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The Garden Gate: Indian legends abound about popular veggies

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

There are some interesting legends among various Indian tribes concerning the origins of some of our most popular vegetables.

One widely held superstitious belief insists that a naked squaw strolling through her garden on a moonlit night dragging her garment behind her would ensure a good crop and would prevent cutworms from destroying the planted vegetables, especially corn.

Indian corn, or maize, was the most important food staple of the early settlements of America.

Explorers from all sections of Europe seemed fascinated by this plant that grew so abundantly and required so little attention.

Priests who accompanied Hernando de Soto on his Florida expedition in the mid-1500s considered celebrating the Eucharist with corn bread, but that idea was rejected as not befitting the dignity of this most solemn ceremony.

Maize, sometimes referred to as turkie wheat, was being cultivated by all the colonists in this new country.

Many legends among the various Indian tribes concerned the origins of four major American vegetables.

According to their belief, these foods came from the daughter of the Holy Sky Woman, who had descended from the heavens on the wings of birds.

When the daughter died and was buried in a shallow grave, corn sprang from her breast, squash grew from her abdomen, beans sprouted from her fingers and potatoes from her toes. As an added benefit, tobacco grew from her head.

Although the first settlers reserved judgment on this somewhat bizarre explanation, vegetables soon became just as important to their survival as they were to the lives of the Native Americans.

Colonials followed many of the agricultural practices developed by the Indians. Corn, pumpkins, squash and beans were planted together.

Early maturing stalks of corn were the poles to support the climbing bean stems, while ground vines of pumpkins helped to retain water and prevent erosion of the soil.

One section of a field would be planted several weeks after the first in order to extend the harvest season and fresh vegetables would then be available for a longer period.

After the crops were gathered, corn-husking bees were in many pioneer communities.

Indians celebrated a successful harvest with the Green Corn Dance Festival which coincided with the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving.

The Indians and early American farmers cultivated many varieties of peas and beans.

One contemporary handwritten cookbook lists nine different types of edible varieties grown during this period.

A 17th-century writer assisting Lord Baltimore in his attempts to lure more colonists to Maryland  insisted that the land was so fertile that pea plants grew a full 10 inches in only 10 days.

The pease porridge of nursery-rhyme fame was a staple food in Maryland.

It consisted of a cooked pea mush, which had been rubbed through a sieve with herbs, pepper and butter.

A similar dish in New York used several different types of peas flavored with celery, ginger and but-
ter.

The Indians ate the peas as well as the plant’s stalks, shoots, leaves and pods.

The many life-sustaining vegetables which grew in the colonies were memorialized by Plymouth’s Gov. William Bradford, a self-styled poet who did not apparently believe in brief titles for his work.

One of his long, narrative-style poems was entitled: “Some Observations of God’s Merciful Dealings with Us in This Wilderness and His Gracious Protection Over Us This Many Years, Blessed be His Name.”

One verse of this laboriously detailed poem explains: “All sorts of roots and herbs in gardens grow. Parsnips, carrots, turnips or what you’ll sow. Onions, melons, cucumbers, radishes, skirrets, beets, coleworts and fair cabbages. Nuts and grapes of several kinds are here, if you will take the pains them to seek for.”

At the ancient Indian mounds at Fort Ancient, Ohio, a 15,000-foot-square garden has recreated a pre-historic Indian garden, planted with foods that were part of the diets of the people who once lived there.

Fort Ancient is the largest, oldest and most perfectly preserved pre-historic hilltop garden in North America. It has long been a favorite spot for scholarly study.

Evidence shows that it was once occupied by two different Indian civilizations, separated by nearly five centuries.

First was the Hopewell Culture from 100 B.C. to 500 A.D. These people, mostly hunters and traders, built earthen structures and began the gardens.

Then came the Fort Ancient people, who left carefully measured and very symmetrical plots in the shape of a wheel.

Mankind’s earliest gardens developed beside the mighty Nile, Tigris and Euphrates rivers, where the life-giving factors of water and hot sunshine enabled mankind’s first civilizations to grow.

The Old Testament story tells us how “the Lord planted a garden” and “a river went out of Eden to water the garden.”

This was the very essence of ancient gardening, with shade for comfort and water for irrigation.

Interest in gardening doesn’t seem to be any different now than it was for thousands of years.

The important things in the world just keep going on, which is somehow very encouraging for us all.

• • •

Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.