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What America’s ‘lost crops’ tell us about food in the age of climate change

 Natalie Mueller collecting wild seeds
Courtesy of Natalie Mueller
Natalie Mueller collects wild seeds of erect knotweed in 2014.

It was a photo of grain that first drew Natalie Mueller to study the origins of agriculture. The kernels weren't the type you’d see at a Memorial Day cookout. It was corn's wild ancestor, teosinte.

Erect knotweed
Natalie Mueller
Washington University
Erect knotweed is found primarily in the northeastern and north-central parts of the United States.

“The wild ancestor looks completely different. It's just a tiny stack of rock hard seeds that don't look at all appetizing,” she said. “Over time that was transformed through evolution in human-managed environments into the juicy corncob that we know.”

Corn is one of the biggest examples of human domestication of plants over thousands of years. Mueller studies a lesser-known domesticated crop — an extinct, Indigenous member of the buckwheat family called erect knotweed.

“We don't really know exactly when people stopped growing [erect knotweed],” she said. “The latest dates that we have on these lost crops are like in the 1400s. … A lot of practices were lost during that time because populations were displaced, and they could only take certain things with them — and knowledge holders were lost.”

While erect knotweed can be found in the wild, the domesticated version of the plant is lost to history. Evidence of it being cultivated as a food crop is found in archaeological sites.

Mueller is on a mission to domesticate the plant once again, collecting seeds in the wild and cultivating them in different ways at Washington University’s environmental field station. Mueller hopes to uncover wisdom from Indigenous cultures about growing new crops in the age of climate change and uncertain weather patterns.

“One thing that's really interesting about the agricultural system of Indigenous people in eastern North America — whether you're talking about maize, beans and squash era or lost crops era — is that it was really diverse taxonomically … in terms of what the different crops could withstand when it came to things like drought and flooding,” she said. “It was a really resilient agricultural system in the face of past climate change, so I think we can take some inspiration from that.”

Mueller’s latest study on erect knotweed was published in the journal ‘PLOS One” in April. For more on Mueller’s research and what Indigenous cultures can teach us about our relationships to plants, listen to St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast or Stitcher, or click the play button below.

Natalie Mueller describes her attempts to bring lost crops back to life

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.