September 2012

Heritage Crops Still Grown After Centuries of Sustaining the People


Juan Estévan Arellano

The land covered by the Northern Río Grande National Heritage Area (NRGNHA)—Río Arriba, Taos and Santa Fe—can be said to be the heart and soul of New Mexico. Not only are there numerous indigenous communities—several Pueblos and the Jicarilla Apache—this is where the oldest Hispano settlements are also located.

It’s here also where the oldest heritage crops are still grown, and not only chile and corn. Much of what you find today in supermarkets and farmers’ markets has called NM home for centuries.

It’s a good thing the settlers under Juan de Oñate kept a very good inventory of the seeds they brought with them. And then in 1625, Fray Alonso de Benavidez came through what today is northern NM and took an inventory of what was growing here at that time. In 1630 he published his “Memorias,” in which he listed everything the colonists were growing.


He wrote, “All this land is very fertile; it gives forth with great abundance everything which is sown in it: corn, wheat, beans, lentils, garbanzos, fabas, peas, pumpkins, watermelons, canteloupes, cucumbers; every kind of vegetable: cabbage, lettuce, carrots, cardons, garlic, onions, cactus fruits (tunas), pitahayas, apricots, peaches, nuts, acorns, blackberries and many others which I won’t mention to avoid exaggeration; I should also mention the piñon trees, which are a different species from those in Spain, because the nuts are large and easy to open, and of all the annuals it is very abundant.”


Not mentioned are chile and apples. We know that by then chile was already grown in NM since Obregon mentions he brought some chile seeds with him during his 1580 expedition. It might have been one of those he didn’t list so as not to seem like he was exaggerating. Apples didn’t appear until 1635 in the Manzanos, the Spanish word for apples.

There is no better documentation as to what are the original heritage foods of the NRGNHA than the list left by Fray Benavidez almost 400 years ago. Every one of the above crops is still grown today and can be found in most farmers’ markets.

The nopal is also an indigenous food that is still widely consumed in Mexico, but not so much in the Heritage Area, though with more Mexican nationals now living in the north, some stores are starting to sell nopales. I have a nopal plant in my greenhouse that I brought from Las Cruces. It produces wonderful, succulent pads.

When talking about heritage foods, we usually think of maíz Concho and Chimayó chile, but that’s only because they are the best known. Some people still have “melones mexicanos,” a Mexican melon; others have the old variety of watermelons, as well as a certain type of peas, habas (fava beans), and of course pinto beans and bolita, which are considered a gourmet type of bean.


The way the land is still farmed and irrigated in the Río Arriba bioregion, which includes the counties that make up the NRGNHA, and the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado, is similar to how it has been worked for over 400 years. Río Arriba County has the most acequias in NM, and Taos is close behind. At one time there were 37 acequias in what today is the city of Santa Fe; at present there are only a couple that still carry water, though not all the time.


In Mesoamerica, what might be considered the traditional garden was called the milpa (from the Nahuatl milli, place, and pan, on top), meaning a place that is planted on top. The milpa usually included rows of corn with beans and squash, and between the rows of corn there would be chile, tomatoes, and then more rows of corn, beans, squash and so on. That’s the way the people still plant their milpas in the chinampas of Xochimilco in Mexico.


Today, in northern NM, a milpa is usually only a cornfield, though some people still plant the “three sisters” together. Or, some plant “calabazas mexicanas” on the side of the corn plants, then rows of corn, and on the other side, beans.


Where chile is planted it is usually referred to as a “huerta de chile,” meaning it is planted separately from the milpa, or corn. The word “huerta” comes from the Latin, hortus, which is a small space to grow vegetables or fruit trees. Exactly when chile became separated from the milpa and became part of the huerta, I don’t know. But this is only in NM, not in Mexico.


In terms of heritage crops, besides the native chile, corn for chicos and posole known as Concho is the most prized of all. In Mexico, the corn used for posole is known as Cacahuacintle. Again, I don’t know if it’s related to the Concho. No one knows for sure where the Concho originated, but simply by its name it would appear it came from the lands irrigated by the Conchos River, which originates in the state of Chihuahua and empties into the Río Grande.


Therefore, when we think about the heritage crops, don’t think only of those that are planted and irrigated. As much a part of those crops are the different types of quelites and verdolagas that grow wild in the milpa and huerta. But also those such as oregano de la sierra, chimaja (a form of wild parsley), osha, which is used as a medicinal herb, as well as poleo and yerba buena. And don’t forget capulín, used for making jelly and also a very fine wine.


We are blessed that still today we find the same foods our ancestors have been eating for centuries, except arugula, which wasn’t grown then.


Farmer, researcher and community leader Juan Estévan Arellano has devoted most of his life to documenting the traditional knowledge of the Indo-Hispano in Northern NM, especially as it relates to land and water. He is the translator-editor of the bookAncient Agriculture. 505.579.4027,




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