Edible Plants of Thanksgiving!
From the Davis Enterprise, November 24, 2005
My New England
grandmother put on a classic Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving dinner each year.
Many of you could probably recite the menu, and it never varied. Oh, at one
point she added mashed turnips to the fare, because my father's mother had told
her that my father loved them. This was patently untrue, and neither did anyone
else love turnips, but there were some things you just didn't tell Grandma. So year after
year the dish of lovingly mashed and buttered turnips sat untouched. But now I
have a son who loves braised turnips with the holiday meal.
The modern menu
has become a mix of foods from around the world. But it is still heavy on the
fruit, roots, and grains of our American natives—albeit eastern natives
and plants originally domesticated from central and South America. Cranberry
sauce, succotash, the starchy side dishes and pies all have American origins.
Some of the plants can be grown here; others have special requirements that
would make it difficult.
I have a vivid
memory of a rather tense discussion between my father and grandfather about the
origins of that hard, candied fruit that sticks in your teeth when you eat
fruitcake. One said it was a citrus, the other said it was a melon. These were
two proud men, each sure of his position. The oldest child was eventually
dispatched upstairs to look it up in the encyclopedia. The answer is at the
So to help your
family resolve these factual disputes, here is some basic information about the
Vegetables and snacks:
didn't have any of these!
- Carrot -- Daucus carota sativa, and
- Celery -- Apium graveolens dulce.
These are cool
season biennials; celery is from Europe and Asia, and carrots are probably from
Afghanistan. Planted in early fall for winter and spring crops. Celery is
surprisingly easy to grow, but a little tricky to blanch for the pale stalks
you see in the store. So garden celery is green and has strong flavor. Carrots require loose soil or the roots
will be misshapen, and the seed takes a long time to germinate. So it is often
planted together with'
- Radishes -- Raphanus sativus
Mediterranean. Family: Brassicaceae (Mustard). Radish seeds germinate in days,
and are ready to harvest in about 4 to 6 weeks in mild weather; longer when it's cold. Planted in fall or early spring
in loose soil. The carrot seeds will just be sprouting as you pull the
Small tree, grown
in full sun. Easy, ornamental, drought tolerant. Common allergy plant.
From the Mediterranean region.
in water, brine or lye to remove the bitter glucosides. Usually cured from
green olives in California, then some are processed by bubbling air through the
solution to make them turn black. Black (ripe) fruit are used for Italian and
Greek-style olives and olive oil.
- Cranberries -- Vaccinium macrocarpon
Low ground covering shrub, needs very
moist, acidic soil. Grown in bogs for ease of harvest (just beat the bushes,
float off the berries).
Most common species is from Northeastern U.
Full of anti-oxidants, great for the urinary tract.
- Potatoes -- Solanum tuberosum
Tuber-forming tender perennial grown as
annual. Easy to grow in loose soil (add compost), planted anytime spring to
summer. Potatoes from your garden are much sweeter than store-bought.
From the Andes.
Family: Solanaceae (Tomato)
- Sweet potatoes -- Ipomoea batatas
Tuber-forming tender perennial, grown as
annual. Needs a very long warm season. Plant in loose soil in late spring.
From the American tropics.
The red-skinned sweet potato is commonly called
'yam' or garnet yam in the United States. Yam is also the common name of Dioscorea, a starchy tuberous perennial grown in
tropical Africa and Asia. Most varieties of true yam are too tender to grow here except in frost-free areas.
Annual grass grown in the summer. From
Family: Poaceae (Grasses).
Plant from mid-spring to mid-summer. Sweet corn was a spontaneous mutation from field corn in the 19th Century, meaning that the colonists ate, um, field corn. Flavorful,
but chewy. Often mixed with:
- Lima beans – Phaseolus limensis
Summer annual. From Andes and
Family: Fabaceae (Leguminosae).
Plant late spring to mid-summer; the later
plantings will give you a fall crop for your holiday table.
Corn and Lima beans, seasoned with a little onion
and salt, are combined to make succotash. Yankees apparently add bacon and
tomatoes. Some people add cream, and Midwesterners probably add cream of
mushroom soup, sprinkle with crumbs, and bake it. All just attempts at
disguising the fact that you're serving lima beans.
- Pearl onions – Allium cepa
Bulb-forming perennials. Origin
of onions is unknown; among the earliest cultivated plants.
White, yellow, or red onions
are planted at very high density to produce very small (pearl) or small
(boiler) bulbs. You can do this yourself by planting a bunch of seed in a pot
in a sunny spot in the spring, and thin them (use the thinnings as green
onions) to about 2 inches apart. They'll bulb up in the late summer.
My grandmother never made any
other stuffing than that which is made with cubed bread (and being from Boston,
she called it 'dressing'). The seasoning that makes this old-fashioned recipe
distinctive is crumbled dried sage leaves, presumably imported by the colonists
at great expense from the mother country.
- Garden sage – Salvia officinalis
Small shrub to 3', with
attractive grayish leaves, some forms with purple or creamy variegation. From
Family: Lamiaceae (Labiatae: Mint family)
Loves heat; drought-tolerant.
Very easy to grow. Fresh chopped leaves are more pungent.
I'm told that in some families
stuffing for the bird can be made from other things such as corn bread, and
that exotic ingredients might include wild rice, or nuts such as pecans,
filberts, or pinenuts! Imagine.
- Wild Rice – Zizania palustris
Annual grass native and
cultivated in the northern Midwestern states, harvested by native Americans in
the eastern US and Canada. Not related to the rice from Asia (Oryza), but some
rice farmers in California cultivate Zizania.
- Filberts – Corylus avellana, C. maxima
Small trees grown in Oregon.
Not tolerant of hot, dry climates.
- Pinenuts – edible nuts are
harvested from at least 17 species of Pinus, including 8 American natives. Most
Pinus monophylla and P. edulis, the pinyons harvested by
Native Americans in the west; very slow growing trees, not common in the nursery trade.
Pinus pinea, the Italian stone pine.
Broad-spreading, huge tree too large for most yards.
- Pecan – Carya illinoensis
deciduous tree. From south and central U.S.
Family: Juglandaceae (Walnut).
Easy to grow,
upright to 40' +. Need careful training for good branch structure. Prone to aphids.
- Pumpkin – Cucurbita pepo pepo
Annual vine grown
in the summer. From South America.
Plant May –
July in full sun, water deeply and regularly; give plenty of room! Use
varieties bred for pie filling (usually just called 'Sugar' or 'Pie'), as they
have a denser texture and better flavor than jack-o-lantern varieties.
And of course, the
whole meal depends on:
Sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum)
is grown in tropical areas. Can be grown in pots, protected from winter cold,
Sugar beet (Beta vulgaris)
is a cool season biennial with 12 – 20% sugar content in the tubers,
formerly an important crop in Yolo and Solano counties.
So what did my
brother find when he looked up Citron? He came back down with a broad smile:
citron is made from the candied peel of BOTH a citrus and a melon.
among the more tender citrus, but can be grown here with winter protection.
From the Mediterranean.
is fermented, then candied to become that hard stuff in fruitcake, but it is
expensive. So much of the colored stuff you see in fruitcake is'
- Citron melon – Citrullus vulgaris
vine, grown in the summer. From North Africa.
April – June in full sun, water deeply, give plenty of room. Can reseed
to become a weed. A small, white-fleshed watermelon with thick rind, which is
the part that is candied for fruitcake.
So they were both
right, and we all gave thanks for that.
© 2008 Don Shor, Redwood Barn Nursery, Inc., 1607 Fifth Street, Davis, Ca 95616
Feel free to copy and distribute this article with attribution to this author.
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