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Aztec Heirlooms and Other Priceless Plants

by Matt Morris
Heart of the Matter
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Of all the varieties of plants growing at No.4, itís consistently been the heirloom seeds that have most captured our imaginations. February was a particularly interesting month, too, as itís really the make or break for our tomatoes, corn and Ė I add not merely as an aside Ė our wonderful, wonderful tomatillos. As the daylight hours suddenly decrease our plants, in some cases, have started to do some peculiar things in desperation while we pace like helpless expectant fathers wondering if fruit will be born.

Of especial interest here are the tomatillo (Physalis ixocarpa Brot.), Black Krim tomato, Blue Hopi corn, Strawberry Popcorn, and Pygmy Torch amaranthus (Amaranthus hypochondriacus). All of these plants have been grown, with varying success, at No.4, all grown from seed in the Organic Garden City Trust main office in the Christchurch Environment Centre), and all from seed obtained from Christchurchís Southern Seed Exchange.


Aztec Inheritence

The tomatillo is a member of the Solanaceae family, and is similar to the Cape Gooseberry (which was ripe a couple of weeks ago) in that it produces its fruit within an "inflating fruiting calyx", or papery husk. For this reason itís also sometimes called the "husk tomato". Its Spanish names include tomate de cascara, tomato verde, tomate de fresadilla, and miltomate.

It is with affection that I write of this amazing plant because, not knowing at all what it would do when sowing the seed back in October, it has now, towards the end of February, become an elegant, strong, tree-like plant bearing little green lanterns or capsules containing the fruit. Although the fruit themselves, green, tomato-like berries, are not yet ripe, they are extremely decorative and could be grown, as indeed tomatoes were in Britain until the nineteenth century, purely as ornamentals. The closely related Physalis alkekengi L. (Chinese Lantern), in fact, is grown strictly for this purpose. Our best plants are about a metre tall.





The tomatillo is a native of Mexico, and has the distinction of having been an Aztec and Mayan staple. It is now cultivated commercially in India, Spain, South Africa and Australia, with growing industries in California, Texas and Louisiana. However, itís not something you see a lot of in New Zealand. We had no difficulty with ours and considering their potential for salsas and other delights, this lack of awareness about them is amazing.

They started flowering on 20 December, and were setting fruit by the first week of January. They had a difficult life to begin with, raised, with much love and care in the Environment Centre, but left a long time before they could be planted out in their current sunny yet sheltered spot. They did pretty well, too, considering they received little watering. Bearing in mind tomatillos are extremely frost sensitive, we will continue to raise them from seed in cell trays, but may plant them out sooner next season. I actually bit into one of the fruit for the first time today and, though it wasnít ripe, was surprised that it was faintly reminiscent of the related capsicum.


Lantern Like

The lantern-like husks are meant to turn from their pale green to a yellow shade with a far more dry, paper-like texture as the fruit ripens, in exactly the same was as does the cape gooseberry. The difference is that with tomatillos the husk stops growing before the berry, and thus usually splits. Several of our Ďlanternsí have split, revealing the small, sticky, green fruit. The fruit I just ate was going yellow, as it should, and was about 3cm in diameter. In ideal conditions (tropical or subtropical) the fruit can grow to 7cm. Fortunately, one plant bears many fruit. Tomatillos are rich in Vitamin C, and constituted of 3% more solids than your average tomato. Looking forward to some of that tomatillo salsa!

Behind the tomatillos is a jungle of short, vigorous Black Krim tomatoes, nestled between a stand of Blue Hopi corn and a hedge of the blue-flowering ceanothus. This whole area had been a dust-bowl back in December, when the seedlings had been planted out. I applied liberal helpings of compost and, I confess, used the sprinkler every now and again as well. The Black Krims were slow in taking, but have now smothered out everything else in the space they are occupying, including clumps of basil and some unfortunate jalapeno peppers which were never going to make it anyway.

The seed stock for these tomatoes came to the Southern Seed Exchange from Sol Morgan up in Takaka, but the variety can trace its roots back into Russian history. Black Krims appeared on the island of Krim, in the Black Sea. Theyíre one of the unusual varieties that flooded into the West after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc.


Chocolate Coloured

Although ours havenít ripened yet, Black Krims are a real favourite with those whoíve grown them before. They produce large, blacky-pink or chocolate coloured fruit due to an enzyme found just beneath the skin, are very meaty and sweeter than most other varieties.

The fruit that has set is swelling nicely, with a couple of large yet hideously ugly fruit thrown in for good measure. On reflection, itís likely we will get these out earlier next season, as itís obvious they need a longer growing time than they have been allowed. We have a good number of fruit set, but most of the plants are yet to do anything except flower madly. What I can say about them is that they, like the tomatillos, have done surprisingly well considering the slight amount of water they have received since being planted out.


The Fourth Way

Towering over this knotted, confused and unimpressive mass is the grandly serene stand of Blue Hopi corn. Itís always been the most vigorous stand of corn on the section, a surprise since it was far slower to germinate than the red variety we tried, and with a far lower successful germination rate.

Blue Hopi was the staple crop of Hopi American Indians for centuries, and is still grown for use primarily as cornmeal. The Hopi Indians apparently used the corn to give them strength on long journeys and it is implicated in a number of tribal customs. It was central to Hopi self-concept, the heart of their agricultural life and a sign of their acceptance of what they called Ďthe fourth wayí, presumably meaning Ďsettled existenceí. They considered that it had been necessary to Ďsubmit to the corní in order to live this new life.

