The Extreme Gardener

Experiments in permaculture and
other gardening adventures in northeastern Vermont

Posts tagged ‘endangered’

Passumpsic Jerusalem artichokes

Saturday, October 1st, 2011

Passumpsic blooming

I brake for Jerusalem artichokes (and you should, too).

I don’t recommend car window botanizing for drivers, but it’s a fine sport for passengers, and can yield treasure. That’s what I was up to in the early 1980s when one day, on RT 5 as we passed a local burger and fries place, I spotted a small patch of Jerusalem artichokes just off the edge of the big gravel parking lot. I later returned under cover of darkness with folding shovel and bucket to pilfer a few for planting.
I now have a big fine patch of them, which is a good thing because the burger joint parking lot became a used car dealership, totally paved over, and there’s nary a sunchoke to be seen on the banks of the Passumpsic River. RT 5 between St. Johnsbury and St. Johnsbury Center has been heavily strip developed.

Jerusalem artichokes

So, how did they get to the banks of the Passumpsic River? Jerusalem artichokes, helianthus tuberosus, are closely related to the common sunflower, and were originally domesticated by Native Americans in the Midwest of the USA, where they grow “wild”. The thing is, here in our short growing season, they barely have a chance to flower before hard frosts, so they never set seed. Thus, my conclusion is, any plants found in our area were originally planted from tubers by humans, especially as far up in the watershed as we are.

The odd name “Jerusalem artichoke” is a corruption of the Italian “girasol” which means “turns toward the sun.” Jerusalem artichokes were brought to Europe and appreciated there both as livestock fodder (pigs adore them) and as famine food. They saved many people in France from starvation during World War II.

However, the Europeans who came to this country had little respect for this plant. They much preferred potatoes. There was also a cultural issue, especially in our area, because this plant was associated with Native Americans. In living memory, even Abenaki descendents here would shun anything that might betray “indian-ness”, and for good reason. They were targets of a state eugenics program in the 1930s, which itself was a crescendo of strong racial prejudice that came with the English-dominated European settlement of northern Vermont.

I seriously doubt that the patch I found above St. J. was planted by anyone in the last hundred and fifty years or so. I believe it was a remnant of a Cowas (the local Abenaki band) river bank garden. I have named this variety Passumpsic after the river, whose name means “clear flowing water.”

The tubers of Passumpsic

The tubers of Passumpsic Jerusalem artichoke.

Passumpsic is a very good quality Jerusalem artichoke. It is long and smooth, and easy to clean, unlike the knobby types that are more common. My favorite culinary use for them is in kimchee – they are really delicious lacto-fermented: nice and crisp. They are perennial and can be left in place and dug up as needed whenever the ground is not frozen, and they’re at their best in the late fall and early spring. If given a good sunny position and decent soil, they will thrive. However, I do not allow them in the garden proper. They have their own area off to the side, with recyled metal roofing mulch between them and the garden beds. They are definitely invasive in a garden situation. They need to be managed ruthlessly once established if you want to continue to grow other plants as well, although I’ve heard that if you put pigs on them, the pigs will devour every last one.

Jerusalem artichokes in their own patch

Note the metal mulch. It’s too narrow and is being replaced with wider sheets to be more effective at keeping them in their place.

So, if you happen to be in any of Vermont or New Hampshire’s river valleys, keep an eye out for the tell-tale tall yellow fall flowers, or the clusters of tall dry grey stalks from the previous year’s growth. You just might be able to rescue a Native American heirloom plant.

Littleton bean – one of our own Three Sisters

Wednesday, February 4th, 2009

Littleton pole bean, dried

Here’s yet another horticultural bean from my neck of the woods. Thankfully, I have not heard or seen it referred to as a Cranberry bean. This is one I acquired in 1985 by participating in Seed Savers Exchange growers’ network. BN-17, as it is also known, was originally put into SSE by Ernest Dana of Etna, New Hampshire.

