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VOL. 127 | NO. 124 | Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Heritage Garden Showcases Delta’s Ag History

By Aisling Maki

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Memphis Botanic Garden has unveiled a new garden to honor the heritage of the Mississippi River Delta.

The Memphis Botanic Garden has unveiled a garden to honor the heritage of the Mississippi River Delta.

(Photo: Courtesy of Memphis Botanic Garden)

The newly planted Delta Heritage Garden, which showcases the South’s rich agricultural history, is the first of its kind at Memphis Botanic Garden, 750 Cherry Road.

The Garden’s horticulture staff, led by longtime horticulture director Rick Pudwell, conducted historical and horticultural research to develop an authentic bed highlighting the Southern tradition of plants whose legacies go back generations.

The idea for the Delta Heritage Garden originated when Memphis Botanic Garden executive director Jim Duncan suggested to Pudwell that the staff plant cotton, a crop that helped shape the story of Memphis and the surrounding community.

“This was originally just going to be an annual color bed,” Pudwell said. “But then Jim thought it would be a great idea to do the cotton and the vegetables.”

This sparked a conversation among employees about the edible and ornamental plants they remember their families and neighbors growing, which led to many of the selections.

The garden features three varieties of natural-colored cottons. While white cotton was historically exported for sale, natural colored cottons were grown by slaves for their own use prior to the Civil War.

These cottons have fallen out of favor because their fibers are shorter and more difficult to spin and dye than modern varieties of white cotton.

One of the varieties featured in the garden is nankeen. Originally grown in Louisiana, the brown cotton’s lint is a non-fading dark copper that becomes brighter after washing.

The second variety, Erlene’s Green, is a family heirloom cotton from Erlene Melancon of East Texas, who used the green cotton for making quilts. Its fiber starts out olive green, but fades to a yellow green with time and washing.

And the third variety, Red Foliated White, which starts out green before its stems turn dark red, came from a member of Seed Saver’s Exchange (www.seedsavers.org), a nonprofit dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds.

Since 1975, Seed Saver’s Exchange members have been sharing and preserving North America’s garden heritage by collecting and distributing thousands of samples of rare garden seeds to other gardeners.

A seed catalogue called Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (www.southernexposure.com) also played an important role in the development of the garden.

“We’re losing a lot of knowledge about what people did a generation ago because our lives have become so mechanized,” Pudwell said.

The Delta Heritage Garden’s edible crops include “homemade pickles,” a member of the gourd family that originated in Africa and Asia and were probably brought to the U.S. by early colonists, and watermelon, an edible fruiting plant with origins in Africa.

The variety that Pudwell is growing, Amish Sun, Moon, and Stars, is named for the light markings in the melon’s frits and foliage that resemble the stars. This heirloom selection was introduced in 1925.

The garden also features pole beans, which have traditionally been grown on bean poles or teepees, planted at the base of field corn, and allowed to grow up the corn stalks; and “Mississippi Silver” Southern Peas, better known as black-eyed peas, which thrive in humidity.

Another Southern garden staple, okra, was brought to the U.S. from Northeast Africa in the late 1660s with the slave trade. The name okra is derived from “nkru” in the Ashanti language of West Africa, while gumbo is derived from “ngombo” in the Bantu language of Southern Africa.

The plant’s roasted seeds can be used as a coffee substitute, its juice can be used to clean metal, it can stop bleeding and its stem fibers have been used to make rough cloth or cordage. The circa-1920s Bowling Red variety planted in the Delta Heritage Garden comes from the Bowling family of Virginia and is rated as one of the top heirloom okras.

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