Growing lost crops: It has begun!

The only reason I started writing this blog post 2 days ago, instead of  continuing to furiously tend my lost crops, is because it was pouring rain. When it started raining, I was where I have been nearly every daylight hour for the past three weeks: in my field (or “patch,” as my father calls it). I was weeding an experimental plot of maygrass. Undeterred, I kept weeding for another 2 hours, until the mud was sticking to my fingers and I could no longer pull weeds with the precision necessary to avoid pulling lost crops, which are also weeds. I said a silent but sincere Thank you to the Earth for finally watering my babies, then packed it in for the day.


My Dad, Tim Mueller, weeding one of the goosefoot plots after some much needed rain. It’s surprisingly difficult to weed when you’re cultivating…weeds.

Average precipitation for June in Ithaca, New York, is 3.85 inches –we have received only 2 inches this month. It shouldn’t be necessary to irrigate weeds, especially in a place as wet as central New York, but I needed to keep the seed beds damp to encourage as much germination as possible. When I got home from a conference on June 14th and found the parched, clayey soil actually cracking, I made an emergency trip to Tractor Supply (one of many) for hoses and a sprinkler. Not the most high-tech irrigation solution, but pretty much all the tap near my field can handle– and works in a pinch. The best time to be out in the field moving a sprinkler around is just before sunset on these long summer days. I can bring my dog and book, or puzzle over small oddities in my plants in peace.

The saga of getting these plants to germinate began back in December, when I started experiments to see what kind treatment the seeds of each species needed make them sprout. Domesticated plants have been selected and bred by people for thousands of years to germinate as soon as they are planted. The thing about wild seeds is that they have never been able to count on humans to collect and store them in safe places, then plant them somewhere that they will like the next year. Instead, they have evolved diverse means of protecting themselves from freezing, flooding, drought, getting chewed on and digested by animals– and then, when conditions are just right, “knowing” that it is time to germinate.

Over the course of the winter, my research assistants and I developed some pretty good guidelines for treating the seeds of each species. Although we weren’t getting the 80% germination that you can expect from most store-bought seeds, we were getting at least 25% and sometimes as high as 70% with our most successful treatments, and we applied those treatments to the seed stock for the main experiments I had planned for this summer. Between May 2nd and May 18th, we planted everything in experimental plots and started the vigil for sprouts.

Even after months of preparation, I was far from confident that all five species would grow. Those germination experiments were conducted in the greenhouse. The greenhouse might as well be a different planet when it comes to experimental results. On Planet Greenhouse, every day is 12 hours long. It’s always 80 degrees during the day and 65 degrees at night. Planet Greenhouse is made of homogenous, rich, loose, potting soil, which is always perfectly moist, but not too wet. There are almost no bugs, and no larger animals to chomp on tender seedlings. It’s a wonderful planet for baby plants, but not at all like Planet Earth.

After 8 weeks of weeding and watering and watching, we have now counted over 5,000 seedlings representing all five lost crops in three different experiments. Some are behaving a little strangely, but that’s to be expected given that I’ve taken them out of their habitats and life cycles.


Some of the freshly weeded and watered plots, full of thousands of seedlings at last — I had a lot of help and moral support from my Dad (background) this week. 

For example, consider the two lost crops that are spring maturing grasses, maygrass and little barley. In the wild, they germinate either in late fall or in very early spring, and by June they have already produced all their seed for the year and died. I couldn’t plant them in early spring here at Cornell, because there were several feet of snow on my field in March. That’s normal western New York stuff, but by mid-April things were getting a little upsetting. I had to push back the preparation of my field for weeks, until after the last snow, which occurred as I was laying out experimental plots in mittens and boots on April 30.


Laying out the field on May 1. There was snow the day before.

That’s one of the many downsides of leaving Planet Greenhouse for Planet Earth: weather. I decided to make lemonade from crappy spring lemons and look into something that my colleagues and I have been wondering about: Would it have been possible for ancient people to get two crops per year out of these species? If you plant seeds after the first harvest in May, could you get another crop in late summer?

I planted maygrass and little barley in May, and they are just starting to flower now. The jury is still out, but its looking good for two-crop lost crops! The maygrass is doing something odd. Instead of growing to ~40 cm before flowering, some of my seedlings are producing flowers when they are only 4 cm tall. If they can muster the energy to produce seeds with so few leaves, this is not necessarily a bad trait from a farmer’s perspective: more seeds in less space and time. It is also interesting to see how the maygrass and little barley interact. We’ve gotten the best germination and the earliest flowers in the plots where the two species are grown together.


