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The Secret History of Three Obnoxious Weeds

The Secret History of Three Obnoxious Weeds

They are the bane of anyone trying to maintain a garden or lawn.  They seem think that they belong on your particular plot because the quickest way to bring them on your land is to cultivate the soil.

Gardeners will utter expletives as the rip them yet once again from their landscaped paradise then jump in the car and drive to the health food store to pay top dollar for their seeds.  Say what?  Yep!  Several of the staple foods of our ancestors are now considered weeds in the good ole US of A.  Yet Americans are buying these same seeds as “health foods” because the commercial varieties are imported from Latin America.

Villain No. 1 is Pigweed (Amaranthus palmeri).  This pest got that name because 19th century farmers found that the only way to keep it from taking over was to let their herd of pigs dine on them periodically.  If the hogs pigged out too much, they got sick, because the plant’s leaves contain high levels of nitrates.  Each pigweed plant produces hundreds of tiny seeds that can endure many seasons until the right sprouting conditions appear.  In other words, they were hiding in your garden plot all along.

Villain No. 2 is Appalachian Blue Sage (Salvia Azurea).  It is quite similar to the Salvia Hispanica that grows in Southern Mexico.  This weed is not so much a garden lover as it is a lawn lover.  It pops up at the edges of grassy areas that have not been mowed for a year, especially near the edges of woods and in utility line rights of way.  There is electric power line right of way down the road from my cabin that has been taken over by this plant and skunk cabbage.

Landscapers and botanists say that this plant was originally cultivated from specimens growing in Mexico , but escaped from Southern gardens and became feral.   However, they evidently have not read the De Soto Chronicles.  When approaching the town of Chiaha in the mountains,  the Spaniards observed large fields of salvia growing along the rivers.  Chiaha means “Salvia River” in Itza Maya.  Chia is how “Chia Seeds” got their name.  They are the seeds of a cultivated variety of salvia.

Villain No. 3 is Goosefoot or Lambsquarters. In most of the Eastern United States it is called White Goosefoot and botanically labeled Chenopodium berlandieri or chenopodium album.  This plant is a cousin of Pigweed and apparently likes to hang out in the same places. The leaves are known to be edible and similar in flavor, when cooked to spinach or chard.  Both the seeds and leaves were eaten by many indigenous peoples around North America.

goosefoot-giantIn the southern tip of the Appalachians and higher elevations of the Southern Piedmont,  there is another variety of goosefoot. It is super-sized with many more seeds and much larger seeds.  When treated as a cultivated plant, it can grow up to five feet high in fertile soils. Wild Giant Goosefoot is most commonly seen growing next to abandoned chicken houses, where the soil is saturated with nitrates or in piles of topsoil and debris at the edges of abandoned construction sites.  This suggest that its origin was on cultivated, fertilized topsoil.

In recent years, this Southern Highland variety has received a separate botanical name of Chenopodium Giganteum by nursuries.  However, that name has already been assigned to a very different type of Chenopodium, which is indigenous to India.  Some hippie-dippy nurseries even sell the  seeds and explain that the seeds of the Giant Southern Highland Goosefoot taste like those of the Quinoa plant in South America and be cooked in the same manner.

There is a good reason why this wild plant in the Southern Highlands looks and tastes like the Quinoa plant in Peru.  If it grows in cool, highland locations like a Quinoa, looks like a Quinoa and tastes like a Quinoa . . . by golly it must be a Quinoa . . .  or at least a Dixie cousin of it.

Archaeologists are forced to rethink the past

.In Part Two of Excavating a Lost World 10 Miles from Downtown Atlanta ,  the archaeologists, working at Site 9FU14 near the Chattahoochee River in Metro Atlanta, discovered large numbers of common weed seeds in the soil within houses.  The project director, Dr. Arthur Kelly, postulated that these seeds provided a significant proportion of the dietary needs of the villagers.  Perhaps they allowed the weeds to grow in old cultivated fields near the village.

The year of this discovery was 1969.  Kelly was bitterly attacked by his peers for suggesting that the occupants of the 9FU14 village were cultivating indigenous plants that are no longer part of diets in North America.  They knew for a fact that neither permanent villages nor agriculture appeared in the Southeast until corn, bean and squash seeds, first cultivated in Latin America, miraculously feel from the sky into Dixie.

As archaeological studies in the Southeast became more and more scientific, they began paying closer and closer attention to the seeds that indigenous peoples left behind.  Those that had been carbonized by cooking fires could even be radiocarbon dated.

Then intellectually curious forensic botanists at the University of Tennessee took the bold step of comparing the weed seeds in the Woodland Period houses to those found in nearby fields.  They found that the pigweed, lambsquarters and squash seeds had been genetically altered by selective cultivation.   This process had begun at least as early as 3,500 BC and possibly as early as 5,500 BC.  It was later determined that most varieties of squash and pumpkin originated in the Southeast and then spread from there in the Americas.

In other words . . . Pigweed is a feral descendant of cultivated amaranth and the wild White Goosefoot seen around North America today was originally found in Native American gardens.

The Giant Goosefoot, seen growing along the Chattahoochee River and points northward, is still an enigma, primarily because it has not been studied.  Academicians do not seem to know that it exists.  The plant looks identical to cultivated quinoa plants in South America.  Was it the product of independent selective cultivation in the Southern Highlands or were its seeds brought from South America?

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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.



    the blue sage has many uses Richard.
    Tea is supposed to calm crying babies.
    Or relax stress.
    The leaves were also eaten young flash fried alongside some watercress. I have sure gathered plenty of young watercress for spring salad. The flower heads dried make great room potpourri or sachet stuffing.
    Of course, about all of these I have eaten at least once. I tried making some little cakes out of ground giant goosefoot seeds once about 12 years old. Might have been the bird eggs I added, don’t know, but decided they didn’t stick together well enough. We did however, gather the leaves and eat them in April while small. wilted together with about anything else found that day, on my aunt’s green and white warm morning enamel cookstove. It was dated from the late 1890’s. Sure made good cornbread…lol thanks for the memories…but keep this up.

    • You are the first person I have ever known, who is experienced with Giant Goosefoot. That is impressive. I surely hope that you live in a community that appreciates your “Foxfire” knowledge. It should be passed on to future generations . . . if you are not doing that already.

      Thank you for your many intelligent and useful comments.

      Richard T.


        No, sadly, I’m not.
        Sure wish I was.
        My grandmother’s oldest sister was this aunt. She had no children and was considered a witch by many. She must have been the last herbal woman of her kind, She did her best to teach me very much about all the plants around me. Although it was years later that I discovered that she was actually speaking some ancient words of Creek to me as a child. She passed over the edge of the sky when I was 12. She was born in 1870. She said there was a cure for everything that ailed mankind out in the woods.
        I was the picker and getter.
        Would love to share with any young ones anything I can.
        True that Richard.


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