Category Archives: Native Americans

Hardy Perennial Plant Suggestions for your Acreage or Small Farm

There is a very remarkable nursery in Northeastern Nebraska, near the farm where I grew up, called HH Wild Plums Inc. It was founded by the famous (but not as famous as he should be) horticulturalist plant finder, Harlan Hamernik. He passed away tragically in 2012, and I wrote up a brief tribute to him here.

Though Hamernik introduced many new plants to the gardeners across the U.S. over his lifetime, he focused in his later years on neutraceuticals, or, healthy edibles and medicinals, some of which were used by Native Plains Indians. Especially, this interest was from those sources which were in the form of perennials, shrubs, and trees – something the Midwest is not known for in our current day and age, but were key to the health of the nomadic tribes which preceded us.

Today, I interviewed Tammy Melcher of “HH Wild Plums” to get an update on this nursery which was founded by Harlan Hamernik for the purpose of promoting sales and the popularity of these hardy edible plants which he studied and discovered. She and plant propagator-grower, Lori Pfeifer, are instrumental in their small operation.

My impression of Harlan from personal experience, was that he was an incredibly intuitive plantsman, so readers, pay attention.

First, I asked Tammy to list five plants and a couple of trees that she would recommend to farmers/landowners who would like to incorporate edible or medicinal perennials into their farm, either as a hobby, or as a value-added crop or food product. Note that this list works in Nebraska, but most of these plants are extremely hardy and would grow well in much of the U.S., especially the Midwest and Upper Midwest.

Here is her list:
1. Aronia (8-10′ shrub)
2. Crandall’s Clove Currant (6×6′ shrub)
3. Redleaf Rose (7×7′ shrub)
4. Elderberry (7×7′ shrub)
5. Serviceberry (10×10′ shrub)
6. Tree: American Hazelnut (18′ tall)
7. Tree: Dwarf Chinkapin Oak (10-15′ tall)

There was no doubt that Tammy was most enthused about the Aronia plant which produces the common named “chokeberry”. She’d just returned from an Aronia conference in Omaha, and the awareness of this plant is catching on a bit, but, she said, “ninety percent of the public doesn’t know about it.” In general, the dark blue, purple and black berries contain high levels of antioxidants, making them superberries, or superfoods. We all know that blueberries are a superfood, but, according to Tammy, the Aronia berry contains three times the amount of antioxidants that blueberries do. (Note there is a current question about the benefits of antioxidants in this past year’s news and studies.) Indians used these berries as an ingredient in Pemmican. High tannin levels make these berries tart, thus the name “chokeberry”. The bright side of this is that birds tend to leave them alone, as opposed to other berries which you need to cover with netting, or pick before the birds do.

Incidentally, Tammy was not aware of sending Aronia plants to Colorado, and thought they would do very well here on the front range, so Colorado readers take note.

Three varieties of Aronia which Tammy recommends are Black Aronias: Aronia melanocarpa ‘Galicjanka’; Aronia melanocarpa ‘Viking’; and, Aronia melanocarpa ‘McKenzie’. ‘Galicjanka’ is a cultivar from Poland which tolerates drier soil conditions; ‘Viking’ is from Scandinavia and produces very large fruits; and, ‘McKenzie’ was produced at North Dakota State which has extra-large berries, and is drought and cold tolerant. These shrubs need chill hours so don’t grow in the South. They are drought tolerant once established, and they produce beautiful fall color.

Aronia berries are used in smoothies, salsas, jellies, breads and muffins, and for wine. A supplement form is available which uses a powder to create an extract. A company in Omaha, named “Superberries” owned by Kenny Sailors, uses Aronia berries to make products such as gummy chews, frozen berries, and concentrate. Also, according to Tammy, the Black Squirrel Winery in Council Bluffs, Iowa, makes a great wine using Aronia berries.

The next shrub on Tammy’s list is Crandall’s Clove Currant, or Ribes odoratum ‘Crandall’. This shrub also produces a black medicinal berry which is high in antioxidants and polyphenols. This grows in rich well-drained clay soil to plant hardiness zone 4.

