After the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Louisville, Kentucky, respectively, I pressed the pause button on this blog; posting about gardening as people stood up for black lives across the country felt, well, trivial.
But as the civil unrest around me grew, I turned to my garden for succor. Putting my hands in the earth, nurturing new life has comforted me these past few weeks.
Every year in my garden, I try to grow at least one African-American heirloom crop. So, in honor of Juneteenth, which marks the liberation of our ancestors held as slaves, I offer this list of African American heirloom seeds that you can try in your garden today.
Although the actual origin of tree collards is unknown, it is said to have originated in Africa and have been passed down through generations of black farmers. They are perennial in warm climates and can grow up to 10 ft tall, though they are usually a more manageable 4-5 ft. They are hardy to 20-degrees, but gardeners in chilly climates like me can bring them inside the garage or basement.
I grew tree collards last year and it is going to seed in my garden right now. This is exciting because they rarely go to seed and I can’t wait to collect them. Generally, since they rarely go to seed, they are grown through propagation. They used to be hard to find unless you knew a gardener that shared, but now you can find cuttings or plants from multiple Etsy sellers or from Project Tree Collard.
Arriving in North America via the Caribbean, fish peppers have historically been popular among the African-American community in Philadelphia, Baltimore and the Chesapeake Bay region. A beautiful striped pepper that has traditionally been used in seafood dishes, it nearly went extinct but has been rescued by several seed savers. Baker Heirloom Creek gives us a rundown of this unique pepper’s history:
“This one-of-a-kind pepper would be lost to us if not for an unusual exchange. Horace Pippin was a black folk painter who served during World War I in the 369th Infantry called the ‘Harlem Hellfighters.’ He lost the use of his right arm after being shot by a sniper, and this left him with arthritic pain. Searching for some relief, he resorted to an old folk remedy that called for bee stings. Horace began giving seeds to a bee-keeper named H. Ralph Weaver. Horace’s seeds sometimes came from his far-flung old-time gardening friends, who sent wonderful and rare varieties. H. Ralph Weaver saved the seed in his private seed collection, where it remained until 1995 when his grandson William Woys Weaver released it to the public.”
Though you can purchase seeds via Baker Heirloom Creek next year, it’s a little late in the season to be starting pepper seeds. Never fear; this Etsy seller still has some plants for sale.
Jamaican Burr Gherkin
Originating in West Africa and brought to the Caribbean via the Transatlantic slave trade in the 1500s, this small gherkin tastes like a cucumber. It can be eaten raw, pickled, or cooked like squash.
The burr gherkins are still popular in the Caribbean—in the Bahia region of Brazil, Afro-Brazilians call them maxixe (mah-SHEE-shay) and use them in a traditional dish called maxixada (mah-shee-SHAH-dah). I grow a similar plant called the Sour Mexican Gherkin, and I can’t WAIT to grow this plant! You can find the seeds from Etsy Seller Plants With A Purpose.
Plate de Haiti Tomato
According to Food Historian William Woys Weaver, African American heirloom tomatoes are difficult to find and document. Dr. Carolyn Male shared this creole variety with him in 1992, and he, in turn, offered them through Seed Savers Exchange.
In his book Heirloom Vegetable Gardening, he writes: “The earliest record of this tomato is a botanical drawing in Konrad Gessner’s Historia Plantarum (1561). Gessner’s specimens were doubtless grown from seed only recently brought from the Caribbean. Whatever its true origin, the tomato has been associated since the 1550s with the island now home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. It is known to have entered North America in 1793 with the Creole refugees who fled the slave uprising in Haiti. Beyond this, documentation of the tomato has remained elusive; little effort was made in the nineteenth century to investigate the plant varieties grown in the kitchen gardens of American blacks.” You can find this variety at True Love Seeds.
One of the crops I’m most enthusiastic about growing this year is Roselle, which is native to West Africa. Also known as Sorrel, Florida Cranberry, and Flor de Jamaica, most people in the U.S. know it as Hibiscus tea, popularized as Celestial Seasonings “Red Zinger.” In the Caribbean, it is best known as the main ingredient in the holiday drink Sorrel.
Although a perennial in tropical climates (hardy in zones 8-11), it’s best grown as an annual in colder climates. Roselle produces big, beautiful blooms in the summertime, and, after the flowers fade, you can harvest the calyxes for jellies, teas, and Agua de Jamaica. (Find a recipe for Agua de Jamaica here.) It is definitely too late to grow Roselle from seeds this year because they have to be started indoors a couple of months before your frost date. But purchase them next year from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.