“European pineapple cultivation was pioneered in the Netherlands. The early success of Dutch growers was a reflection of the trade monopoly the Netherlands enjoyed in the Caribbean in the form of the Dutch West India Company, established in 1621. As a result, plant stock could be imported directly from the West Indies in the form of seeds, suckers and crowns, from which the first plants were propagated.
Agnes Block is believed to be the first person to fruit a pineapple in Europe, on her estate at Vijerhof near Leiden. Many eminent Dutch growers joined the challenge, including Jan Commelin, at the Amsterdam Hortus botanical garden between 1688 and 1689, and Caspar Fagel at his seat De Leeuwenhorst in Noordwijkerhout. Pieter de la Court, a wealthy cloth merchant at Driehoek near Leiden, devised his own system for growing pineapples and many British gardeners were sent to his estate to learn about his cultivation techniques.
Dutch methods of pineapple growing became the blueprint for cultivation in Britain, undoubtedly endorsed after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 cemented Anglo-Dutch relations. William Bentinck, close adviser of William III, is thought to have shipped the entire stock of Caspar Fagel’s pineapple plants over to Hampton Court in 1692. The fruits were, however, ripened from this stock of mature plants and therefore did not count as British-grown pineapples. Pineapples had been ripened in this way before, as commemorated in Hendrik Danckerts’ painting of 1675 depicting Charles II being presented with a pineapple by John Rose, gardener to the Duchess of Cleveland. Danckerts’ painting led to the common misconception that Rose was the first to grow a pineapple in Britain.
Illustration of hothouse and pinery-vinery from Loudon’s An Encyclopedia of Gardening
THE 18TH CENTURY
The first reliable crop of pineapples in Britain was in fact achieved by a Dutch grower, Henry Telende, gardener to Matthew Decker, at his seat in Richmond between 1714 and 1716. Decker commissioned a painting in 1720 to celebrate this feat and this time the pineapple takes pride of place as the sole object of admiration. From this point on the craze for growing them developed into a full-blown pineapple mania. The list of gentlemen engaged in this rarefied horticultural activity reads like a who’s who of Georgian society and includes the poets William Cowper and Alexander Pope and the architect Lord Burlington…”
It’s a fascinating article. Even if you don’t have a Victorian hothouse, you can Push the Zone, especially with pineapples. They’re not hard at all.
I was conversing online about staple survival crops for northern gardeners recently and it made me think: I need to write more here on what you can grow in cold climates to keep your family fed.
In my recent Survival Gardener newsletter (you can sign up for the newsletter here) I wrote about yams and northern staple survival crops – and I’ve decided to cover the latter in greater detail here.
There are plenty of staple crops in the tropics (I cover 10 good ones in my Top 10 Tropical Staple Crop Countdown video) but as you move farther north it gets harder to produce a lot of calories on your land. Seasons are short and sunlight is less intense, plus the variety of plants you can choose from is greatly limited.
Yet all is not lost.
Here are a few tried-and-true survival crops for the north, plus one that shows great potential.
7 Staple Survival Crops for Northern Gardeners
Your best bet as a survival staple in northern climates is the trusty potato.
Potatoes are really hard to beat on yields and caloric content, plus they take less space and a lot less work than small grains.
I’ve grown wheat, oats, barley and rye. Though they’re pretty easy to grow, processing makes them a serious pain. I outlined the pros and cons in this article – go read for yourself. Potatoes are much simpler.
The Three Sisters
This is a classic method of gardening practiced by the Indians, as seen here.
Interplant corn, beans and pumpkins/winter squash for a three sisters garden. Let’s cover them individually.
I love corn. It’s a ton of fun to grow and it’s much easier to harvest and use than most other grains. It’s also beautiful.
The variety of grain corn varieties is staggering. Up north, I recommend sticking to “flint” corns, as dent corn takes much longer to mature.
In the three sisters garden, pole beans are used. For a survival crop, look for types you can shell and save – not green beans.
Beans aren’t super-high yielders compared to a root crop, but beans do contain a good amount of protein.