Maygrass and little barley germinating together at the beginning of June.

Other experiments have not been as successful. Out of thousands of seeds sown, I’ve counted only 12 sumpweed seedlings. I spent four entire work days weeding empty sumpweed plots, hoping they would germinate if I kept them clear and moist, but so far no luck. The dry weather this June is probably worse for sumpweed than for the other species, since this plant grows in marshy locations (its other common name is marsh elder). We are still hoping for some late comers, but even if they never sprout we’ve learned something valuable about sumpweed – how not to grow it.


My research assistants, Peter and Andrea, transplanting knotweed last week. This was the last experiment we set up, and the only one that relied on plants started in the greenhouse.


As of yesterday, everything is finally laid out, built, planted, and weeded (for now…), and this week we can concentrate on collecting data for the first time. It’s been the busiest two months of my entire life, but it’s wonderful to see all of these plants growing together and I am looking forward to learning from them everyday for months to come.


This final experiment we set up is comparing knotweed responses to sun and shade — but more on that next time!


Lost crops and living knowledge profiled by CBC’s Quirks and Quarks

I spoke with CBC’s Quirks and Quarks on Sunday about my research on eastern North America’s lost crops. Listen here!

I was pleased that Quirks and Quarks chose to pair my interview with the fascinating and vital work of Kim Recalma-Clutesi (Ogwiloqwa) to preserve and apply traditional ecological knowledge in her community. “Lost things found!” are always fascinating (they’re the bread and butter of archaeology), but they are only a tiny part of the story of Indigenous North American ethnobotany.  I can’t emphasize enough how important Native American crops still are to food security and cuisines all over the world. Even more importantly, there are Indigenous communities all across North America who are advocating for the right to tend and care for the plants and animals in their homelands. Community knowledge based on thousands of years of experience is more important now than ever, as we face population growth and climate change. I wish every story about lost crops could appear beside a story about ecological knowledge that is preserved, passed on, and applied.

‘Life finds a way’ in the ruins

Precarity is that here and now in which pasts may not lead to futures. – A.L. Tsing


River cane. You can tell it apart from bamboo, which it otherwise resembles, by it’s smaller maximum stem diameter (if you see plants with greater than 3 inch stems, probably bamboo) and this little sulcus (groove) on the stem above the node. If you find it, keep it safe!

Anna Tsing’s 2015 book “The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in the Capitalist Ruins” explores how places that are seen as ecological travesties, such as lodgepole pine plantations in Oregon, have become habitat for a species with enormous economic value: the matsutake mushroom. This mushroom underpins an informal economy that, among other things, provides an escape from wage labor to Southeast Asian refugees and American Vietnam vets alike.  Looking deeper back in time, the matsutake has always been associated with early-growth forests and human disturbance. In Japan, where this ‘weedy’ mushroom is most valuable and meaningful, urbanization and conservation have reduced the extent of this kind of heavily disturbed forest habitat. Now Japanese demand is met by pickers in America’s plantation forests.

Last Thursday, I was driving through a section of the Big Creek Wildlife Management Area in central Arkansas with my friend Liz Horton. I was trying to find places where the dirt roads crossed creeks and rivers, because these are the best places to look for the plant species I am studying. On our first attempt to penetrate this publicly owned space, which ostensibly exists to provide habitat for wildlife and hunting and fishing for the citizens of Arkansas, we immediately encountered a metal gate plastered with disconcerting signs. “Biocontainment area,” they cryptically warned. “Keep gate closed and locked” – although it stood open. Proceeding cautiously onward, we found ourselves in the middle of fracking station. There are hundreds of these stations on publicly owned land in north-central Arkansas. They have been accused of everything from illegally injecting diesel fuel into the ground water to increasing the incidence of earthquakes (in nearby Oklahoma).

fracking station

Photo of fracking station in timber plantation, Arkansas, that I surreptitiously took while creeping by at 2 miles per hour.

This experience echoed my exploration, weeks of earlier, of Wayne National Forest in Appalachian Ohio, where fracking and conventional oil drilling operations are leasing large parts of federally owned conservation areas, transforming these spaces from a refuge for the people, plants, and animals who live there to a liability and health hazard. These are only the latest in hundreds of years of irresponsible, but entirely legal, extractive industries in this forest, beginning with clear cutting by Euroamerican settlers, which eliminated all of the old growth forests in the eastern United States except for a few tiny pockets. In the Wayne, we saw rivers running red with old mining effluent. Acid seeps out of old coal piles and abandoned mines, eliminating all aquatic life in many streams. Both of these “natural areas” are surrounded by poor communities who bear disproportionate health and environmental costs.


