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Varieties for Heritage Gardens

Varieties for Heritage Gardens

| Melissa Kruse-Peeples
The preservation of the footprints is rare, but the presence of ancient irrigation canals and fields is not. The Santa Cruz River Basin in the Tucson area has a 4,000 year old agricultural history. This legacy has resulted in a dense archaeological presence of agricultural fields. People have been farming this landscape for longer than any other place within the boundaries of the United States. But what exactly did people grow at this time? The study of the Sunset Road site is ongoing but archaeologists have uncovered many clues from other archaeological sites to give a glimpse of what people were farming in these early sites. During this early time period, what archaeologists call the Early Agricultural Period, the answer is mainly maize or corn.

By Melissa Kruse-Peeples, Education Coordinator.

The discovery of 2,500 year old ancient agricultural canals and other features along the Santa Cruz River north of Tucson last year has enchanted many with the history of ancient farming in the desert. The site, located at I-10 and Sunset Road, had unprecedented preservation of ancient field surfaces including numerous footprints. The prints detail how an ancient farmer walked among their crops and tended irrigation canals. There are even foot prints of a toddler sized child and a dog, giving a glimpse of this everyday scene. The preservation of the footprints allows us to literally walk among the ancient agricultural fields with these farmers.

The preservation of the footprints is rare, but the presence of ancient irrigation canals and fields is not. The Santa Cruz River Basin in the Tucson area has a 4,000 year old agricultural history. This legacy has resulted in a dense archaeological presence of agricultural fields. People have been farming this landscape for longer than any other place within the boundaries of the United States. But what exactly did people grow at this time? The study of the Sunset Road site is ongoing but archaeologists have uncovered many clues from other archaeological sites to give a glimpse of what people were farming in these early sites. During this early time period, what archaeologists call the Early Agricultural Period, the answer is mainly maize or corn.

Thanks to the generations of seed savers and conservation efforts such as Native Seeds/SEARCH it is possible to grow an interpretive garden representing the early agricultural history of our region. While agriculture has evolved, incorporating many new crops and methods, the core of our agricultural history has remained intact – the seed varieties themselves. Many of the varieties available today have been in existence for hundreds to thousands of years. Growing a garden with varieties and methods from different periods is a wonderful way to connect with and honor our region’s agricultural history and the generations of seed savers before.

We have assembled a list of suggested varieties to grow to represent different periods of Southwestern agricultural history. All of these varieties listed are available from the Native Seeds/SEARCH Seed Bank collection. The specific varieties selected are those that are most similar to the archaeological history. Agriculture is ever evolving and adapting. These varieties are the most direct link to what people would have grown in the past.

It is also important to recognize that seed stewardship and farming traditions are still very much a part of contemporary indigenous groups in the Southwest. These are not just traditions of the past and stagnant in time. While you may be interested in interpreting the history and archaeology of former farmers, recognize the the important legacies of Native American farmers as well as their modern contributions.

Early Agricultural Period - 2000 B.C to A.D. 50

Archaeologists call the earliest phase of farming in the Southwest the Early Agricultural Period. This is when people first began to farm. Corn (maize), beans, and squash varieties were originally domesticated in Mesoamerica or modern Mexico. They were introduced into the area by farmers from the south migrating into the area or via seed trading northward. It is during this period that people began to use floodplain areas and small scale irrigation canals to water crops. People were still very much reliant on wild food resources at this time and people were also relatively mobile and had not settled into permanent year round villages. Wild foods, such as amaranth, purslane, mesquite, cholla, prickly pear, saguaro fruit, panic grass, and dozens of other wild greens, seeds, and cacti, provided these early farmers with an incredibly diverse diet.

Chapalote de Pinole Maize is a variety of corn that is most similar to corn grown during the Early Agricultural Period.


The varieties of crops that people grew were very different than modern varieties. Over the last 4,000 years seed savers have selected for different traits that have changed the genetics of these crops. For example, maize was much smaller in cob and kernel size. It was a popcorn variety with a cob only about one or two inches long. Over time seed savers selected for more productive varieties by saving the larger ears and kernels as well as selecting for different kernel textures, eventually creating flour corn varieties. Not much is known about other crops as very few samples of squash seeds and beans have been preserved.

Modern analogs of varieties grown during the Early Agricultural Period do not exist. They would have been a form of the crop somewhere between wild varieties and domesticated varieties that exist today. The crops have undergone 4,000 years of selection and breeding to result in what we have available today. An interpretive garden representing this early agricultural history should include wild varieties of teosinte (ancestor to corn), tepary beans, and cushaw squashes. Modern varieties can be grown for comparison. For example, Chapalote corn is considered to be part of the same lineage as early corn grown during this period. It is a hard popcorn type with slender, tapered ears – like early corn. The Chapalote race of corn has been grown continuously for thousands of years in the Southwest and Northwest Mexico. Growing this variety is an adventure in agricultural history. It resembles many ancient traits observable in wild teosinte – multiple stalks per plant, branched ears, and hard kernels..

