Taking Ancient, Wild Crops from Field to Table | Civil Eats

Taking Ancient, Wild Crops from Field to Table

A chef and a scientist are teaming up to bring greater awareness to two ancient grains—goosefoot and erect knotweed.

Rob Connoley in the Bulrush kitchen in 2019. (Photo CC-licensed by Edsel Little)

Rob Connoley in the Bulrush kitchen in 2019. (Photo CC-licensed by Edsel Little)

Seeds sizzle inside a frying pan and a knife hits its cutting board as Rob Connoley works. At his restaurant, Bulrush, the St. Louis chef takes locally grown, hunted, and foraged ingredients and transforms them into mouthwatering meals reminiscent of life in the 19th-century Ozarks.

“We sell food with a story and a conversation,” says Connoley. “It provides people with greater awareness of where their food comes from, and instead of thinking about what’s on the shelves at Walmart, they can think about what’s in their backyard.”

For nearly five years, Connoley has been working to revitalize historic Ozark cuisine. The food combines ingredients and cooking techniques of White settlers, local Indigenous groups such as the Osage, and the people who were enslaved on the Ozark Plateau, which spans Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and the southeastern corner of Kansas.

Pictured are both lambsquarter/ goosefoot seeds and stew. The beaker in the back contains the raw seeds. The bowl in the front contains a stew made from the seeds, hickory nuts, and stew meat. Archaeological evidence suggests that this was the staple dish in the American heartland 2,000 years ago. (Photo courtesy of Ian Thompson)

Pictured are both lambsquarter/ goosefoot seeds and stew. The beaker in the back contains the raw seeds. The bowl in the front contains a stew made from the seeds, hickory nuts, and stew meat. Archaeological evidence suggests that this was the staple dish in the American heartland 2,000 years ago. (Photo courtesy of Ian Thompson)

As part of this larger mission, Connoley has partnered with Dr. Natalie Mueller, an ethnobotanist and archaeologist at Washington University in St. Louis, to integrate two native crops into his menu. For more than a decade, Mueller has studied various ancient wild crops with the goal of re-domesticating them, and since 2019, she has been providing Connoley with a seed supply of two foods—goosefoot (also known as lambsquarter) and erect knotweed. When the seeds of the plants are gathered, they are comparable to grains like quinoa and buckwheat, respectively.

Although they’re not grown on a commercial scale, Mueller has found that grown together, these two complementary plants produce a yield comparable to corn—and that Indigenous people of eastern North America likely relied on a polyculture or pairing of their domestic originals more than 2,000 years ago. Her goal in working with Connoley is to help re-introduce the two plants into present-day diets as she continues to study them.

“My work is about bringing awareness to what Indigenous agricultural practice was and is in North America,” says Mueller.

The two ancient crops offer not only a glimpse into the origin story of some of America’s first cultivated plants, but are also a tool for creating more resilient food systems. With the looming threat of climate change and a fragile food system dominated by monocropping, globalization, and genetically modified varieties, mounting scientific research has shown the importance of growing a wide range of species and not only integrating, but also preserving native, wild crops for commercial agriculture.

Cultivated crops we see at farmers’ markets and grocery stores are often chosen for their flavor, appearance, and high yields. However, wild, Indigenous plants possess a variety of favorable genetic traits that have allowed them to evolve and survive changes in local climates, making them ideal for breeding more resilient crop varieties.

Studies have shown that wild and native crops foster biodiversity, require fewer resources such as water and fertilization, aid in pest and disease control, and improve soil health. Environmentalists and academics in agriculture have drawn attention to native flora for these reasons and also point to the fact that greater reliance on native species has the potential to reduce waste and energy inputs for transport, storage, and preservatives. At the same time, other studies indicate that many wild relatives of important agriculture crops in the United States are endangered and require urgent conservation action.

Reviving ‘Lost Crops’

Mueller refers to goosefoot and erect knotweed as “lost crops.” The versions she works with and grows today are direct descendants or very close relatives of the cultivated versions grown thousands of years ago in the eastern U.S. She characterizes them as lost in the sense that they’ve been abandoned from farming practices for millennia, and existing wild versions are absent from non-Native people’s diets and awareness.

Goosefoot, a green bushy plant distinguished by its toothy, diamond-shaped leaves and clusters of seed heads with small dense flowers, grows anywhere near streams, rivers, forest clearings, fields, and gardens throughout North America. It produces a black, edible beady seed reminiscent of quinoa. Erect knotweed is sparingly branched with slender, veiny, spoon-shaped leaves and fruit with a hard shell that protects its seeds. This plant, which also grows across the U.S. and in Canada’s Prince Edward Island province, is found around moist flood zones, cattle pastures, and dirt and gravel roads. Its edible seeds are small, shiny, and have flavor like buckwheat seeds.

Goosefoot from Mueller’s experimental garden. (Photo credit: Natalie Mueller)

Goosefoot from Mueller’s experimental garden. (Photo credit: Natalie Mueller)

Mueller says that there are many Indigenous growers and knowledge-keepers across North America working with wild foods and leading organizations grounded in food sovereignty, including Native Seeds/SEARCH, Sierra Seeds, the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance. However, according to Mueller, there is no published resource or person known to the academic community who has in-depth knowledge on the original lost crops of goosefoot and erect knotweed and how they were once grown.