Monday Creek

Monday Creek in Wayne National Forest runs red from old mining effluent


Conventional oil well in Wayne, near the Ohio River. I saw dozens of these over the course of two days, some surrounded by splatters of oil and dead plants, others inhabiting seemingly healthy clearings.

But sometimes in the most ravaged places, I find the rare native plants I am looking for, as when we found a population of marsh elder growing in an old pit mine. In these places, the presence of lost crops provides a glimmering of the deep history of this land and its entanglement with people – a reminder of another way of inhabiting this landscape that was based on enhancement rather than extraction. These plants survive where they do because of their ancient affinity with people, what you might call weediness, and despite an array of institutions that are indifferent to their annihilation. It is  important to keep in mind that although some fragments of native plant and animal communities remain, the Indigenous communities who tended and carefully managed these ecosystems for thousands of years were long ago forced off of the lands that I study, which are now being somewhat less thoughtfully managed by the US government and various industries.


Maygrass growing alongside GM herbicide tolerant maize field, Arkansas, 2015.

In May of 2015, my colleagues and I found an enormous stand of maygrass, another lost crop, growing alongside a corn field in southeastern Arkansas. This weedy margin was probably saved by the fact that it was growing right alongside a “ditch” – an old bayou that has been canalized by the building of levees – and was separated from the corn field by a dirt road. This small separation was key. We could tell by looking at the eerie cleanliness of the corn field that it was glyphosate resistant maize (like almost 90% of the maize grown in the US), a genetically modified crop that can withstand being sprayed with herbicide (“Round up ready”). We’d been looking for maygrass on field margins devoid of any living plants for three days before we found this remnant. The advent of GM herbicide resistant crops has spelled doom for ecosystems of weedy annual plants that once thrived in agricultural landscapes.


Shrinking margins in GM herbicide tolerant soy fields, Mississippi, 2015.

The situation for rural wild flowers and weeds was already bad two years ago, but it just took a turn for the apocalyptic. During the twenty years since the release of glyphosate tolerant crops, glyphosate has killed many weeds – but not all. The survivors have rapidly evolved the same herbicide tolerance that was engineered into the crops. One plant in particular has come to plague farmers: palmer amaranth. Maybe you’ve heard of amaranth – it’s a common weed (sometimes called pigweed) with edible leaves best enjoyed as a vegetable in the spring. It’s also a grain crop in Mexico and the US southwest, and one of the lost crops of eastern North America – it was grown as a crop in Arkansas for at least 600 years by Indigenous people. But now, after 20 years of GM crops and wanton glyphosate spraying, it has a new role to play as a superweed. It is impossible to kill and extremely invasive. I don’t think I was out of sight of a palmer amaranth plant the entire time I was in the state of Arkansas. So in 2016, Monsanto and BASF rolled out a solution: a new generation of herbicide tolerant cotton and soy that were designed to work with a new herbicide called dicamba – a chemical savior that could slay the superweeds.


Blow torching palmer amaranth in Minnesota, 2016

This summer, the use of the new genetically modified crops increased dramatically, and so did dicamba spraying. This strategy did kill some superweeds – but it also led to millions of acres of damaged crops and untold damage to wild ecosystems, which were already surviving at the margins. The problem is that dicamba is much more volatile than glyphosate. It floats up off of the dirt and drifts around when it’s hot and humid (probably didn’t help that 2017 was the 2nd hottest year on record). So farmers who made the switch had a great year – their neighbors who didn’t plant dicamba resistant crops were not so lucky. If this situation continues, cotton and soy farmers will have no choice but to adopt the new tech, meanwhile farmers who grow other crops for which dicamba resistant seeds are not available (not to mention anyone who still cares about wild plants) have no choice but the suffer the consequences of yet another irresponsible, destructive industrial method for extracting profit.


Soybean with dicamba drift damage. Photo: Univerity of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service

Last Friday, as I was driving back north towards Missouri, a curious piece of news broke. Monsanto announced that it is suing the Arkansas State Plant Board, which is trying to stop this egregious state of affairs by prohibiting dicamba use in hot weather.  Yes. You read the right. Millions of acres of crops were damaged by their new product and they’re suing Arkansas for trying to put limits on its future use.