The name refers to Littleton NH. Plant breeders extraordinaire Elwin Meader and Albert Yeager referred to it as an “old New Hampshire heirloom” in Breeding New Vegetable Varieties (1957, NH Agriculture Experiment Station). They chose it to cross with their own Flash in a quest to breed a bush horticultural bean with bright red color, not only on the pods but also on the seeds at the green shell stage. They also wanted pods that would pop open easily. At that time, horticultural beans typically went to market in the pod when the seed was mature, but not dry, and the seed color at that stage is usually off white with only a hint of the streaking and color that becomes pronounced when the bean seeds are dry. The characteristics sought from Littleton were the large seed size, earliness and prolific production. From Littleton x Flash they created Shelleasy.

Littleton bean in bloom

Littleton is not a bush bean – it won’t stand up on its own; but, it’s not a typical pole bean either – the vines only grow to about 4′ long. Beans with this kind of plant architecture are sometimes referred to as twiners or half-runners. Like full sized pole beans, half runners have fallen out of favor. They’re not suited for mechanized harvest, and most home gardeners don’t want to be bothered with the extra work of providing support. But those whose make the extra effort discover that these types of bean give higher yields in a given amount of garden space than bush varieties.

I was always intrigued by the concept of the Three Sisters (corn, beans and squash) grown together in hills, with the beans climbing the cornstalks. I tried this several times with various pole bean varieties only to have the beans strangle and smother the corn. When I finally tried half-runners on the corn, it worked…

You may notice in the photo below, there is no corn. In the past few years we have had a severe raccoon problem, and I can’t chance growing these rare beans where they’re likely to get ripped and trampled.

The beans growing in a bed with squashBean pods at the green shell stage

Littleton growing on short poles in a bed with squash.

The same season I got Littleton through the SSE grower’s network, I also grew out another half-runner, Mohawk Horticultural, SSE BN-220. Very little information came with either Littleton or Mohawk. For Mohawk it was simply “80-105 days, Indian, 1825 ” and that the original source was ME/HO/L (ME = Maine). After growing both for several years, I have to say that they are identical as far as I can tell.

I have an educated guess and a strong gut-level feeling about Littleton’s origins. Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont was Abenaki territory. West of Lake Champlain was Mohawk territory. The Abenaki engaged in trade with the Mohawks, so I think it is reasonable to assume that Abenakis were growing this bean and calling it Mohawk in some cases. The area around Littleton NH was in the heart of the territory of the Cowas Abenakis, my ancestors. I cannot prove the connection between the Cowas and this bean, but I feel it.

Unfortunately, my grandparents’ generation was pretty phobic about anything that might be perceived as indian-ness. At the time they were starting a family racial prejudice reached a real crescendo with Vermont’s eugenics program. So, there was a major erasure of culture, and I can only piece random fragments together and guess…

Overwintering cabbage

Sunday, October 26th, 2008

I worry about brassicas and onions. They are such important plants, and very few seed savers are working with them. The rate that the commercially available open pollinated varieties are disappearing is really scary. Brassicas and onions can be pretty fussy to grow seed and maintain purity, so it’s not hard to figure out why seed savers grow lots of tomato and bean varieties, but very few cabbages for seed.

I have a couple of good strains of kale I’ve been working with for about 10 years, and have had some success growing broccoli seed, though not consistently. I haven’t had any success with growing seed from heading cabbage – I can’t seem to maintain the plants in a root cellar over winter in good enough condition to get healthy seed the next year. So, I have had a strong interest in finding a hardy enough heading cabbage to overwinter here in the garden. The bummer is, I’ve finally found one, and now I can’t find a source for the seed in the US or Canada. The most recent edition of The Garden Seed Inventory has it on the no longer commercially available list. Yet, there seem to be plenty of commercial offerings for this variety in the UK.

