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Krupp: Indigenous Gifts

(Host) 'Tis the season to give and receive gifts - often of food. It's a practice that reminds commentator Ron Krupp of some of the unique food gifts that came to us from Native Americans - in addition to the traditional crops of corn, beans and squash that we most often hear about.

(Krupp) It's estimated that sixty percent of the foods we eat originated in the America's. Our ancient ancestors had an extensive knowledge of the forest, fields and wetlands. And the plants they grew have contributed more to the world's food supply than those of any other continent. We should be mindful of the gifts these indigenous groups gave us.

The Abenaki and other tribes of the Northeast foraged in the forest and fields and grew plants for food, medicinal, and spiritual purposes. They managed the forests of nut trees by using controlled burning of the undergrowth and they harvested many kinds of nuts including chestnuts. One out of four trees in the Appalachian chain were chestnuts until a pathogenic fungus caused by a blight in early 1900's. It decimated just about all the trees by 1940. Other foraged nuts included butternuts, hazelnuts, walnuts, hickory and beechnuts. Nutmeats were nutritious foods, but nuts were also used for sap, oil and dyes. A variety of Ground nut saved the Pilgrims from starvation.

Jerusalem Artichokes, a member of the Sunflower family, is native to Vermont. It has stalks ten feet tall and by the end of the summer produces dainty sunflowers. But it's best known for what's under the ground. The knobby,tasty tubers are harvested in fall and mashed, baked or fried.

Indigenous people also harvested blueberries, elderberries, raspberries, choke berries, black berries, black cherries, fire snow berries and grapes for eating during the season and drying for the long winter months. They harvested many greens - such as purslane, lambsquarters and pigweed - a type of Amaranth. The leaves were eaten and the seeds ground up for flour. Amaranth has become one of the most important cereal grains in the diets of highland peoples in India, China, Pakistan, Tibet, and Nepal.

In northern Minnesota, many lakes and ponds have long been associated with particular varieties of wild rice, where Northern Ojibwa farmers saved the seed for the next year's crop. Recently, a group of seed scientists from Minnesota came to Vermont to select hardy varieties of the wild rice that grows in the northern wetlands of Lake Champlain.

Favorite edible spring roots along the Winooski River included wild garlic or what some call ramps - and cattails. Native Americans harvested a small barley plant called Little barley for its edible seed. They used bedstraw for cushions. Black mustard, sassafras and mushrooms were prized for food and medicine. Tobacco and Sweetgrass were used in religious ceremonies. And of course the sap from the maple sugar tree was tapped for the sweetest syrup in the world.

Ron Krupp is a gardener and author who lives near Lake Champlain on Shelburne Bay. His most recent book is titled: Lifting The Yoke - Local Solutions To America's Farm And Food Crisis.
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