Anyway. Back in Big Creek WMA, we backtracked quickly and quietly out of the fracking station and tried another route. We soon found ourselves driving through a vast timber plantation. This homogenous pine forest is created by plowing deep furrows and machine planting identical pine seedlings at regular intervals. When the trees reach a prescribed age, the area is clear cut, any remaining undergrowth is burned, and the process begins again. Much like other forms of industrial agriculture, this creates an extremely simplified ecosystem whose purpose is to maximize growth of a single commodity species. Among other problems, clear cutting leads to erosion of hillsides, which can clog streams and cause more severe and destructive flooding.


Flood debris

timber clear cut

Clear cut area

In a pocket of valley too steep for industrial tree-farming, we stumbled upon something Liz had been trying to show me for years: a big stand of native river cane. Cane brakes used to cover vast swaths of the river valleys of eastern North America. It was extremely important to the livelihoods of Indigenous communities, who used it for baskets, combs, gaming pieces, drills, pipes, arrow and dart shafts, blowguns, tattoo needles, and more. It is still needed for some of these uses, especially to make beautiful cane baskets, by Indigenous Southeasterners, but it is in increasingly short supply.

River cane is now considered critically endangered, which made finding it on the margin of this industrial landscape all the more jarring. While I tend to focus on food (in my research as well as my personal life), I think Liz is quite correct when she insists that fiber crops were just as important to ancient people as food crops. Among these, river cane was undoubtedly one of the most important, but little is known about how it was managed and tended. Its once-abundance lives on in dozens of cane-related place names across the southeast and Midwest.

liz and cane

Dr. Liz Horton, happy to have found one of her favorite plants.

cane plural

Stand of cane. The creek valley in the background is full of recent run-off from the industrial timber farm upstream.

I’m not sure how to conclude these observations. I don’t know what surprises me more: the unheeding destructiveness of many of the rural industries I encountered, or the fact that anything other than commodity crops manages to survive among them. I suppose it is as Hollywood chaotician- Jeff Goldbaum said, “Life finds a way.”

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Lost crops in the all the wrong places

Oct. 8 2017. I’ve been on the road for a week now searching for lost crops. It’s pouring rain into the misty Red River Gorge, and I’m holed up at the lovely Daniel Boone Coffee Shop, so now is a good time to record some reflections so far.

I started my journey in Pittsburgh, where the Monongahela River and the Allegheny River join to form the Ohio River. This was a fitting place to begin, since the Ohio River was one of the great thoroughfares of pre-Columbian North America. I study a group of lost crops that were cultivated for thousands of years in a vast mid-continental region defined by its river valleys: the Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi rivers, among many others. Think of the Ohio as an ancient high road, connecting the heart of the midcontinent to the northeast via the Appalachian Mountains. I left the analogous modern high road, Route 70, in Wheeling, WV, and turned south to follow Route 7 along the upper Ohio River. When I hopped out of my car for the first time, I was looking for three floodplain weeds that were once important crops: native goosefoot (Chenopodium berlandieri), sumpweed (Iva annua), and erect knotweed (Polygonum erectum).


Route 7 along the upper Ohio River.

I spent a fruitless but sun-drench and beautiful afternoon walking the Ohio River valley between Wheeling, West Virginia and Marietta, Ohio. I mostly prospected around small oil wells in the floodplain that looked like something out of another century. The clearings and networks of trails connecting them were ideal places for the weedy species I was looking for, and they were out of the way enough that they weren’t overrun with invasive species. The next morning, I spent a few hours circumnavigating Middle Island, an island in the Ohio River that was one farm land but is now managed as a wildlife refuge. I came up empty handed in all of these likely locations, and in the afternoon decided to abandon the floodplain for now and head up onto the Allegheny Plateau.

oil well.jpg

Clearing around oil wells are good places to look for lost crops, or get electrocuted by DIY wiring!

If you’re from a coast, you may think of the entire region where I work as fly-over country, an endless expanse of corn fields, but it is actually a very diverse landscape.  The upper Ohio valley cuts southwest through its mountainous eastern margin. Some of the key archaeological evidence for the lost crops came from caves and rockshelters along the western Appalachian front, stretching from Ohio to Tennessee.  From the millions of crop seeds recovered from caves and rockshelters in this upland region, we know that the lost crops were cultivated here beginning in the end of the Late Archaic period, about 3500 years ago.  The three lost crops that I am looking for on this trip are all species of disturbed areas, usually near water, so their presence in mountain caves is somewhat surprising. I think that we can deduce that people made space for them outside of their natural habitat, by clearing forested terraces in mountain valleys and cultivating them there. Given this history, I was curious to see where these species would occur in the uplands without the major assist they once received from ancient farmers.

