Karen is known for her unwavering stance that their produce is for people in need, not for the congregants!)

 Something unique about CRC is the story of their orchard planting.  In 2017, CRC (along with many Jewish communities) was experiencing safety concerns and for security reasons, they decided to remove the bamboo wall near their entrance that blocked visibility towards the street.  In its place, they planted an orchard of apple and pear trees from the Gateway Greening Giving Grove Community Orchard Program.  Jewish tradition views Saturdays as a day of worship and rest, but on this particular Saturday morning, the rabbi at CRC encouraged the gardeners to plant and said they were “praying with their hands and feet.”  There was a morning prayer at the orchard for everyone in the congregation to participate in.

In addition to the install, Wendy and Karen attended an orchard pruning workshop with Gateway Greening where they learned that gardeners should not harvest fruit from their trees for the first 3-4 years.  Waiting to harvest allows the tree to grow branches and roots before bearing fruit and harvesting too early can stunt a tree’s growth. This information was particularly significant for Wendy and Karen because it coincides with the teachings of Tu Bishvat, the new year for the trees.  According to Tu Bishvat, fruit from trees may not be eaten during the first three years and the fruit of the fourth year was to be offered to the priests in the Temple as a gift of gratitude.  It wasn’t until the fifth year (and subsequent years) that the fruit was finally for the farmer. Seeing this connection and having the congregation embrace the orchard was a special moment for Karen and Wendy.

        An exciting, new project for the pair is to utilize a donated fridge and invite home gardeners at CRC to bring their excess produce to be donated.  (Produce from Gateway Greening’s Demonstration Garden will be dropped off at CRC, too!)  While the CRC garden prides itself on donating produce to those in need, Wendy and Karen acknowledge that they’ve overlooked that are also families in need within the congregation.  To fill that void, they’re adding two new “gleaning” beds that will be open to congregants in need.

        Knowing that they can’t lead the garden forever, Wendy and Karen are currently developing a committee of young congregants to build longevity for the garden and identify the future leaders.  Each person in the committee is responsible for a specific area of the garden, like compost or pest management. In addition, Wendy and Karen are working outside CRC with other Jewish congregations in the area to promote their garden model and strategies.  Their goal is to reach all congregations in St. Louis!


Wendy and Karen credit much of their success to the collaboration between the two of them.  Though they come from different backgrounds and have contrasting personalities, they find a commonality in the garden and making a difference in their community.  Wendy notes that her proudest moment in the garden was meeting and teaming up with Karen. She says, “There is no ego (between us), we have mutual respect for each other. It’s all about the garden!”   

Their advice for other gardeners is to build relationships first and be okay with starting small.  Growing your garden will be a process but it’s important to have a foundation of trust amongst the gardeners.  They engage their own community by constantly talking about the garden and they believe that “if you build it, they will come”.