Nature shows us what to plant

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By Lee Einer

Gardeners and even farmers often approach their planting from an egocentric rather than a land-based view. That is to say, they often plant what they like and try to find a way to make their chosen plants thrive. That's challenging, and all too often unsuccessful.

There are others who simply grow the traditional crops that have grown here forever. There's nothing wrong with that, but there is a third way, which opens up the possibility of cultivating non-traditional crops predisposed to do well on your land.

The trick, as with so many things, is to begin with thoughtful observation of what is already growing on your land and in nearby places which are similar in microclimate and soil type.

The plants you see growing wild may or may not be something you would want to cultivate, but if you do some research on related plants, you might find something that is both closely related and valuable as a food or fiber crop.

An example. You may have observed that we have wild sunflowers growing plentifully, particularly around fencelines and ditches where there is slightly more moisture, and that they grow well in poor soil. Now, you may not have a lot of use for wild sunflowers as a crop, but  googling will tell you that sunflowers belong to the species helianthus and that there are over 50 varieties of them.

So one option would be to grow the traditional sunflowers for seed, the annual variety with the gigantic blossoms the size of dinner plates. But another would be to grow the jerusalem artichoke, helianthus tuberosus. The Jerusalem artichoke, which has no relation either to Jerusalem or artichokes, is a perennial variety of sunflower cultivated for it's tubers, which are tasty either raw or cooked, rich in vitamins and minerals, and are of particular dietary value to diabetics, as they store their carbohydrates as inulin rather than starch. Jerusalem artichokes are hardy enough that they may be easier to cultivate than they are to get rid of.

Another helianthus of interest is the Maximillian sunflower, helianthus maximillianus. The maximillian sunflower is native to the great plains, and is a popular ornamental in northern New Mexico. It is quite similar to the Jerusalem artichoke in that it is perennial and has an edible, tuberous root which was a traditional food source for some indigenous peoples. Permaculturists tend to love this plant, because it is vigorous, drought-hardy, produces food, and also grows in such profusion that it serves as a mulch plant. Growing in dense clumps up to six feet tall, it makes a good hedge to discourage deer, and it blooms heavily in the late summer and early fall, providing a feast for the bees at the time when most other nectar producers are winding down.

Similarly, you might observe that chokecherry, or capulin, does well on your land, again in areas that have a bit more moisture than others.

Chokecherry is a fine producer of fruit for pies, jams, jellies and wine, so you might just want to cultivate chokecherry. Nothing wrong with that!  But again, if you do some googling, you will find that the chokecherry, prunus virginiana, is closely related to the black cherry, prunus serotina, and that a couple of varieties of black cherry are known to do well in New Mexico. Why grow black cherries? One answer might be that nobody else around here is doing it, and you would be an exclusive source, at least in the short term. Another reason would be that, unlike chokecherries, black cherry trees can grow to be up to 90 feet tall, and their wood is expensive and much sought-after by cabinet-makers and the like. Cherry wood chips are also a fine wood for smoking meats and fish.

Another prunus, the apricot or prunus armeniaca, is notorious in these parts for growing well but not fruiting well, as its early blooms are in most years quite literally nipped in the bud by our capricious spring frosts. But again, a little research reveals that the apricot is the staple food of the Hunza of northern Pakistan, a mountainous, semi-arid land about 8,000 feet in elevation, with dry summers and cold winters. 

Hunza apricots are quite cold-hardy and they are late bloomers, so they likely would sidestep the problem of late frosts if they were cultivated here.  Their kernels are edible when roasted and are the major source of fat in the Hunza diet.

The apricots, when dried, are supposed to be gourmet quality, with notes of toffee present along with the typical apricot flavor.   I don't know that anybody is cultivating Hunza apricots in Northeastern New Mexico, but the potential exists there to produce a regular dual crop of apricots and apricot kernels. Not all varieties of apricots produce edible kernels, in fact, most varieties of apricot cultivated in the US have poisonous kernels, but edible apricot kernels are fetching up to $20 per pound on the internet. They are one of the few foods rich in vitamin B17 and are believed by many to be the element of the Hunza diet which accounts for their extremely low cancer rate

 We know osha, a favorite local remedio, grows well here. Most folks don’t know that it’s european name is Porter’s Lovage. It is closely related to the european Lovage, an herb popular in medieval times and which is enjoying a renaissance today.

It looks like a giant celery plant, and has foliage which tastes intensely of celery punched up with something else, perhaps turmeric or curry powder.  It is a wonderful addition to soups and stews. It should do well here, and if the lovage in my back yard is any indication, it does!

Lee Einer is the Optic’s features editor. He is a certified permaculture designer. You can reach him at 425-6796 or