cabbage July 2007

Cabbage Offenham July 2007. It was the only seedling that survived the first winter from an in situ sowing August 2006. The plant yielded one nice, sweet, medium sized conical head in October 2007. (Sorry, I forgot to take a photo of it.) The heads have a strong resemblance to Early Jersey Wakefield, though Offenham plants are larger framed.

cabbage July 2008

July 2008, the plant had survived a second Vermont winter with no protection. I was impressed. I then expected it to bolt in 2008, but low and behold, it made 5 or 6 lovely little pointed heads this September and October, and it is continuing to throw shoots up from the roots and stalks.

cabbage Sept 2008cabbage multi head detail

Over wintering cabbages are also called spring cabbages. In warmer climates than ours, they are sown in August for heads in the late spring, and the smaller heads cut again in the fall. So, I’m wondering if I hadn’t cut the first head (in Sept. 2007) if it might have sent up a seed stalk last spring. It’s kind of a moot point because there’s only the one plant. (I like to have at least 6 plants for brassica olearica seed production). One way or another, I’ll have to find some more Offenham seed to plant next August…

Pet peas – De Grace

Monday, February 25th, 2008

I really like edible podded peas, and make about 5 succession plantings to have a steady supply from mid June to the end of September. Each planting of snow or snap peas is a 12 foot row on chicken wire support, and gives us enough for two people to eat their heart’s content daily, with enough for seed saving as well.

First of June, pea De Grace along bed edge, with Over-Winter spinach and volunteer cilantro, volunteer pak-choi and volunteer garlic.

I’m not keen on canned and frozen vegetables, with a few exceptions. My preference is always to have food as unprocessed as possible…. especially when I’m the food processor. Not that I ‘m lazy (well, maybe a little), but when supper time approaches, I pretty consistently gravitate to the edible podded peas as opposed to the green peas that must be shelled. I’ve grown quite a few varieties of green shell peas, but have only kept one or two long term over the years, largely out of guilt because they are nice varieties and were abandoned by the seed industry.

Anyway, each year now our first and last planting of the eat-all peas is a snow pea called De Grace. Originally, I purchased De Grace in 1985 from William Dam Seeds, a Canadian seed house with Dutch connections. (They no longer ship seed to the US — I miss them!)

Dam dropped this variety soon after I got it from them, and according to the Seeds of Diversity Heritage Plants Database, De Grace has not been offered by US or Canadian seedhouses in more than 20 years. I found one 2007 commercial listing by a Thomas Etty, in the UK, who specializes in heirloom varieties, but sells only in the EU. This variety was also known as Dutch Sugar and is mentioned by both names in the The American Gardener’s Magazine and Register of Useful Discoveries and Improvements in Horticulture and Rural Affairs, Vol II, 1836. (Love those 19th century book titles…)

Actually, I didn’t realize it was so venerable – De Grace was adopted into my botanical menagerie because it’s really good all around, and it thrives in my garden and the short growing season.

not ready yet

It’s early and more frost resistant than some of the other peas I’ve tried, definitely more so than the modern snap peas, and it’s quite heat tolerant, too. So, De Grace has become my “bookends” for the yearly pea succession.

Once you know the trick of harvesting them, they are very delicious. They are OK harvested when the pods are still small and flat, like most people harvest snow peas (see photo at right), but if you allow the peas to fatten in the pod (below), the sugars form and they are divinely sweet and crisp. You do have to snap off the stem end and pull off the strings, but this is easily accomplished in one quick motion.

ready to eat

In my garden De Grace continues to flower and bear peas over a long period of time (3-4 weeks), and I have been selecting seed for that characteristic among others. I suppose some growers might consider this a vice, but I’m not canning or freezing them, I just want an ongoing supply of fresh pods.

De Grace is a good example of a vegetable variety teetering on the brink of being lost to gardeners. I find that a lot of these older plant varieties seem to have a lot more genetic diversity and are better able to adapt to the rigors of life in my garden than many of the more modern varieties.