Closest to Everlastin’: Ozark Agricultural Biodiversity and Subsistence Traditions (Part Three)

Crystal Bowne, Back-to-the-Land Ozarker Gardens, Newton County, Arkansas, 2010By Brian C. Campbell
University of Central Arkansas

  Agroecological Knowledge:

Ozarkers who engage in agrobiodiverse farming have knowledge of their environment and the species within it that allow them to survive (agroecological knowledge).  They utilize both wild and domesticated species, observe their behavior and interrelationships, and apply that information to use in gastronomy and agriculture.

In the Ozarks and throughout the world, gourds (C. pepo,and Lagenaria siceraria) have found myriad uses.54 Willodean and other Ozark farmers grow egg gourds (Cucurbita pepo) [also known as “nest” gourds] to use as surrogate eggs to indicate to a hen where she should be laying (rather than in hard-to-reach places) or to check the broodiness of a hen.  Likewise, gourds have been grown on chicken houses to reduce or deter mite infestations55 Hard-shelled (Lagenaria) gourds serve as containers of different sorts, birdhouses, and toys, and as the bodies of the earliest banjos and fiddles.56

Wild Species:

Willodean Smyth, like many contemporary Ozarkers and their ancestors, utilize wild foods, especially berries, in a range of dishes and beverages.  Lissie Moffett of Turtle, Missouri, explained: I pick an’ can enough wild berries every summer to do me through the winter.  I take my basket on my arm an’ go out into the hills an’ stay all day, pickin’ huckleberries an’ blackberries.57

Willodean’s Ozark Mountain Grape Drink

Wash and stir fresh, firm, ripe grapes. Put 1 cup of whole grapes into hot quart jars. Add ½ to 1 cup of sugar (I use 2/3 cups) fill jar with boiling water, leaving ¼ in headspace.  Adjust cap, press quart in pressure cooker (5 lbs) or 10 minutes in boiling water bath.  Wait about 3 few weeks for flavor to develop.

A wide range of wild plants continue to be important in Ozark subsistence.  Willodean references the most widely used and appreciated wild green in the Ozarks, American Pokeweed (Phytolacca Americana).58 She cans wild greens for her family to eat throughout the winter.  Wild plants serve more than just culinary uses; they also provide medicine, stimulate growth in other plants, deter pests, and attract beneficial insects and pollinators.59 Ozarkers harvest spring culinary greens, in this approximate order: 1) watercress (Nasturtium officinale), sticky thistle (Cirsium species), wild lettuce (Lactuea Canadensis), wild onions [garlic] (Allium species) 2) plantain (Plantago species), dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), pokeweed, Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule), and broad-leaf (Rumex obtusifolius), and curley (Rumex crispus) dock 3) lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album), wild mustard (Brassica species), wild sage (Salvia lyrata) shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris), and along creek banks: crow’s foot (Ranunculus Trichophyllus) and colt’s foot (Tussilago farfara), and then last to emerge in May is sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella).60

Pokeweed or poke sallit is a perennial plant that grows in just about any disturbed areas regardless of the quality of the soil.  The ubiquity of the poke makes it a reliable food source even in the most stressed conditions.  A folk tale collected in Stone County, Arkansas, in 1982 illustrates Ozarkers’ reliance on the plant, and their sense of humor:

Renzie Dow went to a place one night to stay. . . The man says come right on in.  He says I do not have but one bed.  You will have to sleep with me and my wife tonight.  Says I will put a bolster [a long pillow] between us.

When time come to eat supper they did not have a thing in the world but poke salet.  Renzie Dow was starving to death so he just eat poke salet until man it was a sight on earth, and the old man he reached over and he jerked the bowl away from him.  He said . . . “to have some of that for breakfast; do not eat it all.”

Well, Renzie Dow was still just a starving to death. They went to bed and he was still laying there thinking about . . . all of that poke salet that he wanted.  About midnight, why the stock just went to shouting out at the barn and all and the old man he had to go out and see what was bothering the stock.  This woman . . . whispered to him. . . “now is your time.”  Renzie Dow said, “huh?” and she says “now is your time, get over that bolster.”  He said “Oh boy, I will get up and eat all of that poke salet.”61

The use of pokeweed as food requires knowledge of the plant’s properties, for it is poisonous if not cooked properly.  Due to toxicity, only the young tender leaves are picked and boiled in water, and as Willodean explains, “boiled again” to ensure removal of the toxins.

Some plants produce toxic alkaloids and compounds to prevent herbivorous browsing, coincidently creating useful medicines or entheogens that lead to their increased propagation.62 The toxicity of pokeweed results in medicinal properties that Ozarkers have identified.63 Poke’s early spring shoots are considered an invaluable spring tonic.64 The roots can be used in tinctures or bitters, a combination of alcohol (historically homemade corn whiskey) and medicinal herbs, and in decoctions to treat a range of ailments, especially rheumatism and arthritis, and as a general tonic.  Some Ozarkers eat a poke berry a day for similar reasons (spitting out the seeds due to the “pizen” in them).

Traditional Ozark meals consist of cooked greens (sometimes mixed with eggs) and some form of pork served with a variety of beans and cornbread.  An Arkansas WPA (Works Progress Administration) researcher in the 1930s recorded a recipe for “Poke Sallit, one of the best-liked spring vegetable dishes,” that concludes “Many persons like to pour pepper sauce on sallit at the table” and provides a recipe for this particular pepper sauce that includes vinegar and “freshly picked ripe bird peppers” (Capsicum Annuum).  I have documented and collected heirloom seeds from a range of “bird peppers” in the area that have been variously referred to as Bouquet Peppers, Chiltepins, and Poinsettia Peppers.