“We’re left with this disconnect,” she says. “We don’t know how these extinct domesticated varieties evolved. So we need to work backwards: start with the seeds in archaeological records found at sites when we’re digging and look at what we see in wildlife today.”

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The first evidence of the lost domesticated crops was found in the 1930s by archaeologists who identified their seed caches and dried leaves in Kentucky and Arkansas rock shelters. Since then, a number of other studies have recovered and analyzed the crops’ remains from storage pits, caves, fragmentary baskets and bags, and paleofeces at sites along the western Appalachian front, the edges of the Great Plains, and across the Midwest, establishing that the lost crops were part of an ancient agricultural system that supported Indigenous populations for millennia.

Since 2018, Mueller’s has been working on an experimental garden, where she grows and studies goosefoot and erect knotweed, along with three other lost crops: maygrass, little barley, and sumpweed. Through trial-and-error cultivation, she uses archaeological records and existing research on the domesticated versions as a reference point to piece together their agriculture origin story, understand their evolution, and determine how she can cultivate them using pre-historic practices.

“The habitat for these plants is shrinking and shrinking, and we’re not concerned about wild plants or weeds because we don’t think they need any help. But they do,” Mueller says. “Biodiversity, for native weedy or wild plants, needs more attention. . . . Weeds are the closest relatives to almost all of our annual crops.”

Until she learns more about ancient plant cultivation, Mueller is looking to partnerships to help integrate the wild varieties into the contemporary food scene. Her initiative with Connoley has been the only one that’s come to fruition so far, but she’s particularly keen on connecting and collaborating with local Indigenous communities, and offering access to her seed stock. Mueller has spoken with Sean Sherman of the “Sioux Chef” about how he can use the seeds for his projects. She has also connected with Dr. Andrea Hunter of the Osage Nation Historic Preservation Office about how they might collaborate.

Paying Tribute to Indigenous Communities

Connoley says he, too, is mindful of his responsibility to pay tribute to the Indigenous communities that once grew the lost crops while including current groups that reside on the land that is home to the plants. He’s also been in contact with Hunter and the Osage Nation to tap into their knowledge bank of crop history over the last 100 years and build an understanding of how he can provide acknowledgement in an appropriate way.

“It’s this really, really sensitive dance of keeping the diner engaged and paying tribute where it should be paid,” Connoley says.

Currently, when he serves dishes—like nutty knotweed crisps doused in a roasted pumpkin spread with caramelized onion, or puffed goosefoot rolled into dark chocolate with guajillo chillies and fennel pollen—he presents them as foraged crops with an ancient history of cultivation by Indigenous people.

Erect knotweed from Mueller’s experimental garden. (Photo credit: Thomas Malkowicz, Washington University)

Erect knotweed from Mueller’s experimental garden. (Photo credit: Thomas Malkowicz, Washington University)

“However, the Osage are alive and well, and their history and traditions are theirs to share,” he adds. “As my relationship with Dr. Hunter and the Osage Nation evolves, there will certainly be a time for me to share their version of the story, either by directly including them in the experience or by giving respectful attribution.”

Dr. Ian Thompson, the senior director of the Choctaw Nation Historic Preservation Department in Durant, Oklahoma, who himself works to revitalize Native foodways, sees serving native crops into contemporary restaurants as an effective way to garner interest in wild, local foods and reach a wider audience. He also believes that involving Indigenous groups in the process is key. “Make it so that tribal people have an opportunity to help lead the direction of where these initiatives are going,” he says. “This decreases the chance of it being exploitative, so then it becomes something that’s collaborative.”

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In addition to working in the Choctaw community, Thompson manages his own farm, Nan Awaya Farmstead, in eastern Atoka County with his partner Amy. In both personal and professional ventures, he’s working to re-integrate traditional Choctaw foodways into his community. His book, Choctaw Food: Remembering the Land, Rekindling Ancient Knowledge, provides a thorough account of his efforts.

As an archeologist, Thompson knows about the lost crops featured in Mueller’s study. He has grown and cooked with goosefoot and he grows little barley, along with other native grasses in his farm’s pastures.

There are a number of health, environmental, and economic benefits that come with growing and using native crops, Thompson says. Notably, they provide a greater appreciation and deeper relationship with the land.

Specifically in the context of Indigenous communities, which suffer disproportionately from diet-related illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease, diets rich in traditional foods can help bring about improved health outcomes as they tend to be lower on the glycemic scale (i.e., they don’t spike blood sugar). They also offer Indigenous people an opportunity to reclaim culture that was largely lost due to colonization.

“The [industrial] system is really powerful, and people are used to the kind of convenience that it brings—foods from all over the planet, whether they’re in season or not,” says Thompson, who hopes to see wild and ancient foods occupy a larger role in today’s farm landscapes. “However, humans are a part of this Earth, and if we live in a way or eat a diet that’s not balanced with the ecosystems that support us—eventually, it shows up.”

For Mueller, the hope is to help eaters—and farming systems more generally—find that balance again. “One thing that is super important about introducing lost crops to people is to show them an agricultural system that is different and stronger due to its diversity and flexibility,” she says.

Lindsay Campbell is a Canadian freelance journalist with a beat in food and agriculture reporting. Read more >

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