Hohokam - A.D. 200 to 1400

Ancient Hohokam farmers lived throughout the Sonoran Desert and grew varieties that were very similar to contemporary Tohono O’odham and Pima varieties. In fact, the diversity, colors, and productivity of ancient beans, corn, and squash has been relatively unchanged for nearly 1000 if not 1500 years. By about A.D. 500 corn had transitioned from the small, relatively unproductive popcorn types of the Early Agricultural Period to the large kernel, large ear varieties we recognize as corn. People were more and more dependent upon cultivated crops for their food although wild foods, like mesquite, tansy mustard and cacti, were still important.

Varieties grown during the Hohokam Periods would be similar to modern varieties of Gil a Pima Ha:l, Pima Orange Lima Beans. and Tohono O'odham 60-Day corn.


The Hohokam people were master irrigation engineers. They constructed extensive and ingenious canal systems to irrigate thousands of acres of farmland in the Sonoran desert. For example, more than 500 hundred miles of canals watered over 100,000 acres in the lower Salt River valley in the metro area of modern Phoenix towards the end of this period. These irrigation systems allowed both a Spring and Monsoon planting. This intensive production, along with the fact that the varieties themselves were more prolific, allowed Hohokam farmers to live in large villages of several hundred to several thousand people. The dense population was also necessary to maintain and construct the massive irrigation infrastructure.

A Hohokam interpretive garden should include modern O’odham and Pima varieties of corn, beans, and squash. Additional crops to include are Sacaton Cotton, grain amaranth, and tobacco which all appear in domesticated forms at this time. Wild and Tohono O’odham varieties of Devil’s Claw and different shapes of gourds are also a good addition. They were primarily grown for fiber to use in basketry, as is the case for Devil’s Claw, and gourds were used as containers, rattles, ladles, and canteens depending upon the shape.

Tepary Beans: The staple bean of ancient Hohokam peoples. Big Fields White and Sacaton Brown are recommended varieties although any low desert tepary bean is similar to ancient Hohokam varieties. Common beans, similar to Tohono O’odham Vayos and Pink, and lima beans, similar to Pima Orange, were also grown.

Hohoham farmers grew many crops and likely many different varieties of tepary beans.

Squash: Cucurbita argyrosperma, or cushaw squashes were common as these thrive in hot, dry climates of the Hohokam world. Varieties similar Tohono O’odham Ha:l and Nogalas Cushaw were likely eaten young as summer squash and mature as winter squash. Other squash species including C. pepo (varieties similar to Tarahumara Pumpkin) and C. moshata (varieties like Magdalena Big Cheese) were also grown by Hohokam farmers.

Corn: Hohokam agriculture was very diverse but their corn was relatively simple and resembled the white, short ear Tohono O’odham 60-day variety. It was consumed much like it is in contemporary O’odham cuisine - ground to make pinole or roasted when green and eaten fresh or dried for later use in stews.

Cotton: Because of the abundant and reliable irrigation waters of the Salt and Gila Rivers, water thirsty cotton thrived in Hohokam fields. Fragments of finely woven garments, made from cotton similar to the Sacaton variety, have been recovered from well preserved archaeological sites.

Anasazi - A.D. 750 to 1600

People living in the Northern Southwest, known as the Colorado Plateau, were also heavily reliant on farming by A.D. 500. By the later part of the 1st millennia people were master farmers relying on cultivated crops for a majority of their diet. These people are known as the Anasazi or Ancestral Puebloans as contemporary Pueblo people are the decedents of these earlier farmers. In areas where reliable rivers existed people constructed small-scale irrigation canals to deliver water to crops. But for the most part, people in this area were dryland farmers and provided water to crops via direct rainfall, diversion and capture of surface flow after intense rainstorms, rock mulch, and planting in water retaining soils.

By A.D. 1000 the particular varieties grown would have looked nearly indistinguishable from modern varieties grown by indigenous farmers in the Northern Southwest. They would have had the same diversity, shape, and had similar productivity. An interpretive Anasazi garden should include modern varieties originating from the contemporary Pueblos. For example, interpretations of dryland agriculture should come from Hopi region and interpretations of irrigated contexts from the Rio Grande Pueblos such as San Felipe, Santo Domingo, Isleta, and Okay Owingeh (San Juan).