In the north, gardeners should mostly stick to C. maxima and C. pepo varieties. In the south, C. moschata usually does better.
Steve Solomon were talking about northern staples a few days ago and I suggested the Jerusalem artichoke as a super-easy root crop; however, he pointed out that the difficulty most of us have in digesting them makes them a lot less attractive in the long run.
I love their productivity but the tubers mess up your digestion unless you’re very acclimated to them. They are likely a better choice as an animal feed, particularly for pigs.
Jerusalem artichokes are beautiful and make a great addition to the edges of a property or in rougher soil where regular vegetables don’t grow.
I planted these along a rough drainage ditch in hard Tennessee clay and rocks and they grew like crazy.
Another option are turnips. I planted big beds of turnips one year and had great success… but eating turnips daily gets old fast.
I knew we grew too many when my wife Rachel presented me with a turnip pie she baked for dessert one evening.
After weeks of turnips in stews, mashed, roasted… then pie… I didn’t want to see another turnip for a long time.
On the up side, the greens are very good to eat and quite nutritious, making them a dual-purpose crop.
Some northern gardeners have had luck growing the cold-tolerant Chinese yam, AKA Dioscorea batatas.
Try Chinese yams in your garden and tell me how they turn out – they did well for me in North Florida and Eric Toensmeier grew them successfully in Massachusetts. I think they have a lot of potential as a staple survival crop. Just be careful, as they may be an invasive species in some areas.
BTW, I mentioned their invasive nature on my newsletter this Wednesday and reader Sharon wrote back “the real invasive species is soy and GMO corn. Wild yam will feed you along with many other weeds.”
I agree. Feeding yourself is of high importance, and if a vegetable grows like a weed and produces calories… I find it hard to demonize.
You can buy Chinese yam bulbils from Sharon in her online store here, along with an assortment of other obscure and wonderful plants.
There you go: seven staple survival crops for northern gardens. Did I miss any of your favorites?
Grab yourself a big root, a knife and some ashes… it’s time to propagate yams!
Also see the CARDICaribbean video on propagating yams here:
Though I pick on the method in my video because I’m not a fan of soaking yams in pesticides or herbicides, it’s a fine presentation with good information otherwise.
Propagating Yams in Three Steps
This is the minisett method of yam propagation. If you have bulbils, you can just use those; however, some yam species don’t make bulbils or you may be starting with a store-bought yam and don’t want to plant the whole thing. A good-sized yam can get you a dozen or more plants if you divide it well.
Step 1: Divide the Yam
To propagate yams from minisetts, get a fresh yam and cut it into pieces while ensuring you have a good piece of skin on each one from which the new growth will emerge.
You can cut the yam pieces even smaller than I cut them in the video. Half that size will still work. Larger pieces will give you stronger vines, however, so there’s a balance between getting more plants and getting more vigorous plants.
Step 2: Dip the Pieces in Ashes
Dip the cut pieces of yam in ashes and let them dry a bit.
Ashes seem to help heal the wound and protect it from infection. It’s a traditional method practiced in places where yams are grown. Pieces will also grow without ashes, but it’s an easy step so I follow it.
Step 3: Plant Your Yams
It’s important to plant yams in loose soil as they are a root crop.
In Florida sand I just dug a little hold and buried them and they’d get nice and big; however, in clay it’s important to loosen lots of space to give the roots a place to grow.
If you like, you can plant your yam minisetts in a big pot or a bed to ensure you only get ones that will sprout. When the vines start popping out from the ground, transfer your yams to where you would like them to grow – and don’t wait long – the vines will grow fast and become a big tangle if you don’t act quickly.
Ensure each yam has a solid stick they can climb. Shoot for 6-7′ tall poles or ever larger.
This is how I cut stakes:
Alternately, yams can be grown on fences or on trees.
More On Yam Propagation
Yam bulbils will also work for planting if you have access to them; however, not all Dioscorea species will make bulbils.
Note: I have successfully propagated Dioscorea alata from cuttings, but I don’t think that method will give you good yields, at least in the first year. If you can’t get roots or bulbils, go for it, though.
