The Powhatan Indians: How did their gardens grow?

ImageIt’s not every day kids get to see a hoe made with the shoulder blade of a deer or a rake made from antlers, but last week Belvedere’s fourth-graders got to see both.

Geoff Cohrs, a historical interpreter with the Fairfax County Park Authority, answered student questions about Powhatan and colonial plants and agriculture. The students are doing research for a new garden with a historical theme.

Some interesting nuggets that the students gleaned:

The Powhatan Indians found food by hunting, foraging or farming. We know of five edible plants they grew: maize (corn), red and black beans, squashes, sunflowers and passionflowers, which taste a little like a papaya and are filled with seeds like a pomegranate. They also grew one commodity crop: tobacco.

They grew all of their plants in the same plot. The best-known example of this is the “Three Sisters” communal planting of corn, beans and squash (corn provided structure for beans to climb, beans provided nitrogen that the corn depleted, and the squashes’ big leaves kept the soil moists and cool). The English settlers introduced gardening in which different types of plants were grown separately.

There are more than 400 types of corn, and some of them look very different from the types we’re familiar with. They might have tear-drop shaped kernels or kernels the size of croutons! The United States only grows a handful of types: sweet, white, yellow, field and (can you guess it?) the type we use for popping. Field corn is used to feed farm animals.

The Powhatans are believed to have dedicated three fields to agriculture: one each for spring, summer and fall/early winter crops. Each field was about twice the size of the trailer classroom.

Many thanks to the Friends of Huntley Meadows, who gave Belvedere the grant that made Mr. Cohrs’ visit possible.

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