A taste of Africa: Museum garden highlights slavery-era plants | News

AUSABLE CHASM – Fish pepper made Jim Cayea more than a little epicurious about how to grow heritage edibles.

“The more I learned the more I wanted know,” said the Cornell Cooperative Extension master gardener and Morrisonville resident.

“I tend to like unique and different types of varieties of crops. That’s why I got into Wabanaki and Black American cuisine and gardening.

Coached by Jolene Wallace, extension horticulture program educator, Cayea put plants grown by the descendants of enslaved Africans into a raised-bed garden on the ground of the North Star Underground Railroad Museum at Ausable Chasm. The museum is closed due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, but visitors can view Cayea’s epicurean journey outside.


“For years and years, I have been interested in what is called the fish pepper,” he said.

“The fish pepper is mottled colored. It was used by Black Americans. The group I’m really dealing with were people who were enslaved and then freed. This particular pepper was used around the Chesapeake Bay area, from roughly like Washington D.C., Alexandria, Va. up to Philadelphia. It was used to cook in fish dishes.

Every fish pepper seed stems from Horace Pippin, a black folk painter. “This gentleman served in World War I with the 369th Infantry (Regiment) called the Harlem Hellfighters,” Cayea said.

“He lost the use of his right arm after being shot by a sniper. This left him with a severe arthritic pain. In research for some relief, he resorted to an old folk remedy that was called bee stings.” Pippin began giving different seeds to beekeeper, H. Ralph Weaver. “Horace’s seeds came from some of far-flung old-time gardening friends who sent him some really nice varieties,” Cayea said.

“Weaver saved the seeds in his private collection where it remained until 1995 when his grandson, William Woys Weaver, released it to the public, so every fish pepper seed that is sold today comes from Horace Pippin.”


Cayea did a project on African crops for his fellow master gardeners.

“The healthy cooking style of the American Blacks originated in West Africa, basically, and in Angola,” he said.

“Angola is the second highest region for slaves genetically. In particular, most of them went to Brazil because Portugal owned both of them. I learned a lot of interesting things like where the kola nut came from. It’s what we make our colas our of, coke and that type of thing. It came from Africa.”

Watermelons were a portable water source on the continent.

“If you go out and water was hard to find, you would bring a watermelon with you so you that you could have some water,” Cayea said.

“If you’re going on a caravan thing you obviously have to carry water.

Tennis ball lettuce is another crop in the garden.

“This is a crop that was grown by (Thomas) Jefferson’s slaves,” Cayea said.

“What I found kind of interesting when I was reading this stuff, not all slave owners did this, but Jefferson and (George) Washington would buy their vegetables from their slaves. “Now the poor slaves, they were working their gardens when they weren’t in the fields. They were pretty well beat, but at least these guys had a little bit of an income to help them. They were still enslaved, but …”


The museum’s heritage garden also features a striped garden eggplant.

“It makes a small, whitish egg with usually kind of purply-pink stripes,” Cayea said.

“The West Africans ate that. I thought eggplant only came from Asia. I learned I missed a whole group of eggplant that was from Africa. I didn’t now there was native African eggplant, which kind of surprised me.”

Moymmensing tomatoes droop over one corner of the raised-bed.

In 1982, William Woys Weaver received seeds for this historic medium red tomato from Mrs. M.J. Grooms, an African American woman living in Philadelphia, according to True Love Seeds website.

“Mrs. Groom’s great-grandfather passed down the seeds through the generations. He had worked as a cook at Eastern State Penitentiary on Fairmount Avenue in the Spring Garden area of Philadelphia, where this variety had been grown by incarcerated workers in the gardens since the mid-1800s. These gardeners shared the seeds with him, and it is likely he used the tomatoes in soups, ketchup, and canning in the prison.”

“In 1855, Black abolitionists Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass both visited a white abolitionist, Passmore Williamson, in this prison,” Cayea said.

“This guy had worked with the abolitionists to help the slaves. He got arrested and imprisoned because of a law the Southerners had passed.”

The tomato is an indigenous crop to the Americas adopted by the enslaved peoples of African descent.


Not all of Cayea’s plantings were a success.

“I lost my okra,” he said.

“That one was really discouraging because I found an okra that was a Creek (Muscogee) Indian heirloom. All the okra had to come from the Black American slaves. That’s how they got the okra. I was heartbroken on that one. I knew how important okra was to this large group of people.”

Celosia adds a bright, red accent to the garden, and it’s not merely ornamental. The flower can be eaten.

“The African (Swahili) name for it is mfungu,” Cayea said.

“The ironic thing was we put that plant in, but we did not realize that it had East African roots. It’s beautiful. They have different forms. Cockscomb is one, very common.”


Gbomo, eggplant leaf, was cooked in a typical West African fashion.

Callaloo amaranth is a greens in the garden that also boasts William Alexander heading collards.

“The thing that is interesting about this was that some years ago the USDA and a group of people were looking for these old heading collards,” Cayea said.

“William Alexander, who was a Black gardener, had gotten these seeds from his dad. And, they chose them. There is one of the few cases where I actually have the person’s name. It was only because it was done in the ’70s to ’90s or whatever.”

The heritage garden also features bullnose sweet pepper.

“All sweet peppers come from America, but this particular one was adopted by the slaves and used,” Cayea said.

“It is one of the very few sweet peppers I found for Black Americans.

Fern leaf dill (Eurasia) was planted to attract pollinators to the raised-bed.

“That’s the only reason why they are in there.”

Cayea alluded to iron and clay cowpeas’ checkered past.

“That one, the slaves grew,” he said.

“Guess what they fed the Rebel (Confederate Army) soldiers? These iron and clay cow peas because they kept so well in the pouches the guys had to carry.”

Email Robin Caudell:

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