Usually it’s just easier to propagate yams by cutting big roots up into minisetts. Try your local ethnic market for yams and other treasures.
With the potato yam, just use entire roots from the cluster without cutting them into pieces, as that is supposed to work better.
Here are the buckets (and a bag) of cut-up yams we planted, plus the still-intact potato yams:
Now it’s time to cut stakes!
Discover more on yams in my survival plant profile.
“Uncultivated forms, such as those found growing wild in Florida, can be poisonous. These varieties contain the steroid diosgenin, which is a principal material used in the manufacture of a number of synthetic steroidal hormones, such as those used in hormonal contraception. There have been claims that even the wild forms are rendered edible after drying and boiling, leading to confusion over actual toxicity.”
Yet there are definitely edible versions.
In a video from 2015, I show off a beautiful bulbil I was given by a friend:
The cultivated forms of D. bulbifera really have a lot of potential as a food crop, due to their ease of growing and harvest. Picking roots from the air is a lot better than digging.
“Hawaii” looks like a less bumpy version of my second edible Dioscorea bulbifera bulbil.
Here’s the video I made yesterday showing both of my edible D. bulbifera bulbils, plus how I planted them:
It seems there are quite a few types of D. bulbifera.
If we are blessed with a good growing year and a harvest, I will taste-test these carefully. One farmer told me that you need to leave the bulbils out on a counter for a while before eating to get rid of the bitterness.
I’ll try that and also cook them well, trying only a little bit the first time. I’m excited to get a chance to grow these guys and will keep you updated.
Don’t get D. bulbifera mixed up with D. alata.
Both grow wild in Florida and other locations and it’s important to not randomly harvest and eat yams. D. alata are delicious and safe – but D. bulbifera in the wild can lead to bad side effects.
And if you are interested in Florida gardening without work, get my book Totally Crazy Easy Florida Gardening here. I cover yams and many other super-easy crops that will get you growing piles of food in no time.
I read your article in the recent Heirloom Gardener Magazine with great interest because I have grown ginger on and off for many years, especially when I lived in LA but have also grown it in pots indoors. My plants were made up mostly of leaves and I always wondered if those leaves were safe to eat. You said that they are and I am wondering if you have any reservations at all about eating them or using them for flavor, much like a bay leaf.
Also are all ginger plants the same or might some have toxic leaves?
Thank you for your time. (I did sign up for your newsletters and look forward to receiving them.)
First of all, it’s a great idea to grow your own ginger and I very much enjoyed having the chance to write for Heirloom Gardener magazine.
Aldicarb – branded in China as Shennongdan – is a highly poisonous carbamate pesticide that the Ministry of Agriculture says can be only used on cotton, tobacco, peanuts, roses and sweet potatoes, albeit under strict controls.
Exposure in high quantities can lead to dizziness, blurred vision, nausea and respiratory failure. Just 50 milligrams of aldicarb is enough to kill a person weighing 50kg, the report said.
The CCTV report said farmers in Weifang had been using 120 to 300kg of the pesticide per hectare, nearly three to six times above the level considered safe.
One farmer interviewed by CCTV said she was aware of aldicarb’s toxicity and did not use it on ginger that her family ate. Another said he had been using aldicarb for more than 20 years since it was first introduced to the market.”
But Avon isn’t asking about toxic chemicals in store-bought ginger. She wants to know if all ginger plants are edible.
Let’s get digging.
Ornamental Gingers and Edible Gingers
When I worked in a plant nursery owned by some good friends of mine, I got to meet a lot of beautiful gingers. They had spiral gingers and butterfly gingers, shampoo gingers and blue gingers… it was a cornucopia of wonderful gingers.
Unfortunately, these were all “ornamental” types. Though that doesn’t mean they aren’t edible.
Shampoo ginger (Zingiber zerumbet) has edible roots but they taste bitter and are not worth eating. Trust me. I’ve tried them.
The “cardamom ginger” often sold in Florida (Alpinia calcarata), though it’s not the true cardamom, has leaves that have an earthy flavor and can be used like bay or cumin.
Shell ginger(Alpinia zerumbet) has leaves that make a tasty tea.