While not considered a Pueblo people, modern Navajo or Diné, also practice dryland and irrigation agriculture in the Four Corners region. Archaeologists believe Diné people moved into the area around A.D. 1400 based on the appearance of architecture and material culture associated with Diné lifestyles at this time. It is believed that they learned how to farm from their Puebloan neighbors. Diné people believe they have lived in the Southwest for time in memorial and have a strong history of hunting, gathering plants, and farming this arid landscape. Diné crop varieties are similar to ancient Anasazi varieties.

Crops grown in Anasazi fields would have included squash, such as these hubbard varieties, beans, many different colors and textures of corn, and gourds of various shapes and sizes.

Flour Corn: Corn for grinding was the most common type in Anasazi fields. Varieties from irrigated fields along the Rio Grande would have been similar to San Felipe Pueblo Blue and Santo Domingo White, tall plants producing large ears reaching 18 inches. Farmers in rainfed or dryland areas would have grown varieties similar to Navajo Yellow and Hopi Red. They grow as short, bushy plants able to take advantage of minimal water and can better tolerate the strong winds of the Plateau and therefore the ears are smaller but still reach 12 inches or more. Flint and popcorn varieties were also grown for other culinary uses but flour varieties were the most plentiful. Large stone metates used to grind flour corn are very common in Anasazi archaeological sites. No wonder, it is estimated that women ground corn for up to 6 hours a day!

Beans: Common beans such as varieties similar to Hopi Pinto and Taos Red were very commonplace. Several decades ago, the variety of bean known as Four Corners Gold was reportedly discovered in an ancient Anasazi archaeological site and it germinated! The bean cache also included Anasazi and Zuni Gold beans which now are widely available commercially. What is most interesting is not that they originated from ancient seeds that were still viable, but that farmers at Zuni Pueblo have been growing these beans continuously for nearly 1,000 years. Now that is locally adapted!

Squash: The cooler temperatures of the Colorado Plateau compared to the Hohokam region allowed for more diverse squash to thrive. Large, winter hubbard squash (Cucurbita maxima), similar to Navajo Orange, were very common. Large orange pumpkins, similar to San Felipe variety, were grown for the last several hundred years for the edible seeds and flesh

Gourds: While not edible, gourds were grown for a diversity of uses including canteens, spoons, storage jars, bowls, and rattles. Including gourds in an ancient replica garden is important. Dry the gourds over the winter and clean out the insides to make replica ancient tools and musical instruments.

Sunflowers: Ancient farmers undoubtedly understood the importance of the sunflower’s role of attracting pollinators to their fields to fertilize squash flowers. Anasazi people also ate sunflower seeds and used the black seeds and yellow petals for dyes.

Historic Period - 1600 A.D.

From the introduction to Mesoamerican domesticates of corn to the trade of tepary bean seeds from the south to the north, agriculture in the Southwest has always been one of sharing seeds and trying new techniques and crops. When the Spanish began to colonize Mesoamerica they brought with them seeds from Europe, many of which actually originated in Africa and Asia. These seeds spread with the conquistadors, missionaries, and settlers from Europe. In some cases the seeds arrived before major contact. Historic documents indicate that the Rio Grande Pueblos were growing watermelons and melons before Juan de Oñate colonized what is now known as New Mexico. The sweet, juicy flesh of melons grow similar to familiar squash so it is no surprise that seeds were traded and quickly adopted.

During the historic period many new crops from Europe, Asia, and Africa were introduced including cowpeas, peas, and watermelon. Chiles, from Mesoamerica, began to become commonplace in the Southwest with increased interaction between the colonial outposts.


Interpretive gardens representing this period in history should include many familiar Southwestern crops such as melons, watermelons, peas, favas, garbanzos, and wheat. Another historic period crop that may be surprising to some is the chile. There certainly were wild chiles, known as chiltepins, that grew in the Sonoran Desert but they are rarely recovered from archaeological contexts suggesting they were not a major part of ancient cuisine. There is only a single example of a domesticated chile seed recovered from a pre-Spanish archaeological assemblage in the American Southwest. It is from a village near the major settlement of Paquime, also called Casas Grandes, dating to A.D. 1160-1205. By the 1600s however, domesticated chiles are very common.

Want to learn more?

Native Seeds/SEARCH has provided seeds to several gardens interpreting the ancient agricultural history of our region. Many have received seed donations through our Community Seed Grant Program. Some notable examples include the Mission Garden Project in Tucson, Steam Pump Ranch in Oro Valley, Pueblo Grande Museum in Phoenix, Aztec Ruins National Park near Farmington, New Mexico, and Coronado Historic Park outside of Albuquerque. Visiting one of these locations will help inspire you to grow an heritage garden of your own.

Methods for how to plant and design your ancient demonstration garden can be found on the NS/S blog including a post about Growing a Three Sisters Garden