By: Laura Bettenhausen, Wyman Kitchen Garden Intern
An exciting new addition to our kitchen garden this year is a Latinx garden plot. Last year we had Ho-Chunk, Hmong, and Afro Diasporic plants included in the space, but we wanted to introduce the newest member of the kitchen garden family. The Latinx garden space includes a broad collection of edible plants that are used in Central and South America; these plants were chosen based on how important they are for Latin American cuisine and culture. Our collaborative community partner for the Latinx garden is Plant and Agroecosystem Sciences faculty member and Guatemalan native, Claudia Irene Calderón. She expressed to us that the vast diversity of Latin American cultures signify a similarly vast diversity of plants utilized by these cultures. Connection to plants is very tied to the geography and history of the land; the Latinx garden provides a glimpse to this rich diversity.
This ties back to the pre-columbian crop-growing system used in Mesoamerica (southern Mexico and Central America) called Milpa. Milpa is a polyculture, initially used by Mayan farmers, as a way to grow multiple crops together in one field. These crops may include maize (Zea mays), common beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), and squashes (Cucurbita spp.), as well as other crops like: faba beans (Vicia faba), tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum), potato (Solanum tuberosum), peppers (Capsicum spp.), amaranth (Amaranthus spp.), and wild leafy species used as food or for medicinal purposes (Lopez-Ridaura, S. et. al 2021). Some of these plants are not included in our Latinx plot; we wanted the focus of corn, beans, and squash to be in the already existing Ho-Chunk garden. You may have heard of a similar ancestral growing system, used by Indigenous peoples in North America, referred to as the Three Sisters. For a beautiful description of the relationship of the plants in the three sisters gardens, we recommend reading the Three Sisters section in Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Our kitchen garden is also home to a Native section that includes these three sisters and an Afriodiasporic plot. In cultivating a garden plot modeled after the milpa style of farming, we seek to highlight reciprocity throughout our garden, as well as show how these three kitchen garden plots have similarities as well.
Examples of cultural legacy occur when cultures exchange seeds and cultural foodways. In the kitchen garden at Allen Centennial Garden, besides our Latinx plot, we have another garden space referred to as the African Diasporic garden. Both of these spaces include epazote in their collection this year. It is native to Mexico and Guatemala and has been used for both its medicinal and culinary purposes there by the Aztecs and Mayans since at least the fourteenth century. The name epazote comes from the Nahuatl (Aztec language) word ‘epazotl,’ which translates to “skunk sweat” due to the plant’s strong aroma. One of the many uses of this plant is brewing tea from its leaves to treat intestinal parasites like hookworms. (Martins, 2022). Epazote is also important to the African Diaspora, as many people of African ancestry came into contact with the plant because of the African slave trade in South & Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. They began using the plant as well, so epazote has many important relationships with different groups of people.
The Latinx garden plot also displays certain plants that have an important connection to Indigenous peoples in the Latin American region. Native peoples’ respect and sacred relationship with plants, and their appreciation of soil, rain, and air highlight different ways of knowing that contrast with that of colonists and settlers. Amaranth (as seen in our plot) was especially important to Aztec and Mayan cultures, but when Spanish conquistadors arrived in the sixteenth century, they sought to impose their own beliefs by outlawing the cultivation of amaranth (Sauer, 1950). Anyone who grew it would be subject to violence, as the colonists believed this Indigenous relationship to plants would thwart their attempts of spreading Christianity (Nowell, 2021). They threatened to cut off the hands of any farmers who grew amaranth, and while this resulted in a huge drop in its use, some resisted and continued to grow it in secret, preserving the seeds for generations (Nowell, 2021).
The goal of this space is to connect garden visitors associated with Latinx communities to their foodways, or to remind them of their relatives and ancestors’ land. Since these crops are not usually grown in the Madison area, or even the region in general, our garden is a special opportunity to showcase plants from Latin America. We hope to spotlight plants that might appear in Latinx garden spaces, educate about different cultural foodways, and create a sense of belonging and appreciation for different plants and people. Perhaps this garden will spark conversations around the origins of plants, different dishes or ways to use the different plants that appear in our gardens, the ways settler colonialism has transformed the significance of the distribution and use of these plants, and maybe even the interconnectedness between plants and humans.
While we are highlighting plants native to Latin America in this Latinx garden, we also would like to take the opportunity to show how several of the plants that are featured in the kitchen garden plots have traveled across rivers, mountains, oceans and climates to become emblematic of the cuisine of different cultures. For example, Italians are known for their pizza and pasta, but they would not have this tomato sauce if those tomatoes had never made their way from the Americas to Europe. Hernan Cortes and Christopher Columbus introduced tomatoes to Spain in the 1500s, who then spread this plant to Italy as well. Originally the Italians only used the tomatoes for ornamentation, but after a century of Spanish persuasion, they began to cook with them as well (Patterson, 2018). Tomatoes also made their way to Africa as a result of colonization and the well-known trading of the Columbian Exchange. European empires induced the addition of tomatoes into African cuisine during the nineteenth century (Alpern, 1992). Tomatoes became an important part of Afro Diasporic foodways, and this followed them to the Americas once again as a result of slavery. There is a story of an Underground Railroad tomato that helped spread seeds through exchange and community. A Black man gave a white woman tomato seeds he had carried from Kentucky to Ohio on his way escaping the horrors of slavery. Francis Parker, this woman’s great-nephew began sharing the seeds of Aunt Lou’s tomato years later (Greenlee, 2023).
Historical anecdotes like this one depict just how meaningful plants can be for one’s culture and the ways different groups of people come together. The Latinx garden plot will introduce people to diverse plants important to the culture and cuisine of many people, relaying the illustrious past of foodways. We are proud here at Allen Centennial Garden to be taking a step forward towards celebrating the cultural richness and diversity of plants.
Alpern, Stanley B. 1992. “The European Introduction of Crops into West Africa in Precolonial Times.” History in Africa 19:13–43. doi: 10.2307/3171994.
Greenlee, Cynthia R. 2023. “Did This Tomato Travel the Underground Railroad?” The Guardian, June 19.
Lopez-Ridaura, Santiago, Luis Barba-Escoto, Cristian A. Reyna-Ramirez, Carlos Sum, Natalia Palacios-Rojas, and Bruno Gerard. 2021. “Maize Intercropping in the Milpa System. Diversity, Extent and Importance for Nutritional Security in the Western Highlands of Guatemala.” Scientific Reports 11(1):3696. doi: 10.1038/s41598-021-82784-2.
Martins, Sylvio. 2022. “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Epazote.” Eater. Retrieved July 8, 2023 (https://www.eater.com/23379209/what-is-epazote-how-to-use-cooking-recipes).
Nowell, Cecilia. 2021. “‘It Could Feed the World’: Amaranth, a Health Trend 8,000 Years Old That Survived Colonization.” The Guardian, August 6.
Sauer, Jonathan Deininger. 1950. “The Grain Amaranths: A Survey of Their History and Classification.” Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 37(4):561–632. doi: 10.2307/2394403.
Watkins, Patterson. 2018. “PJP Food History Series: The History of Tomatoes.” Penn Jersey Paper. Retrieved July 8, 2023 (https://www.pjponline.com/pjp-food-history-series-the-history-of-tomatoes/).