The Redleaf rose is a beautiful hardy shrub rose producing a hip rich in Vitamin C. I have personally grown this in my yard and love the iridescent blue-green sheen to its leaves. If you grow it, as an added bonus you will occasionally have a volunteer pop up in your yard. Also, Rosa Pomifera, or the apple rose, is a good hardy choice which produces good fruit. One can make tea from the rose hips of either plant.

Elderberries, or Sambucus species, are another hardy shrub which produces a black berry that is high in Vitamin C and antioxidants. These grew wild when I was a child and I used to help my grandmother pick them to make jelly. I’ve personally picked them from road ditches to make a pretty darn good pie, if you don’t mind the seeds. Even better, you can make a combination berry pie such as elderberry-cherry. Elderberries grow across the U.S., but are less drought-tolerant.

The Serviceberry, or Amelanchier canadensis, produces large black berries that are loved by both humans and birds. They make delicious jams and pies. A good variety is alnifolia ‘Parkhill’ which is a dwarf.

Next, the two trees on Tammy’s list.

The American Hazlenut is formally named Corylus Americana. It is a small tree which produces an edible nut. It likes afternoon shade and requires two trees for nut production.

The Dwarf Chinkapin Oak is a great native shrub oak. By 3-4 years of age, it produces a nut which is valued by wildlife. These nut producers are about 15-18 feet tall, but can be trained shorter. Hamernik would collect this tree’s seeds from the wild, as is true of many of the plants which Wild Plums sells.

HH Wild Plums Inc. has a great catalogue online plus, they will be happy to send you a nice spiral bound hardcopy, such as the one I have lying next to my computer as I type this. There are many, many more varieties of trees and shrubs, along with unusual varieties of perennials, annuals, and vines available from their nursery.

If you have a favorite hardy native edible, please let us know about it in the comments.

Photo credit: Purple Aronia berries, by Konjica.

Taos Pueblo

The magical land of the painted sky. Crossing the border from Colorado into New Mexico feels like going back in time.

I took the above photo outside of the Robert Mirabal shop at Taos Pueblo because it was the only corn that I saw there. Mirabal, a writer, farmer, and musician, along with partner Nelson Zink, write the fascinating blog Tiwa Farms Journal. Their blog byline is, “What does the Corn Dance mean without corn? Encouraging Puebloan Agriculture at Taos Pueblo”. I bought Mirabal’s book, “Running Alone” in his shop but it wasn’t until I got home that I figured out the connection to his blog site which I’d already been following.

To Grandpa and his uncles, those days were amazing times to be alive. They saw the beginning of the end unfolding in front of them like falling stars.—from Running Alone by Robert Mirabal

Doors in front of the Taos Pueblo’s dwellings have been added in recent years as the traditional entry was a hole accessed by a ladder on the roof.

The Taos Pueblo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has been inhabited for about a thousand years and currently houses 150 Tiwa people in multi-level adobe dwellings. There is no electricity or running water. These historically agrarian and secretive people are experiencing many cultural tugs between progress, technology, and the preservation of their native language and traditions. They have abandoned their farm fields.

Our 30-something female tour guide told us how she, as a child, carried water buckets from the river daily, to help out her family. It was her job which she did gladly. She never despised it. She also described the enjoyment of spending her teen years in nature with her friends as they learned to identify plants and forage foods from those older than they.

The Northern Tiwa people were compared to the Cheyenne tribe in appearance by photographer Edward Curtis. Most wish not to have their photo taken, which is unfortunate, because they can be stunningly attractive.

Photo: Univ. of Indiana ~ Wanamaker Collection
Pablo Suaso – Taos Pueblo – 1913

A shop owner told me that she is president of the Red Willow Farmers Market which is located just outside of the pueblo. She works with youth, teaching them to grow food which they then sell at this market. She would be dancing the corn dance the following day.

The pueblo allows visitors to its grounds and many shops during the day but no one is allowed beyond the designated areas. The highlight for me was meeting each shop owner, seeing each one’s unique artistic creations, and seeing the interiors of their energy efficient dwellings which had, in most cases, been lived in by their ancestors. In conversation, I experienced first hand a startling innate intuitiveness of this people and I learned that it is special to converse with people who have an oral tradition culture. It worries me that our society’s texting teenagers are missing out on a similar story-telling experience which serves as the glue that holds these families together.

