Out of Africa
Greg Grant, June 22, 1997
With the recent passing of Juneteenth,
I thought it would be a good time to examine Africa's horticultural
and landscape contributions to the South. As with most days, we
might as well start in the kitchen. Several of our southern staple
foods hail from the continent of Africa.
Were you aware that peas are from
Africa? Of course when we say "peas" in the South, we all know
what we're talking about. In the North, "peas" would mean English
or green peas (Yuck!). There, they refer to OUR peas as cowpeas
or field peas. As a kid we had peas at almost every meal. Purple
hull peas for everyday, and cream peas for holidays. It's still
imperative at home that the freezer be filled with peas each summer.
Do you like gumbo? Apparently "gombo"
is an African word for okra which also hails from Africa. Once
again, a lot of folks who aren't from the South don't eat okra.
I had lunch with a couple the other day that was raised in the
midwest. As she helped herself to the bright red pickled beets
from the salad bar I made some "off color" remark about how she
could possibly eat those things. She was quick to point out that
they were very good but she wouldn't touch "that slimy" pickled
okra I had on my plate.
Sweet potatoes have been cultivated
for so long that their native origin is somewhat obscure. Although
they have long been thought to be a product of Africa some suggest
that they are originally native to tropical America. It would
make sense however for them to have been brought from Africa to
the West Indies. Although true yams are native to the Orient and
aren't grown here, the word "yam" apparently originated in Africa
and became synonymous with sweet potatoes in the South.
Can you imagine the South without
big sweet watermelons? Yep, the watermelon, one of are most famous
crops, is from Africa as well.
A number of flowers and ornamental
plants are from Africa too. Most plants with "cape" as part of
the name picked that up from the Cape of Good Hope in Africa.
Some plants like the cape jasmine and African marigolds weren't
actually native to Africa but were first found cultivated there.
Flowering plants that owe their existence
to Africa include periwinkles, gladiolus, montbretia, crinum lilies,
cape honeysuckle, and plumbago.
The rural South has always been famous
for its yard art. Does anybody remember seeing "bottle trees"
in the yard. I own three myself. The bottle tree concept originated
in Africa as a way to trap evil spirits before they entered the
home. Ever listened to the howling of an open bottle in the wind?
Once those spirits get trapped in the bottles they make a lot
of racket about wanting out!
So you see, not only did Africa help
build the South, it helped build southern gardens as well.