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Say Y’all When Eating Strawberries

Say Y’all When Eating Strawberries. They are one of many Southeastern Native American cultivars

Our researchers are continually amazed how different the early history of the Southeastern United States is than what students read in their textbooks and on the web. It was not until the last decade of the 20th century that botanists and anthropologists finally realized that the Southeast was one of a handful of regions in the world where agriculture developed independently. Even after then, history and anthropology textbooks still say that none of the crops developed by Southeastern Indians, except sunflowers, Jerusalem artichokes, yellow squash, butternut squash, Cousaw squash, Calabaza squash and pumpkins are cultivated today. These authors must not be talking to the botanists.

The other day, I was reading an account from an early 18th century Frenchmen, who described massive prairies near the edges of Native American towns in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee, covered with strawberries. The plants were so thick that nothing else would grow. He said that the Natives laid out paths in these strawberry gardens. Domesticated turkeys were herded by children through the strawberry prairies to keep out predatory insects. The strawberry fields were fertilized with diluted human urine and turkey poop. He said that the only other domesticated meats that these Muskogeans ate were small hairless dogs and fish in ponds within the towns.

Wild strawberries, wild plums and pawpaws were endemic when I was growing up, but I have not seen any in two decades. Something has killed them off. I suspect that lawn or agricultural chemicals are to blame, but can’t prove it. According to the de Soto Chronicles strawberries, red plums, purple plums, pawpaws and Biltmore apples (malus glabrata) were being cultivated in orchards near Native town around present day northwest Georgia.

Out of curiosity, I looked up a detailed botanical article on the wild Southeastern strawberry, Fragaria virginiana. Despite not being listed as a plant cultivated by Native Americans by anthropologists, it has been found in recent DNA analysis to be a cultivated hybrid. It is different than any of the other wild strawberries elsewhere in the world. The only place in the world where Fragaria virginiana is still cultivated, however, is England and Ireland.

There was a bigger surprise in the latter part of the article. Virtually all of the cultivated strawberries in the world today are descended from Fragaria virginiana. Various local strawberry cultivars were crossed with the Southeastern strawberry in each continent to adapt the plant to local climatic conditions. All strawberries that you buy in the supermarket or farm store are descended from the hybrid strawberry developed by Southeastern Indians.

Sweet Potatoes

It appears that the only people in the world, who know that the Natives of the Lower Southeast grew sweet potatoes, are readers of POOF and the archaeology students of Dr. Arthur Kelly, who worked at Site 9FU14 on the Chattahoochee River in 1969. To jog your memory, the Creek word for sweet potato, aho, predates European contact. Juan Pardo visited a village named Aho (Ajo in Spanish) in South Carolina that specialized in growing sweet potatoes.

All botanical references state that sweet potatoes are indigenous to Central America and were not grown in the United States until introduced to plantations in coastal South Carolina in the late 1600s. Wait a minute. The plantations where sweet potatoes were supposedly first introduced were in the exact same location where Juan Pardo saw sweet potatoes being grown by Native Americans 200 years earlier.

I then looked at what sweet potatoes looked like during the late 1600s in Central and South America. They were not much bigger than carrots then. Unlike the Muskogee (indigenous) sweet potato, they had multiple roots. The sweet potato that the Creeks grew had a single large root that was the shape and size of modern sweet potatoes. It seems quite obvious that the modern (multi-rooted) sweet potato is a hybrid of the large Muskogee sweet potato with the multi-rooted Central American sweet potato.

Biltmore Apple

I am probably one of the few people alive today in the world who has actually seen the Biltmore apple (malus glabrata) that was cultivated by the Kusa Creeks. I have communicated with several agronomy and botany professors at Southeastern universities. Most had never heard of it. None had ever seen it. There are a few in experimental nurseries, but these trees are really hybrids that are the result of long dead wild specimens, that were cross-pollinated with American Crabapples, to produce larger, sweeter crabapples.

While living Asheville, a friend who was a botanist with the US Forest Service, showed me the last known wild stand of Biltmore apples. They were deep within the Pisgah National Forest on a mountainside where a late 19th century forest fire had cleared the land prior to arrival of the timber companies. The timber companies wiped out most of the Biltmore Apples by changing the ecology of old growth forests.

My friend, Denny, was very frustrated because his professional peers continued to label the Biltmore as a “Sweet Crab Apple.” They write in their references that there is no indigenous, true apple in the Western Hemisphere.

The Biltmore Apple has (or had) leaves and fruit that are very different than American crabapples and identical to the wild apple of Eurasia. The fruit is slightly sweet like a not-quite-ripened cultivated apple. The texture of the fruit is like a domestic apple, not a crabapple. The fruit is about the size of apples eaten by the ancient Greeks, Romans and Celts. That fact makes me wonder if some ancient or Medieval traveler from the Old World introduced this apple to the natives. It may be too late to find out. The feral trees may be extinct.


European explorers frequently described grape vineyards along rivers near Southeastern Native American towns. Ancient vines hung from trees. The farmers kept these areas free of weeds and competing vines. The general presumption today is that they were growing muscadine grapes. In recent years, Southeastern muscadines and scuppernongs have become increasingly popular since it was discovered that they contain a natural chemical that strengthens the heart and improve blood circulation.

Probably, many towns and villages did maintain muscadine vineyards. However, I was surprised to learn that all domestic cultivated grape varieties in the United States are descended from indigenous grape species. That includes the popular Concord, Niagara and Catawba grapes. A parasitic fungus kills virtually Old Word varieties of grapes, and few wild grapes grow south of the United States.

These North American grapes were developed in the 1700s and 1800s from bunch grapes grown by Southeastern and Middle Atlantic Native Americans. Their wild ancestors are commonly called Fox Grapes.

The semi-domesticated bunch grapes, grown by Southeastern Native Americans were probably about the size of cultivated blue berries today. They had thicker peals than modern grapes, but were equally as sweet.

Indian Potato

The Apios Americana or Indian potato, sometimes called the potato bean, hopniss, hodoimo, America-hodoimo,or groundnut, is probably the source of Potato Clans in many tribes. It is not related to the Andean potato, but shares many traits. When French explorer, René de Laudonnière, described large quantities of small potatoes being grown along the mouth of the May River, he was undoubtedly referring to this plant. An archaeologist, who lives near the probable site of Fort Caroline told me about the plant. He discovered that Native American village sites along the Altamaha utilized the ground nut as a major source of nutrition. Previous archaeological studies had ignored the presence of Apios Americana pollen. This is one of the many bits of evidence that convinced us that Fort Caroline was on the Altamaha River.

The Indian potato has a nuttier flavor and finer texture than modern white potatoes. It also has many important medicinal qualities that were frequently used by Native Americans. Among many valuable traits, the tuber contains a chemical that helps prevent diabetes. It would be a valuable aid in improving Native American health. It is rarely mentioned in archaeological texts, but apparently was an important source of nutrition for Native Americans in the eastern half of North America. Early colonists grew this crop. It was also a popular source of nutrition for the Europeans. For unknown reasons, cultivation of ground nuts declined rapidly after the American Revolution. It is not even grown by many Native Americans today.

Several universities have experimented with selective improvement of the groundnut. The plants thrived in the damp climate of the Southeast, but the agronomists could not find many farmers interested in growing the plant on a commercial scale. Some small scale commercial nurseries carry Indian potato seeds or tubers. They would make an ideal addition to Native American gardens.

Bet you are ready for springtime now!

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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.

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