At present the corn has shed most of its pollen and a number of corn cobs are swelling on the stem. Again, the crop has suffered somewhat from being planted late, but it will definitely produce.

The great question, though, is what does one do with blue corn once itís harvested? Apart from the obvious Ďhang it in the kitchen as decorationí option, there are actually a few culinary possibilities. These range from good old popcorn to the old Hopi favourite, though ingloriously named dish "savoury blue corn mush". If we are particularly keen we could grind the dried kernels into a miniscule amount of cornflour, but I think Iím right in assuming this wonít be our first choice.



The other interesting variety of corn weíre growing is the red-coloured Strawberry Popcorn. Needless to say, it isnít strawberry flavoured. We have two stands of it, one in the attempted Aztec trilogy raised bed, and one in the spiral garden, down by the Medlar tree and the Jerusalem artichokes. Both stands were sown and planted out about the same time, but from the outset it was the corn on the spiral that was going to do well. In the Aztec garden, well, disaster is not too grave a word to describe what happened.

The spiral garden, which I think Iíve mentioned before, is in some respects our powerhouse. It was the first part of the garden we cultivated, back in late September, and it yielded our first vegetables. It didnít take long for the weeds to get in, and while we were able to excuse ourselves for the proliferation of fat hen (it is a staple famine crop after all, and has bulked out endless stir fries), the dock has been a little more difficult to accommodate into this rather accommodating world-view. That aside, the red corn has done well, and cobs are swelling. They arenít as tall as the blue corn, but they seem to be as determined to bare progeny as their blue peers.

Dangerously close to them are three curvaceous lines of a sweet corn saved somehow by Lily White. I believe this seed is not an unbearing hybrid, but that remains to be seen. I say itís dangerously close because corn is notorious for cross-pollination, and as we hope to save some seed this may be a problem. I had thought Iíd been awfully clever by planting the sweet corn some weeks after the red corn, so that they would pollinate at different times. But as the daylight hours have decreased so markedly the sweet corn has shot ahead to flowering stage in desperation, even though it is scarcely half a metre tall. Iím doubtful that this sweet variety will be able to produce anything, but nature can be a strange entity sometimes. It will be interesting to see if any of its pollen manages to fertilise would-be red kernels.




Aztec Trilogy

The Strawberry Popcorn in the Aztec Trilogy is just dreadful. It always hated it there. (Usually an Aztec Trilogy comprises corn, beans and squash, but ours is a milieu of Central American species and plants of other geographic derivations). While one theory is that the Strawberry Popcorn just hates the roses itís next to, and which used to fill the plot, another theory, suggested by Canterbury-Waitaha Soil & Healthís Lea McDowell, is that itís the presence of gladioli in the bed. For its part, the gladiolus seems perfectly happy. Certainly the ubiquitous fat hen is unfazed, to say nothing of the rampant black nightshade and remaining stinging nettle. The corn is stunted, some seedlings just died, and few plants have produced male tassels. This is despite the fact the plot receives full sun, was planted at the same time as the other stand, and that it was well watered. An interesting lesson.

Tucked around the side of the Aztec Trilogy (and forgetting the three varieties of beans and the pumpkin there as well) are clusters of one of our favourite plants: the Pygmy Torch amaranthus. This little plant really lives up to its common name: it is short (about 40cm including the gorgeous red inflorescence) and a rich, vibrant purple-red. The undersides of the leaves are particularly exciting: brilliant burgundy. The flower head, soft, purple or red and feathery, is indeed torch-like. It also puts one in mind of the plantís other common name: Princeís Feather. (Fortunately, it does not put one in mind of its Latin name, Amaranthus hypochondriacus). This one is a cultivar selected presumably as a bedding annual.


Sacred Roots

The original was one of the most important of Aztec food crops, and was essential in their tributes. It has been cultivated for more than 6,000 years. While the leaves can be eaten as a vegetable (it has coloured many a salad on our table), it was valuable principally for its seeds which were ground into a flour, huautli. This could be mixed with water to make a drink, atole, or a paste, uauhatolli. Filled with the leaf it became the singularly unpronounceable huauquillamalmaliztl. Certain months were set aside when figurines or small sculptures were made out of a dough prepared with the flour, with seeds and honey, and these could be offered to the appropriate deity. At the end of a ceremony dedicated to the god of war, Huitzilopochtli, figures of the god were passed around and eaten in an act of mass purification. The practice was called tecuelo, or Ďgod eatení. The Spanish Christians of course found it deplorable, and the cultivation of the amaranthus was severely persecuted. Quite a shame, really, as itís potential to provide for large populations has been amply demonstrated.

Our small Pygmy Torches are nothing compared to what the Aztecs would have grown, but as a decoration and a vegetable, itís still worth having. And as a talking point itís invaluable.

These heirloom varieties have all been interesting additions to our garden, and continue to teach us not only about what someone once called Ďold plantsí, but also about different possibilities for ways of feeding oneís self. Who knows, the mortar and pestle may come out yet.

For more information about the Southern Seed Exchange, please contact;
Suzanne Blyth
C/-o ChCh Polytechnic
P.O. Box 22 095
Ph (03) 364 9074  x. 8363

For more information on some of the plants mentioned here, try

Tomatillo: A Potential Vegetable Crop for Louisiana

Hopi Agriculture





The following advertisements are not placed by Organic Pathways and are not necessarily organic