The birds and the bees

and other fortunate critters now live off the incredible array of foodstuffs that still survive in what are called “forest gardens.” A delightful oxymoron, the wild forest and the cultivated garden. These deliberately created orchards and plantings existed for thousands of years, tended by indigenous peoples in northwestern British Columbia, before the European incursion in the late 18th century. It was then that, “Disease turned whole societies to ash,” in the memorable phrasing of Charles C. Mann, in his absolutely essential examination of the New World, 1491. The way of agriculture that had sustained them for thousands of years perished as smallpox and influenza took over.

But the forest gardens’ remains remain. Ts’msyen and Coast Salish peoples once planted and cared for plots of native fruit and nut trees, shrubs, and medicinal plants and roots along the north and south Pacific coast, write the authors of a university study. The way they planted is not uncommon elsewhere in the world, especially in the tropics. But this is the first time these orchard-like land parcels have been studied in North America.

Here is what they grew: crabapple, hazelnut, wild cherry and plum trees. These formed a canopy over a lower planting of elderberry, hawthorne, cranberry, wild ginger and wild rice root. The forest gardens might be surrounded by conifer forests.

Though no longer serving their purpose of feeding humans, the forest gardens still attract wildlife, from birds to bears to pollinators.

Meantime, in the east, home to the Haudenosaunee (known by some as the Iroquois Nation), men and women transformed forests into orchards for fruit and mast. Chestnut was especially popular, and hickory. The observant naturalist William Bartram traveled among the Creek in the 1770s. 

Of hickory nuts, he wrote, “They pound them to pieces, and then cast them into boiling water, which, after passing through fine strainers, preserves the most oily part of the liquid” to make a milk “as sweet and thick as fresh cream.” Like a splash of hickory milk in your Starbucks?

European travelers were astounded to see peach trees in the woods, a vestige of plunderer Hernando de Soto’s 16th-century importation of hogs and peach trees. The wild-running hogs ate, did what came naturally, then the Indians discovered the sweet fruit and planted the trees where it suited them.

The lead author of the study of the Ts’msyen and Coast Salish peoples, Chelsey Geralda Armstrong, says of the cultivated woodland plots, “These plants never grow together in the wild. It seemed obvious that people put them there to grow all in one spot – like a garden.”

But what were the tricks of the trade? How did they achieve botanical /edible perfection? Controlled burning, fertilizing, transplanting from other places, pruning and weeding. Early farmers also engaged in something called coppicing, which means cutting back trees or shrubs to ground level to encourage growth.

Of course, these agricultural efforts worked best on a small scale – and that’s the best scale there is.

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