Sunday, October 11, 2015

Columbian Exchange

Weather: Time to stop watering and let the garden adjust to the realities of nature. Rained before I woke up Tuesday morning and again after I went to bed Tuesday night.

What’s blooming in the area: Datura, morning glories, alfalfa, Maximilian sunflowers, Sensation cosmos, African marigolds, zinnias.

Beyond the walls and fences: Bindweed, chamisa, native sunflower, gumweed, áñil del muerto, broom senecio, golden hairy, purple and heath asters; eaves on Virginia creeper turning maroon.

In my yard: Calamintha, larkspur, winecup mallow, pink evening primrose, sweet pea, Mexican hat, chocolate flower, blanket flower, coreopsis, yellow cosmos.

Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum, snapdragon, marigold.

What’s blooming inside: Zonal geraniums.

Animal sightings: Rabbit, goldfinches on Maximilian sunflower heads, geckos, cabbage butterfly, bumble bees on blanket flowers.

Weekly update: Every year around Columbus Day someone in the media does a piece about the effects of the Columbian Exchange on our diet. It usually focuses on the introduction of cattle and wheat into the New World, and the export of potatoes, corn, chocolate, peppers and tomatoes to Europe. It may mention the import of African foods like yams. The fourth leg, the one back to Africa is rarely mentioned. After all, the only people making that trip were slave traders.

One food, however, did make that journey, the parent of the amaranth used as a red dye by the Hopi. Amaranthus cruentus is used as a vegetable in west Africa.

As mentioned in the post for 21 Feb 2010, grain amaranths were one of the five primary foods in Aztec México. However, Spanish ships weren’t much involved in the slave trade, and the crown jealously guarded all other trade within the empire. After Spain took over the throne of Portugal in 1580, Portuguese seaman provided slaves, primarily from Angola and Gabon.

When the Bourbons ascended the throne of Spain, France was given rights to the Caribbean trade in 1703, with a proviso it continue to draw slaves from the Portuguese colonies. In 1716, France eliminated some monopolies, and allowed any ship owner from one of five ports to sell slaves so long as he paid duty in Saint-Domingue.

All this means is that the Mexican amaranth had to travel to Africa through one of the islands where French, Portuguese or English merchants were active. French began infiltrating the western part of Hispaniola in 1625 and formally gained control of Saint-Domingue in 1697. The English took Jamaica in 1655.

I haven’t found anything yet on when and how the red leafed plant moved to the Caribbean islands. It’s found on both Cuba and Hispaniola today, but is considered an introduced species. A different species, Amaranthus viridis, is associated with Jamaica. It may have come from Asia where indentured servants were recruited between 1845 and 1917. There may have been another species before, and the local term for the one may have been transferred to the other.

Ships’ registries were controlled by European treaties. The compositions of their crews were not. Both Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Pio Baroja’s The Restlessness of Shanti Andia limned groups drawn from Europe, Asia, Africa and the New World. Baroja, in particular, described a nineteenth-century slaver under French colors with a Basque captain that sailed between the Caribbean, Africa, the East Indies, and the Philippines.

Any one could have taken seed aboard as food or ballast, then left it in some African port. It’s been mentioned in former French colonies from Senegal south to the British controlled Nigeria, where it’s particularly common in the lowland south. It’s also found today in the former British Ghana, which lies west of one-time French Benin.

Once in Africa, the seed spread from group to group, much like Watermelon had in this country. It was "already present in gardens in some the remotest regions when explorers such as Livingstone, Speke and Grant, Burton, and Schweinfurth arrived."

Gérard Grubben said, it not only was used as a food, but also had been adapted for medical uses. "In Senegal the roots are boiled with honey as a laxative for infants. In Ghana the water of macerated plants is used as a wash to treat pains in the limbs."

Meanwhile, back in the Caribbean African slaves transformed the grain amaranth into a vegetable. They boiled it like any other green to produce callaloo. In Belize, a mixed African, Carib and Arawak community, the Garifuna, use the plant to "build up blood."

Notes: Many writers discussing amaranth in Africa mention many species, and don’t specify which one is found in which country. To complicate matters, amaranths in general, and this one in particular, are being promoted as food with high levels of proteins and minerals in areas where malnutrition is a problem. The initial distribution of Amaranthus cruentus could have been much wider than I’ve indicated, but I restricted myself to sources that were specific.

Watermelon was discussed in the posts for August 23 through September 6 of this year.

Acevedo-Rodriguez, Pedro and Mark T. Strong. "Amaranthus cruentus L.," in Flora of the West Indies, Smithsonian Institution, Museum of Natural History website.

Baroja y Nessi, Pio. Las Inquietudes de Shanti Andía, 1911, translated as The Restlessness of Shanti Andia by Anthony and Elaine Kerrigan, 1962.

Grubben, G. J. H. "Amaranthus cruentus L.," in G. J. H. Grubben and O. A. Denton, Vegetables/Légumes, 2004; quotation on medicinal uses.

Santos, Jeffery. A Study on the Medicinal Usage of Flora and Fauna by Ganifuna Comminity in Belize, no date.

Sauer, Jonathan D. Historical Geography of Crop Plants, 1994; quotation on explorers.

Photographs: Taken in the area on 21 August 2015.

1. Hopi Red Dye amaranth, planted for the first time by someone who nurtures native plants. The remains of a yellow mullein is at the far right in front of the road fence.

2. Hopi Red Dye amaranth, in the place it naturalized for several years; this year they destroyed most of the plants.

3. Love-Lies-Bleeding, planted by someone who has planted the Hopi Red Dye variety for several years; they may have only been able to find the right seed this year. It had both maroon (right) and gold (left) flowers.

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