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The Ground under my Feet

Last June I was in my boots, long-sleeved blouse and jeans, the cuffs stuffed down into my long socks, a cap covering all my hair, and a bandana tied around my face. My work gloves were pulled up beyond the cuffs of my blouse. Not one inch of skin could be exposed. I was in my roadside ditch, the expanse of land that defines the western boundary of my property. The ditch, a thin narrow strip of ground, stretches a quarter of a mile downhill toward Picayune Creek.

Twenty years ago, I seeded that roadside ditch with native prairie. For the past two decades the road has been adorned with an array of colors and textures: partridge pea flowers, coneflowers, sunflowers, and big bluestem grasses. That day last June, those native species were there, pushing up against my knees, but I moved past them with my spade to do battle with wild parsnip.

Wild parsnip (Pastinaca sativa), a plant native to Eurasia, is a nasty invasive weed. Though a relative of the tasty garden parsnip, the wild variety carries juice that can cause blistering, scarring burns on human skin. Colonists probably brought parsnips to America in the 17th century as a food plant to grow in their gardens. But soon the vegetable spread beyond the garden gate, becoming feral and toxic. Now it thrives in sunny disturbed areas along railroad cuts and roadside ditches in the northeastern part of the United States. Wild parsnip is nothing new to Iowa. Years ago, friends pointed out the plant in a ditch and warned me of its consequences. But in all the years I've lived on my small acreage, I never had a single plant... until this summer, when it seemed to pop up everywhere.

wild parsnipDuring the summer of 2007, John Walkowiak, the land protection leader of the state Department of Natural Resources, found the wild parsnips invasion such a serious problem that he issued a warning to stay out of Iowa ditches and tall grasses lest you tangle with the toxic plant. Walkowiak stated that during the last few years the Midwest has had a bumper crop of wild parsnips. Heavy rains and mild winters have encouraged the weed's survival and spread across the region. And what is responsible for those changed weather conditions? Most fingers point to global warming.

Here's the irony: This summer I stayed home and tended my garden, letting my gartenblechle, or push cultivator, do my traveling. I tried to do my bit to curb greenhouse gases, using less energy, cutting down on everything from jet fuel to the gasoline I might pour into a power tiller. And what happened? Global warming kept advancing, aggressively spreading wild parsnips throughout the Midwest. I stayed home, but the noxious weed traveled.

When I turned toward my vegetable plot, I wondered — if the hated wild parsnips had traveled such a distance, how far had some of my most prized vegetables journeyed? Which vegetables were native to North America? Which ones had traveled from other continents? Which ones had traveled through the mail from fellow members of the Seed Saver's Exchange? Were any species still found growing wild? How many, like the parsnips, had escaped the taming forces of cultivation and returned to their wildness? How many became invasive?

red-stemmed okra"What's that?" most people ask when they view my garden at the end of the summer. They point at my red-stemmed okra (Abelmoschus esculentus), its large, floppy leaves undulating in the breeze, its beautiful pink blossoms developing into a spiky bullet-shaped fruit. Many years ago, I sent off for red-stemmed okra seeds from a Seed Saver Exchange gardener in Alabama. Since then, I have grown the crop every year and saved the seeds from my own plot.

Okra is cultivated mostly in the southern United States. It thrives in intense summer heat and is almost indestructible. Grasshoppers and other preying insects won't touch it, and neither will most Midwesterners — okra rarely finds its way into tuna noodle casseroles or jello salads. Most people harvest okra too late, after it has hardened into a tough slug. In my mind, Midwesterners are missing out on a sensual delight — a vegetable that is as beautiful to grow as it is to eat.

Modern travelers have found okra growing wild along the Nile in Egypt as well as in Ethiopia. But it was the Spanish Moors, visitors to Egypt, who first wrote about okra in 1216, describing it in detail, how it was cultivated by the Egyptians and how the tender plants were cooked in meal — similar to the way it is prepared today in the American South. Okra reached the New World as early as 1658, when it found its way to Brazil from Africa. French colonists introduced the plant into Louisiana in the 18th century.