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Ash Cave, Ohio. An enormous cache of ancient crop seeds, including domesticated native goosefoot (similar to quinoa) was recovered here, far from the natural habitat of a floodplain weed.

In Athens, I joined forces with my colleague Paul Patton, a professor at Ohio University. After a brief consultation with the archaeologists and botanists at the Wayne National Forest headquarters, we started prospecting along dirt roads near Monday Creek, a small tributary of the Hocking River. After several hours of not finding lost crops, we had started to get a little careless, strolling along and chatting with our eyes trained on the strips of weeds between the road and the forest. This gave us plenty of time to compare notes. “There’s no sumpweed up here” Paul told me. “But, the USDA map…” I began, but he was one step ahead of me. The Wayne National Forest is his study area, and he’s excavated several Archaic and Woodland sites in those hills. “The occurrence you saw in Athens County was mined from one of my papers – it’s from an archaeological site, not a modern occurrence.”

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USDA Map showing sumpweed (Iva annua) occurrences. You can see that Athens County is marked in green, meaning that Iva annua has been collected in that county. Turns out, though, that accession was from archaeological specimens excavated by Paul, not living plants. If you know the major rivers in the region, you might notice that the counties with sumpweed are mainly located along them, not up in the hills and mountains.

For hundreds of years, botanists have been collecting plants, identifying them, and depositing their pressed specimens in curious institutions called herbaria (singular: herbarium). These collections are a priceless record of plant distributions over time, but they are also idiosyncratic. Coverage may be very good within a 50 mile radius of some avid 19th century botanist’s house, but non-existent the next county over. Still, based on the data I’ve personally amassed from herbarium specimens, plus the considerably bigger databases of the USDA and the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), there isn’t (and hasn’t been for at least two hundred years) any sumpweed up in the hills where we were looking.

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A sumpweed specimen we examined at the Ohio University herbarium from Athens, near the Hocking River. We checked this location, but it is long gone.

After this revelation, I was very surprised when Paul suddenly stopped in his tracks – “Is that?!” Following his shocked gaze, I realized that what it was: a patch of sumpweed plants growing along a parched dirt road running uphill from an old mine – a strange place for a plant that is basically a wetland species. We both stood around not believing our eyes while we texted a picture to our friend Liz, who has been cultivating sumpweed for the past three years. When she texted back “Cute!” rather than “You’re idiots that isn’t sumpweed,” we gleefully started collecting seed, data, and herbarium specimens from our first lost crop find of 2017.

This populations is growing literally a stone’s throw from ancient sites where it was an important crop. It’s been hundreds of years since then – hundreds of years during which this site was clear cut, then mined for coal and oil, then reforested. Could this be a remnant of a cultivated population? It would take A LOT more data on where sumpweed does and does not occur to answer that question. Actually that’s part of what brought me down to Boone National Forest, where I’m currently getting rained on. Like the Hocking River and its tributaries, the Red River has provided plenty of evidence for the cultivation of lost crops in the highlands. The lost crops aren’t supposed to be here either, but you never know what you might find when your start looking.

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Collecting goosefoot seeds along the Hocking River with Paul.


Post Script, Morning  of Oct. 9

I rallied from my warm dry retreat at the Daniel Boone Coffee Shop and headed down into the Red River Gorge minutes after finishing this post. To get into the gorge, you first have to pass through the spectacular Nada Tunnel, which was created in the early 20th century to transport lumber out of what was then still an old growth forest. After passing through, the road dives down into the gorge. Route 613, still a pot-holed dirt track in some places but worth the effort,  winds its way down the bottom of the gorge along the Red River, past several caves and rockshelters that are famous (at least, to me) for their contributions to our knowledge of the lost crops.

nada tunnel

Nada Tunnel, entrance to Red River Gorge, Kentucky.

As I trudged along one roadside between campsites in the pouring rain, my eyes alighted on a form that I know from my dreams and nightmares – little erect knotweed, the elusive subject of recently completed dissertation – my lost crop. This plant is extremely rare: in four years of searching this is only the sixth population I have ever found. But since I’ve been growing it for going on three years now, I can spot it anywhere, even if it is mowed and bedraggled, like these ones. Back in my car, I checked the location on my big map of Kentucky. I was directly below Courthouse Rockshelter– the very location where excavations had yielded 2,000 year old caches of erect knotweed and other lost crops back in 1998. It was getting dark and didn’t have time to investigate further, but I am headed back up into the hills now!


Erect knotweed growing along the Red River, just below Courthouse Rockshelter.