Sagui (Guarijio) or Shimcha (Cocopah)
Buropaco, Rio Mayo Watershed, Sonora, Mexico.
Panic grass is believed to have been domesticated in Arizona or Sonora thousands of years ago. Evidence of cultivated panic grass has been found in Hohokam and early agricultural archaeological sites dating back to 4,000 years ago.
The Cocopah of the Colorado River ground the seeds of panic grass and make patties or mush out of it. The Guarijio of Sonora use the meal to make tortillas and tamales and a beverage mixed with salt, sugar and milk.
The seeds of panic grass are rich in lysine. This is important because lysine is an essential amino acid. Lysine is not present in corn, one of the major domesticated crops. Therefore, incorporating Panic Grass is one way to have more balanced diet for those that consume large amounts of corn. This was probably an important feature of panic grass for ancient peoples who were maize agriculturalists.
The history of panic grass serves as a reminder of the destructive potential of industrialization and an opportunity to appreciate the contribution of small-scale farmers to the conservation of the world’s crop diversity. The story of panic grass begins along the Colorado River. Every June for generations, Cocopah men purified themselves by fasting before slaughtering a badger. The badger’s claws were taken and placed into the bank of the river in a ritual that was said to encourage the river to gnaw at its banks the way a badger would dig to make a burrow. As the river began to flood, the claws were moved further back, until the desired water level on the surrounding delta was reached. Then it was time for the planting of shimcha, the Cocopah word for panic grass. As the floodwaters began to recede, men filled gourds tied around their necks with shimcha seed, and waded through the delta, scattering the grain by blowing it from their mouths.
During the 1890's, Anglo-American immigrants saw the potential of the Colorado River to provide irrigation to the Salton Sink, and transform it into the Imperial Valley Irrigation District. Between 1901 and 1929, a series of constructed canals drained the Colorado River, eventually drying up the entire delta once inhabited by the Cocopah. With no water to irrigate their crops, the Cocopah moved off their lands and became a malnourished, troubled society. It was thought that panic grass may have become extinct.
In 1935, researcher Howard Scott Gentry, who later worked as principal plant explorer for the USDA, discovered panic grass growing in Sahuacoa in the Sierra Madres of Southern Sonora, Mexico. Although he took some herbarium samples of the plant, Gentry did not collect any viable seed. In 1979, two of the Native Seeds/SEARCH co-founders, Gary Nabhan and Barney Burns, traveled with Tom Sheridan to Sonora to determine if panic grass was still in existence. The group drove to Sonora in Burns’ yellow Chevy Blazer, and hired donkeys near El Trigo to complete the journey into the mountains. Guided by a twelve-year-old boy, the trio arrived at the village of Guaseremos, where a Guarijio family still cultivated panic grass, and allowed them to purchase half a kilogram of seed.
The following year, Pat Williams of the US Soil Conservation Service grew out the seeds to produce a bumper crop. Anthropologist Eric Powell redistributed the harvest to Guarijio villages that had lost their stock, and Gary Nabhan reintroduced it to neighboring tribes who are documented to have historically grown panic grass, including the Cocopah who moved to Baja California. Several U.S. and Sonoran seed banks also keep this seed in their collections.
Had this Guarijio family of the Guaseremos village not continued to grow panic grass and save its seed, this variety of panic grass may have been lost forever. The continued cultivation of varieties in farms and gardens is known as in situ conservation, and is a vitally important mechanism in maintaining the world’s plant genetic diversity.
Panic grass is fast growing and heat-tolerant. It likes to be well irrigated, having traditionally been grown on the flood plains of the Colorado River and dependent on annual flooding for germination. The Guarijio use irrigated terraces, some carved at 45-degree angles to the sloping mountainsides, to cultivate panic grass.
Burns, Barney T. (2001). A Short History of Panic Grass. Seedhead News:109.
Nabhan, Gary Paul (1985) Gathering the Desert. Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press.