My tomato vines climb the garden fence next to my okra. Unlike okra, tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum) are thought to be native to the Americas, with their origins traced back to the Aztecs in 700 A.D. Early explorers brought the vegetable back to Europe in the 16th century, where it was quickly adopted in Southern Europe. Yet the tomato ran into trouble as it pushed its way northward.

Most northern Europeans thought tomatoes were poisonous. The evidence seemed clear to the rich, who suffered poisoning and death... because they used pewter flatware to eat their tomatoes. The acid from the tomato leached out the lead in the pewter, causing lead poisoning. Poor people, who used wooden plates and utensils, readily thrived on tomatoes — especially the Italians, who around 1880 brought them back to the New World on top of pizzas.

My Kennebec potato vines die back in the shade of the okra vines, readying themselves for their fall harvest. Potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) are also native to the Americas, with traces of them dating back to 500 B.C. in ancient Chile and Peru. The Incas not only grew potatoes but worshipped them and buried them with their dead. They stashed potatoes in concealed bins in case of famine and dried them and carried them along on long journeys to eat soaked in stew. The potato itself journeyed back to Europe with the conquistadors but, like the tomato, it received a cold reception.

In France, the potato was accused of causing leprosy, syphilis, early death, sterility, and rampant sexuality. In England, legend has it, Sir Walter Raleigh made a gift of potatoes to Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603). The local gentry were invited to a royal banquet that featured the potatoes in every course. Unfortunately the cooks, unfamiliar with the vegetable, threw out the lumpy tubers and boiled the poisonous stems. The whole party became deathly ill. In 1589, Raleigh also brought the potato to Ireland, where it improved the peasants' health and boosted their population, until the 1847 potato blight killed a third of the Irish people. Potatoes were carried back to North America in the 17th century, but didn't become popular until after the Scots-Irish brought them to New Hampshire in 1719.

While many vegetables voyaged from one continent to another, other vegetable legends traveled and attached themselves to available produce. The Irish carved scary faces into turnips or potatoes and placed them in windows or doorways to drive away "Stingy Jack" during Samhain. The English used large beets for the same purposes. At the end of his life Stingy Jack, an unsavory fellow, was banished both from heaven, for his stinginess, and from hell, for trying to play jokes on the Devil. He was destined to wander through the dark with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the earth ever since. The Irish began calling this ghostly figure "Jack of the Lantern," then simply "Jack O'Lantern." Irish immigrants carried this myth with them to America and found that native pumpkins, bigger and cheaper than turnips, made perfect Jack O'Lanterns.

sweet potatoesMy sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas), native to the Americas, are one of the last vegetables to be harvested from my garden, just before the killing frost around Halloween. People often confuse sweet potatoes with yams, a vegetable with its origins in Western Africa, whose tubers can reach over 100 pounds. The winged yam (Dioscorea alata), has become an invasive species in the southern United States. Its vines can quickly wind up and around tall tree trunks into the tips of the branches.

This fall I push my fork down under the earth on the edge of my sweet potato patch and wonder, as always, what will come up. My plants have criss-crossed continents, but I have remained here with this plot for a good 7 months, tilling, planting, weeding, trying to stay put, trying to conserve energy. I embrace all my vegetables — the natives and those that have traveled great distances to find their way to my plot. But I also worry that someday one of these non-native vegetables might hop the garden fence and become feral and invasive. Perhaps I should concentrate on native species and merely appreciate the stories of non-native vegetables.

Native or non-native, pumpkin or turnip, now it's time to harvest, to attempt to preserve just a little bit of the planet for the future. From my garden, I glance back at the roadside ditch now in full bloom, the long spikes of the sunflowers bending toward the horizon; the wild parsnips, at least for now, at bay. I push down on my potato fork and know that I may find tubers the size of my finger, or the size of my fist. I push down on my fork and, with the only certainly I have, I commit to the ground under my feet.

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