Common ginger and its cousin turmeric are edible in all their parts, so if you have those – use them however you like. The leaves are coarse in texture, so they’re not good in salads, but they are good to add seasoning to dishes and for tea.
Torch Ginger has edible uses as well. According to Hawaiian Plants and Tropical Flowers: “The unopened flower buds are edible and very flavorful, and they are used in Southeast Asian cooking.”
As for toxic leaves on ornamental ginger species, I cannot find any reports of poisonous ornamental gingers. I have heard none of them are toxic but I cannot say for sure. It’s safer to stick to eating known edible species. Ginger is a friendly family of plants but you never know.
Thanks for writing, Avon, and may your thumbs always be green.
Last week I created a video on the top 10 tropical staple crops.
It took me way too long to write and edit, so I hope you find it incredibly helpful.
Let’s run through them here, along with a few notes.
10: Grain Corn
Stick to dent corn varieties in warm, hot climates. Corn needs decent soil and plenty of nitrogen but it’s the best grain for production and processing. Much easier to process than small grains like oats, rye and wheat. You need to nixtamalize it with lime or eat it as part of a balanced diet to avoid pellagra, a niacin deficiency which will mess you up.
9: Pumpkins/Winter Squash
These are one of my favorite plants to grow. In the tropics, most of the pumpkins grown are C. moschata types, though there are others too. Pumpkins take up a lot of space but make big, storable fruit. On the downside, they’re not that calorie dense and it’s easy to get sick of eating pumpkins.
Breadfruit is delicious and productive, plus it’s a tree so you don’t need to plow and plant like you do with annual staples. They are tough trees though they can’t take any cold. The downside is that the breadfruit come in seasons instead of spread out through the year.
So long as you don’t cut through your hand while opening them, coconuts are very good. They are high in good fats and nutrients, grow easily even in terribly soil, plus require very little work to maintain. The fronds are also useful for crafts, thatching, baskets and more. The downside of coconuts is they are a pain to open.
6: Bananas and Plantains
It’s a fruit! No, it’s a starch!
Unripe bananas and plantains can be cooked and eaten like potatoes or fried like chips, making them a good way to fill in the caloric cracks. Though they are non-seasonal, they do produce better in the rainy season unless you keep them watered. And they like a lot of water! They also like a lot of nitrogen. Plant them around the septic tank and you’re golden.
5: Malanga and Taro
Malanga, AKA dasheen, has edible leaves (when cooked ONLY) and tubers (ditto). Its cousin taro needs more cooking to neutralize the oxalic acid in the roots. They like a lot of water and grow like weeds in a drainage ditch or shallow pond.
4: Pigeon Peas
Pigeon peas are a very easy-to-grow nitrogen-fixing tropical staple crop. The dry peas are a good source of protein and the younger peas can be eaten like common green peas. If you have marginal ground, hack holes in it and plant pigeon peas. The downside is that shelling the peas takes way too long. I also find them a bit hard to digest.
Cassava is a carbohydrate bazooka. It’s productive even in bad soil and has roughly twice the calories of white potatoes. Unfortunately, it’s almost devoid of real nutrition. It’s just a blast of carbs. This makes it great for a crisis but not good to eat all the time. The leaves are edible when boiled and are nutrient-rich, so it makes sense to eat the leaves and roots together.
2: Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potatoes have edible greens and roots, produce abundantly in a small space, plus they’re high in calories and nutrition. An excellent choice for survival and non-seasonal.
1: True Yams
Yes, I am prejudiced. Yams (Dioscorea spp.) are my favorite staple crop. The flavor is good, they take almost no work to grow, they’ll live on the margins of a food forest and they’ll even grow and produce when guerilla planted in the woods. Grow some – you’ll be impressed.
Any combination of these ten tropical staple crops could keep you alive in a crisis. I recommend planting more than one of them for variation in diet, plus redundancy. IF cassava does badly one year, you’ll still have pigeon peas. If the malanga doesn’t get enough water, maybe the corn will come through. Experiment and see what grows best in your area.
Did I miss one of your favorite tropical staples? Leave me a note and let me know.