Growing Hope in the Choctaw Garden

Blog post written by UW-Madison Horticulture Alumna and Choctaw Kitchen Garden Curator Maezy Beams

My dad’s side of the family is part of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Although this is something my family is very proud of, none of us can say we know everything there is to know about what it means to be Choctaw. I grew up in Green Bay, WI where there are very few members of the same First Nation that I am a part of, with the majority of folks being centralized around the Choctaw reservation in Oklahoma.

I was fortunate enough to take (class) that was taught by Reba Luiken, Director of Allen Centennial Garden, through my undergraduate at UW Madison. This allowed me the opportunity to explore the culture I’m a part of deeper than I have before. I was able to connect more with the history of the Choctaw people and learned that before they were removed from their native land in southern Mississippi an Alabama, my ancestors were skilled agriculturists. This gave me an incredible full circle feeling since I have just graduated from UW-Madison with a degree in horticulture and have taken a keen interest in understanding how plants and human history connect, especially from a deep cultural standpoint.

Two women standing in garden bed.
ACG intern and student from Native American Center for Health Professions (NACHP) planting the Choctaw garden.

When I was approached with the idea of being able to grow Choctaw plants in Allen Centennial Garden, I was overjoyed and saw it as another opportunity to continue to connect with a culture that I knew was important to me but still didn’t know enough about. I was able to get connected with a program through the Choctaw Nation called Growing Hope, which is an initiative that allows folks that are members of the Choctaw Nation to receive seeds that hold significance in the Choctaw culture so that they may grow them as both a connection to one’s heritage and have a sustainable food source right in their own backyard.

Black soil with small green plants and trees in the background.
Planting the Choctaw and Latine gardens.

Not only do these seeds come from plants that are used in things such as traditional medicines and cuisine, the crops that can be seen growing in the garden have been part of the Choctaw culture for hundreds to thousands of years, with most originating around the area where the Choctaw originally called home before being removed to Oklahoma by the Indian Removal Act of 1830. They range from wild forage crops like lambs quarter (Tvnishi) to domesticated and imported crops such as Seneca Sunflower (Hvshi Pakanli) and Smith Peas (Tobi). Also in this collection is Perique Tobacco (Hakchuma), which is a variety of tobacco used for ceremonial purposes. A highlight of this collection of crops is the Choctaw Flour Corn (Tanchi Tohbi) which is one of the main varieties of corn grown prior to the Trail of Tears and was taken along on the difficult journey. Not only does this corn have an incredible story, in fertile soil, this variety can grow up to 20 feet tall!

Two women planting small green plants with blue butterfly mosaic in background.
Interns planting tobacco in Wyman Kitchen Garden.

I am incredibly excited to see how this garden flourishes. The different textures and heights of each of the plants in addition to their stories creates a level of interest that I am really proud to share with my community. I hope folks visiting Allen Centennial Garden enjoy learning about a new group of people they may not be familiar with and at the very least, hopefully get to experience corn that is almost two stories tall!