Evergreens for the darkest days: The ancient roots of Christmas trees

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“Evergreens for the darkest days: The ancient roots of Christmas trees”

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‘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).

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

A curious quest to rediscover lost crops

An a hot August day in 2014, I found myself armpit deep in weeds and grasses on a creek bank in central Arkansas, following my friend Liz Horton as she swept the ground in front of us with a stick to scare off snakes. Kelsey Nordine brought up the rear, mastering her life-long ophidiophobia by dint of dedication to our common goal: to rediscover a lost crop. I remember this day as the spiritual beginning of my lost crops research, a journey of discovery that would transform me into the world expert on one unobtrusive little plant, erect knotweed. While it is easy to overlook this plant today, the archaeological record shows that it was an important seed crop for centuries in many Indigenous communities in eastern North America.

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Kelsey and I, not finding lost crops, August 2014. Photo credit: Liz Horton.

That day, I had the help of some formidable companions. Liz is the station archaeologist for Toltec Mounds, a site that was an important ceremonial and political center in the Late Woodland and Mississippian Southeast (from around 650 – 1100 AD). Back then, Liz was getting started building the Plum Bayou Garden at Toltec Mounds, a teaching garden that contains many of the plants used by Woodland communities in Arkansas (if you’re in the area, you really should stop by — it is an extraordinary place). She is also an expert in ancient fiber technology – baskets and clothing – and the plants that were used to create them. The daughter of two master naturalists and a native of the Ozarks region, she was the ideal guide to help me find an elusive and diminutive weed among the almost scary plant fecundity of August in Arkansas. Like me at the time, Kelsey is a graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis specializing in pre-Columbian agriculture. She was working in the Maya world, but her growing interest in the plants and people of eastern North America was evident from her willingness to keep me company on this wild weed chase. We did not find any erect knotweed that day, but later on Kelsey and I did find thousands of seed ticks on our ankles in the seeming luxury of our air conditioned Motel 6 room.


Erect knotweed — if you can spot it! I found this one with the help of Missouri Botanical Garden botanist Alan Brant. I ended up writing a whole dissertation about this plant — read all about it here.

Maybe it seems strange that I remember that day, when I failed to find a lost crop, as the beginning of the journey. But scraping ticks off your legs with a credit card in a motel bathtub and not finding what you’re looking for – then laughing about it in bed with a tall boy of PBR –  is part of the distinctive flavor of my field work. It’s not the only flavor though – there’s also the taste of frozen pickle pops after long hot car rides with the windows down, the indescribable beauty of a native prairie remnant blooming in May, and the excitement of finding whole populations of endangered plants somehow thriving in tucked away corners of the industrial agricultural landscape.


Clockwise from top: Survey for Lost Crops veteran Maggie Spivey-Faulkner, enjoying a roadside Pickle-Ice; Cherokee Prairie echinacea in bloom, an enormous population of maygrass hidden among the cornfields of southeastern Arkansas; Maggie, Liz, and my mentor Gayle Fritz at the Plum Bayou Garden; me the day I found my first stand of erect knotweed.

Now, as I get ready to set out once again with my plant press and my measuring tape, I’ve decided to start writing about these experiences. The Survey for Lost Crops, as I’ve come to call this endeavor, is an esoteric quest to find the remnants of an ancient agricultural system, but along the way it also brings me to parts of the 21st century rural landscape that are seldom seen. It also brings me into contact with people who are protecting the land, its native flora and fauna, and its deep history in unique and unexpected ways amid what appears from the highway to be a desolation of genetically modified corn and soybeans.


Paul Krautman on his farm talking lost crops with my partner, Don Conner, another Survey stalwart. Paul’s alternative farming methods, especially his limited use of herbicides, make room for native plants like erect knotweed (foreground) to persist in agricultural landscapes.

So what are these lost crops I speak of? Here they are!

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From Mueller et al. 2017. a) goosefoot (Chenopodium berlandieri); b) sumpweed/marshelder (Iva annua); c) little barley (Hordeum pusillum); d) erect knotweed (Polygonum erectum); e) maygrass (Phalaris caroliniana)

Don’t feel bad if you don’t recognize them. When you think of Indigenous North American cuisine and agriculture, you probably imagine three crops that are very far from lost: beans, squash, and of course, maize (most people call it corn, but that’s actually an old European term meaning any kind of grain – the name shows how important it became to European colonists, huh?).