I watched and admired the skill of a pueblo mother as she convincingly explained to a small group of 10-12 year-olds why they still needed afternoon naps. In return, this pre-adolescent age group was entirely respectful to her.

And I witnessed tribe tourism workers gratefully sharing a gift of red jello in plastic cups with each other during the hot mid-day.

Below, see a cafe which serves fry bread and heats water the old fashioned way.

The outdoor adobe ovens used by the Tiwa are called hornos, the dome-shaped structure below.

One cannot try to give you an impression of what it is like to visit the pueblo without mentioning the dogs. Pueblo dogs have freedom, yet they know their place. They are thin, yet they don’t act hungry. They are abundant, but belong. They are content. So content.

And I learned that all Indian ponies are beautiful. (This photo was taken near the pueblo.)

Who is the hero of the Taos Pueblo people? Richard Nixon. It was he who returned to them their sacred Blue Lake and wilderness in 1970. They are proud to tell anyone this and Nixon said it was his proudest achievement.

Now back to the owner of the humble shop pictured up top. Robert Mirabal was the subject of a 2001 PBS special “From A Painted Cave”.

His CDs can be ordered here.

When Will We Admit that our Corn Ethanol Policy is Immoral?

Twenty-eight states have ethanol facilities which are producing 14.2 billion gallons of corn ethanol per year. Iowa produces 25% of the nation’s ethanol, and Nebraska comes in second, producing 14% or 1.96 billion gallons.

Sources: Renewable Fuels Association, Washington, DC.
Nebraska Energy Office, Lincoln, NE.
Data updated September 26, 2011

Having just returned from a trip to Eastern Nebraska, I feel as if I participated in a movie set for “The Road” or its equivalent. It’s all about ethanol in this region of the country and it’s not a pretty sight. Because of our unbridled and unquenchable thirst for liquid fuels, this policy is creating a vast environmental ruin not so different from that of the tar sands areas of Canada. In recent years, this land which was a prairie a short one-hundred-and-fifty years ago has become a region that produces primarily only two industrial agricultural crops, corn and soybeans.

Nebraska, of all places, should not be producing large volumes of ethanol, since it does so largely through the use of irrigation using Ogallala aquifer water. Using irrigated corn further lessens the energy return on energy invested of already low EROEI corn ethanol, since irrigation requires large inputs of generated electricity. Yet, it is the nation’s second largest ethanol producer, turning out about two billion gallons per year.

These past few days, I watched as dust blew around the combines which are out harvesting in Nebraska’s dry field conditions, causing at least one combine fire. Farmers are pleased with this season’s relatively high crop prices even as agribusiness continually raises input costs as grain commodity prices rise. While we all wish for the economic success of the family farmer, the huge megafarms are profiting most from our subsidy system which encourages overproduction of our monoculture crops, and from our corn ethanol policy which is creating an artificial demand for corn.

When I took the above photo only two days ago, I watched as trucks full of corn were lined up more than twenty deep, to deliver corn to the ADM ethanol plant in Columbus, Nebraska. Several hundred of these trucks per day deliver the corn to be turned into ethanol at this huge facility. This particular plant uses coal in co-generation to help power its corn milling and ethanol processes. It is permitted to burn high and low sulfur coals, tire derived fuel, and biomass to produce steam and electricity. It is my understanding that this is the largest ethanol plant in the United States, which I assume makes it the largest one in the entire world. It sits next to the busiest freight train line in the U.S. and I watched many ethanol and grain railroad cars entering and exiting the area. The plant sits along the Platte River because its water requirements are also large.

Sadly, this ADM plant is in the middle of Ogallala aquifer center pivot irrigated corn fields, which produce consistently higher yields year after year, not being subject to the vagaries of natural rainfall. It also sits near the ever-shrinking rainwater basin of Nebraska, which historically provided waterfowl refuge and migration grounds for large numbers of birds, but it is now a small fraction of its original size as it’s been replaced with cornfields.

