Felder Rushing: Southern landscapes, kitchens indelibly connected to African continent

Published 8:47 am Friday, February 8, 2019

Can we take a few moments this month to celebrate how dearly our Mississippi gardens and shared cultural heritage are influenced and enriched by plants native to Africa?

We should. From garden variety to high-end, Southern landscapes and kitchens are indelibly connected to floral and culinary traditions from Earth’s second largest continent. It’s a hugely diverse land whose climate runs the gamut from hot, wet tropical rain forests bordered by vast savannas to mountains, large deserts, and the mild Mediterranean type weather found on both the southern and northern tips.

And over the centuries, its highly distinct native flora has been spread far and wide, including to Mississippi, as kitchen, garden, and indoors treasures, and agricultural crops.

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Many are herbaceous perennials and bulbs, but quite a few are not able to tolerate our winters so are grown as annuals planted from seed, or as favored potted specimen to be dragged indoors during cold weather.

We would certainly suffer without some – coffee, sorghum, and cotton come to mind – while many more have become Southern staples; what Southern cook could do without blackeye peas or okra? And how many of us are aware that one of the original ingredients in Coca-Cola was the kola nut, a mild stimulant from West Africa?

Still, whether grown for food, flavoring, medicines, fiber, or ornamentals, all were brought here by sailors, explorers, settlers, and eager horticulturists – and some by slaves. A few plants came with incredible stories, such as how soon after African violets were “discovered” only in 1892 by European explorers in Tanga, eastern Africa, stolen leaf cuttings were smuggled nefariously by an infamous florist from England to America.

Surely some of the following are in your garden or on your plate:

Starting with those we plant every spring as annuals, a few flowers include periwinkle from Madagascar, gomphrena (bachelor buttons or globe amaranth), Celosia (prince’s feather, cockscomb), Impatiens, Pentas, bottle gourd, castor bean, blackeyed Susan vine, and Joseph’s coat.

Most of us grow mainstay edibles from Africa, ranging from the aforementioned okra and blackeyed peas to okra, watermelon, muskmelon, carrots, yams, and hyacinth bean. And who can resist preserves made from figs? I also love the ornamental cassava from my great-grandmother’s garden which I grow as an ornamental but, if push came to shove, I could make both a cooking starch and tapioca.

Though some need occasional protection from hard freezes, my garden features several herbaceous African perennials. Think Gladiolus, umbrella sedge, Algerian ivy, gerbera daisy, Agapanthus, amaryllis, Plumbago, holly fern, Crocosmia, society garlic, Oxalis, some types of Gardenias, and the indestructible milk and wine Crinum.

And though I wish I could grow award-winning African violets like my grandmother did, my touch is too coarse for delicate things in need of regular care. So my all-time favorite tropical African potted plants, mostly too tender to leave outside but which can live for decades when dragged indoors every winter, have to be very durable and withstand neglect. They include Aloes, croton, Sansevieria (snake plant or mother-in-law tongue), asparagus ferns, airplane or spider plant, geraniums, fiddle-leaf fig, ribbon and corn plants and other Dracaenas, areca palm, pencil cactus and other Euphorbias, and the uber-exotic bird of paradise.

And these are just the ones I grow myself. Though all are all but universally enjoyed and passed around from gardener to gardener – perhaps our oft-fractured communities’ easiest cross-culture connection – there are many more.

Main thing is, today’s Mississippi flower and food garden’s history wouldn’t have the same Southern sense of place without these favorites from the continent of Africa. Can we give up some heartfelt appreciation?


Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to rushingfelder@yahoo.com.