The kind of maize agriculture practiced today by this farmer (and good sport) in Illinois would have surprised the ancient farmers who developed this crop. They grew diverse maize landraces in a complex polycrop system with many other plants. Photo credit: Andrew Flachs.

These three crops were indeed the staples in a complex domesticated landscape that supported Indigenous people at the time when their land was invaded by European colonists. Maize, beans, and many common varieties of squash originated in Mexico, where their wild ancestors were first domesticated, and they reached eastern North America through trade. But that doesn’t mean that expert farmers in eastern North America played no role in creating the crops we know today. For the entire history of agriculture up until the early 20th century, farmers were responsible for selecting and saving their own seed from their own crop, or else trading for seed with neighbors. What archaeologists call the “tropical crops,” those that originated in Mexico, had to be adapted to the temperate climate of eastern North America, a process that likely took centuries of careful observation and experimentation.


I photographed these teosinte (the wild ancestor of maize) and maize sprouts at a workshop on seed saving at Native Seeds Search in Tuscon, AZ. This seed bank houses hundreds of landraces of crop plants, including this sprouting maize variety, that are specially adapted to the Sonoran Desert. The same crop diversity was also characteristic of ancient crops in the East, and many Indigenous communities still maintain their traditional landraces of maize and other crops.

We know from the archaeological record that maize, beans, and Mexican varieties of squash (such as pumpkins) were not widely grown in eastern North American until the last few centuries before the arrival of Europeans – beginning around 900 AD. But agriculture began in this region thousands of years earlier. Which brings me back to the lost crops – if they were lost, how do we know about them? That story begins in the 1960s, when archaeologists began to use a new technique called flotation to recover plant remains from archaeological sites. It’s not rocket science – you take a soil sample from an archaeological context, like a pile of ancient garbage or a storage pit, and you put it in a bucket of water. The organic material floats to the top, you skim it off, dry it out, and look at it under a microscope.


My students processing flotation samples near Avon, NY, in the summer of 2011, and the end results we hope to find: tiny fragments of ancient plants (in this case, erect knotweed sprouts!)

This simple methodological innovation changed everything, though. As thousands of liters of sediment were floated all across eastern North America, it became apparent that several unknown crops had been cultivated for their seed, while at the same time the advent of radiocarbon dating revealed that agriculture dated back a whopping 4,000 years – much longer than anyone had thought before. To answer early skeptics, paleoethnobotanists got creative. They dissected ancient human poops – yes! Poops! – and found that they were full of the seeds of the lost crops. They also found the lost crops stored in baskets and bags or bundled in dry rock shelters. By carefully analyzing the size and shape of the ancient seeds, they were able to demonstrate that some of the lost crops were actually domesticated. This means that they had diverged, in the evolutionary sense, from wild populations and could be recognized as distinct sub-species.


Left: Excavating a pit full of erect knotweed seeds (Photo courtesy of Neal Lopinot); Right top: ancient human poop from Kentucky; Right bottom: ancient bundles of maygrass from Arkansas.

The study of the lost crops is only two academic generations deep. My dissertation adviser, Gayle Fritz of Washington University, was one of the scholars who showed that the lost crops were domesticated. Her adviser, Richard Yarnell, did some of the pioneering studies of the lost crops, including the first analyses of ancient poops. Because we’ve only known about these crops for a few decades, there are a still a lot of unanswered questions. For me and my colleagues, many of these questions can only be answered by interacting with the living plants.


Growing Lost Crops Symposium participants, Athens, GA 2016. Left to right: Me, Gail Wagner, Paul Patton, Liz Horton, Daniel Williams, Gayle Fritz, and Logan Kistler (and some lost crops, of course!)

Here we all are luxuriating in our shared nerdiness at the Growing Lost Crops symposium, the first of its kind, last fall at the Southeastern Archaeological Conference meetings. If you want to read more about this research, check out the paper we recently published on some of the preliminary results of our projects. I am setting out on round three of the Survey for Lost Crops at the end of next week, and I look forward to sharing stories and findings along the way this time.