Ethanol’s use is mandated under the guise of improving air quality in the more populated urban areas of this nation. If it were actually a good product, mandated use would not be necessary and, for example, the state of Iowa which produces the most ethanol, but is not mandated to use it, would actually choose to consume large amounts of it, which it does not.

While our topsoils are being mined for this gasoline alternative, driving long distances to work in large vehicles is becoming more and more commonplace amongst the rural and small town residents who live in this region. Driving sixty miles to work isn’t given a second thought these days to do work which is necessary to supplement or provide the family farm with income, or to locate between spouse’s jobs which may be in towns set far apart. As the farms are becoming larger and larger and local services in the rural towns are disappearing, this need to drive farther is not surprising.

Growing industries in this region cannot find workers because the young adults leave this soulless ecological wasteland for areas which hold different values. I spoke to a manager of a large green energy manufacturer who described this to me. Their company is desperate for every level of worker, pays well, and faces an intense competition to find workers.

In addition, as another proposal for a tar sands oil pipeline to traverse Nebraska’s Sandhills, farms, and underground aquifer gets national media attention, a similar pipeline is already in place which happened under the radar screen by paying off farmers along its way. It now travels just under the Elkhorn and Platte Rivers. Locals are aghast at what they’ve witnessed of the process.

In many miles of driving, I saw two deer cross a road and a few turkey vultures feasting on road killed racoons. That was about it for wildlife spotting in rural Eastern Nebraska over several days time. Since this is fly-over country, people are vaguely aware of the condition of the Midwest, but unless they actually see it, they can’t visualize the boredom of this totally artificial landscape. This region is a bleak shadow of its former self.

Remember how upset and concerned U.S. citizens were about BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill? That destruction was nothing, compared to the destruction of the Great Plains prairie ecosystem. Yet, no one covers this untold story, do they?

Soon, we will have the chance to change the farm policy in Washington. We don’t need to produce this much corn. It’s called overproduction. We need to phase out the ethanol program and certainly stop taxpayer funding of it. We need to start valuing our topsoil. Our ethanol policy is reducing crop rotation practices and other conservation agriculture methods. We need to preserve the quality of groundwater by ending the showering of chemicals onto our land for the production of these monoculture crops. We need to protect those who are attempting to grow organic or alternative crops from chemical drift, a prevalent problem plaguing the small producers.

It is time to increase the efficiency of personal transportation in this country. It’s also time to start participating in our local governments to transition our towns from their car culture dependence. It will not happen unless our own voices are heard at the local level. Our very health is at stake, also greatly affecting our nation’s economic balance sheet, since obesity due to inactivity is a medical epidemic. We need to design walkable neighborhoods and clustered, self-sufficient communities, even in farm country.

I’d like to see a farm policy which would mandate eat-local food co-ops as corner grocery stores in every town across America to replace the corn ethanol mandate and create new jobs and vitality in these areas. Grocery stores are a quality of life issue for small rural communities. For a good co-op model in a small Midwestern town, look at the one in Decorah, Iowa. If we established local food co-ops, we could create demand for alternative crops which would, in turn, support our small and family farmer. It would help change our values from “cheap food” which leads to obesity to quality food which encourages health and energizes our local community.

I love this land which was once prairie, and its history, including its history of its first peoples, so I rant because I am saddened. The new European settlers to this nation were poor, but they came to a country which was rich in resources. They faced great hardship and endurance, my ancestors included. Was this endpoint their goal?

I found some respite by walking the Sacred Hoop Prayer Garden at the John G. Neihardt Center one evening during my Nebraska visit.

Everything the power of the world does is done in a circle.

The sky is round and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls.

Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours.

The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing and always come back again to where they were.

The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves. Our teepees were round like the nests of birds, and these were always set in a circle, the nation’s hoop, a nest of many nests, where the Great Spirit meant for us to hatch our children.

—Black Elk, Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux 1863-1950

Let us participate, as our circle leads us back to where we came. We are not on a road which leads us farther away from our native prairie. We are on a road which leads us back to it.
——Kay McDonald