What’s still green: Arborvitae, juniper and other evergreens, some rose stems, cholla, prickly pear, yuccas, grape hyacinth, Japanese honeysuckle faded, vinca, buried sweet peas, coral bells, some sea pink leaves, buried snapdragons, beard tongues, pink and yellow evening primroses, purple asters, buried chrysanthemums, cheat grass.
What’s grey, blue-grey or grey-green: Piñon, pinks, snow-in-summer, yellow alyssum, saltbush, winterfat.
What’s yellow: Weeping willow and forsythia branches.
What’s blooming inside: Christmas cactus and aptenia.
Animal sightings: Large flock of birds by orchard Saturday.
Weather: Mornings stayed above 20; wind yesterday; last snow 02/08/09; 11:11 hours of daylight today.
Weekly update: There’s always more pigweed. The annual thrives on my neighbors’ disturbed lands, although it hasn’t penetrated the unbroken soils of the prairie grassland downhill from my house.
My first uphill neighbor had horses he let roam his already over-grazed land. In the early summer, they ate the white pigweed but later, as it grew and flowered, Charley and Missy preferred their hay and oats. At the end of the season, he’d have someone come in with a tractor and cut his weeds which he left to blow away.
The man who bought his property still uses a rider mower every couple weeks, but at least he hauls away the larger plants. Unfortunately, another pigweed defense is the ability to produce enough flowers on plants shorter than a mower blade to perpetuate the population.
Other men down the road have brought in sheep in late summer, who refused to be tempted. It’s probably just as well they didn’t bring the animals when the plants were more appetizing. Joseph DiTomaso says passage through a sheep’s digestive system increases the ability of the seed to germinate.
The Indians had a better way to control the pest. They ate it. Species didn’t matter. If it came within their range, they ate it.
The local Tewa speakers boiled and fried the leaves of redroot and mat pigweed before they could produce seeds. Jemez treated redroot leaves as greens, as did Cochiti and Isleta. The Cochiti also ate tumbleweed greens, while the Hopi ate mat and Powell leaves. Acoma and Laguna boiled young mat, smooth, and Powell plants, while the Navajo boiled, fried and canned redroot. Various Apache groups cooked redroot with meat and chile.
Later in the season, the Acoma and Laguna ground mat pigweed, smooth amaranth and redroot seeds into meal. The Zuñi used mat seeds for meal, while the Hopi turned mat and Powell seeds into mush. Outside the pueblos, the Navajo mixed mat pigweed seeds with goat milk into a gruel, chewed careless weed seeds for sugar, and turned redroot into meal. The Apache made flour of redroot and ate mat seeds.
Pigweed is part of a tropical American genus that apparently moved north during the ice-free periods of the glacial age. Scientists can’t differentiate species in samples, but Amaranthus seeds and pollens are unique enough to be identified as a group.
When Richard MacNeish excavated Coxcatlan Cave in the Tehuacán valley of México, he found evidence of domesticated foods in a layer dated between 5000 and 2000 bc. Corn and squash were the earliest to appear, followed by gourds, and then, in a higher strata, beans, pumpkins, chile and amaranth.
In the 1570's, more than three thousand years later, Bernardino de Sahagún listed five foods in the Aztec diet: corn, beans, chia, amaranth, and gourds or squashes. At that time, his native informants recognized 11 types. Of those, two were boiled, two were made into dough and one was very bitter.
One has been identified as Amaranthus hypochondriacus, which has a much larger, denser head than the local weeds, and another was planted, transplanted and threshed. Richard Ford believes the only time hypochondriacus could grow in the arid southwest was around 500 ad when the Hohokam in Arizona developed massive irrigation systems.
In 2005, tourists noticed a leather pouch near the confluence of the Colorado and Green rivers in Utah which has been dated to sometime between 770 and 970. Phil Geib and Michael Robins believe it belonged to a flintknapper looking for chert. At the time he was carrying marsh elder seeds, but the bag had previous held amaranth, goosefoot and dropseed.
Up river, local species appeared in the diet of the sedentary Basketmaker III people around 1000. By then, they had adopted corn and were more sedentary. Both crops and settlement would have brought more protein rich seeds and iron filled leaves.
Karl Reinhard analyzed fossilized feces found at several sites of their descendants on the Colorado plateau several hundred years later, after the adoption of the bow and arrow had altered their foodways, and found people still ate pigweed seeds in both places, and ate the greens at one. His team also detected pollen in some samples that suggested it was plentiful enough to be inhaled.
The Spanish were offended by the way the Aztec gave amaranth dough figures to commoners in ceremonies that appeared to mock the Eucharist, and began punishing farmers who grew the grain. However, not even the Inquisition couldn’t kill pigwwed. Amaranthus cruentus survived as a crop in Guatemala, while the Zuñi were still making a wafer bread with smooth amaranth seeds and corn that was thrown to spectators between dances in 1915.
I finally resorted to the oldest method for treating a plague, quarantine. When I built a cedar fence on my eastern border, I discovered the wide vertical boards stopped most of my neighbor’s seeds from blowing my way. I then put up a fence against the man with horses, and later against Russian thistles coming in after people with off road vehicles churned up the prairie by my south fence.
Some seeds still get by, but most land in the drive where they can be poisoned young or emerge in the shadow of a fence where they don’t get enough water or sun to grow. For the moment, complete isolation works.
Notes:Davis, Owen K. "The Late Pleistocene Development of Sagebrush Steppe in the Eastern Great Basin," American Association of Stratigraphic Palynologists meeting, 1994.
DiTomaso, Joseph M. Weeds of California and Other Western States, volume 1, 2007.
Ford, Richard I. "Gardening and Farming Before AD 1000: Patterns of Prehistoric Cultivation North of Mexico," Journal of Ethnobiology 1:6-27:1981.
Greib, Phil R. and Michael R. Robins. "Analysis and Dating of the Great Gallery Tool and Food Bag," Canyonland National Park website.
MacNeish, Richard Stockton. Tehuacan Archaeological-Botanical Project, Annual Report, 1961.
Moerman, Dan. Native American Ethnobotany, 1998.
Reinhard, Karl J., Sherrian Edwards, Teyona R. Damon, and Debra K. Meier. "Pollen Concentration Analysis of Ancestral Pueblo Dietary Variation," Paleogeography, Paleoclimatology, Paleoecology 237:92-109:2006.
Robbins, William Wilfred, John Peabody Harrington and Barbara Friere-Marreco. Ethnobotany of the Tewa Indians, 1916.
Sahagún, Bernardino de. Historia Universal de las Cosas de Nueva España, c.1577, translated as Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain, Book XI - Earthly Things by Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J. O. Anderson, 1963.
Stevenson, Matilda Coxe. Ethnobotany of the Zuni Indians, 1915.
Photograph: Dead white pigweed that grew above a 4' farm fence, 7 February 2010.