Native Cultigen Project at Sewanee

Project Background & Mission

Left to Right: 1- Dr. Carmody outlines test plots 2- Maygrass seeds ready to plant 3- Alex Friedl preps for planting

In eastern North America the origins of food production occurred between 5,000 and 3,400 cal yr BP., and is recognized by morphological changes in the fruits and seeds of four weedy plant species including goosefoot (Chenopodium berlandieri), sumpweed (Iva annua var. macrocarpa), pepo gourds (Cucurbita pepo spp.ovifera), and sunflower (Helianthus annuus var. macrocarpus), and a subsequent increase in the use of  maygrass (Phalaris caroliniana), knotweed (Polygonum erectum), and little barley (Hordeum pusillum) (Smith and Yarnell 2009:6562).

Though these plants remained important locally for thousands of years, the eventual adoption of maize agriculture, ca. 1,000 AD, led to a reduction in their use.  By the early-1800’s, as global population reached 1 billion people the adoption of economically-important crops such as rice, wheat, and corn, was necessary to meet global food demand.  Today, where modern agricultural practices successfully produce enough calories to feed the world, they have had a disastrous effect on the environment and human health ( i.e. soil erosion and degradation, water and air pollution, micronutrient deficiency, diabetes, heart disease, obesity). With populations expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050, many question the sustainability of our current system.

Today, at the University of the South, we are addressing this challenge by looking directly to the past and have begun to re-introduce native plants that were part of the initial farming system in the region. We believe these weeds provide a stark alternative to mono-crops farmed today and will require less water, fewer fertilizers and pest controls, thrive in marginal environments, and increase local biodiversity. 

While these plants may never become economically-important we believe that they demonstrate how our knowledge of the past may provide a more sustainable solution to help address the impending global food crisis.