Brian C. Campbell, Poinsettia Peppers in the Seed Bank Heritage Garden, Greenbriar, Arkansas, 2008.

Brian C. Campbell, Poinsettia Peppers in the Seed Bank Heritage Garden, Greenbriar, Arkansas, 2008.

The WPA recipe continues: “pot licker from poke greens as cooked in this way is particular-good eaten with corn bread.”  Pot likker (licker) is the liquid left over after cooking greens and was commonly spread over cornbread.  The cooked greens were usually poke, mustard (Brassica juncea) or turnip (Brassica rapa); the latter was the most common cultivated green.  In Three Years in Arkansaw, Marion Hughes conveys the importance of turnip greens in early Ozark subsistence when he tells the story of a cow escaping into “John Brown’s garden and eat up his turnip greens, and John he sued [the cow’s owner] for maintenance until rostenears is hard enough to eat.”65  The ubiquity of corn in traditional Ozark meals continues here, with the reference to “rostenears” [roasting ears].  This treatment of young field corn as a vegetable rather than a grain resembles our contemporary use of sweet corn.66

Brian C. Campbell, Ladybug on Whippoorwill field pea plant, Faulkner County, Arkansas, Seed Bank Heritage Garden, 2007.

Brian C. Campbell, Ladybug on Whippoorwill field pea plant, Faulkner County, Arkansas, Seed Bank Heritage Garden, 2007.


Growing species and varieties that tend to be well-adapted and resilient in their region, Ozarkers use (and reuse) plants that require limited work and inputs to produce and avoid the outlay of cash as much as possible.  Field or cow peas (Vigna unguiculata) exemplify these traits and constitute another key foodways component.

Charles Morrow Wilson describes the Whippoorwill cowpea variety cooked with hog jowls as “distinctive Ozark fare.”67  The Whippoorwill pea – a hardy cowpea that survives the most extreme Ozark weather and readily self-seeds – was known to numerous Ozarkers as the food that  “got them through the Depression.”  In a 1979 inverview, the Avery brothers of Stone County, Arkansas said that when they were growing up their parents and grandparents referred to hard times as “eating peas and dance,” because that was all one could do then.68

Vaughn Brewer, Lonnie and Asburn Avery, Stone County, Arkansas, September 6, 1979.  Courtesy of University of Central Arkansas Archives, Rackensack Collection.

Vaughn Brewer, Lonnie and Asburn Avery, Stone County, Arkansas, September 6, 1979.  Courtesy of University of Central Arkansas Archives, Rackensack Collection.

Willodean refuses to throw away feed bags because of their utility as garden mulch. The bags retain soil moisture and prevent weeds from outcompeting her desired crops. She reuses a wide range of containers and other materials.  The foam trays from meats or other packaged store produce stacked in her kitchen pantry, remind me of another seed saver who uses these materials as seed drying trays.   He is a back-to-the-land farmer who settled in Newton County, Arkansas, Brenda Smyth, Old chicken feed bags in garden with rocks on them as mulch, Searcy County, Arkansas, July the early 1980s, built his own home, and runs a plant nursery.  He and his wife reuse a wide range of materials, from plastic bags and plastic garden pots to foam and cardboard trays for seed drying.  In the past, Ozarkers resourcefully made use of torn clothing (rugs, quilts), corn cobs (fuel, pipes, dolls), shucks (chair bottoms, mats, brooms, mattress stuffing), old nails (fishing lures and gigs), and every part of an animal they slaughtered.69

Old Stock seed savers continue to engage in recycling behavior because of their enculturation by parents who struggled through subsistence living and the Great Depression.  Back-to-the-land seed savers may have different motivations for their recycling tendencies, such as more modern environmentalist and conservationist ideologies, but they share this dedication to frugality.

Brian C. Campbell, Seed Drying Trays, Newton County, Arkansas, 2009. Back-to-the-land farmer and seed saver Herb Culver.

Brian C. Campbell, Seed Drying Trays, Newton County, Arkansas, 2009. Back-to-the-land farmer and seed saver Herb Culver.

Before tossing any food to the pigs or chickens (rural waste disposals), traditional Ozarkers would have attempted to convert it into a palatable human dish.  Willodean and her husband Kenneth recognize that some potatoes will inevitably get damaged during the harvest and they take measures to ensure that they do not go to waste.  On April 6, 1973, Alice Dillard Smith of Marion County, Arkansas, wrote about her first “whipping” from her father, which she received for unintentionally “wasting” an entire crop of watermelons.  She recalled:

We lived on a Rocky Ridge farm, which wasn’t good for raising watermelons.  But one Spring they were Determined to raise some melons, they made Special hills some way. . . But it was good bit of work an trouble. We had a very nice patch of them an they had worked hard to establish some raised beds to grow them.  It was time for melons to start Ripening.  I was very small girl then an Id seen people plug melons to see if they were ripe.  I didn’t know it would hurt them.  So I got a knife one day an made for the patch.  I plugged ever melon in the patch, not finding one Ripe one.  I carefully placed the plugs back never dreaming I’d ruined them.70

While her mother tried to hide it from her father, the truth came out when he visited the patch, and Alice received a harsh lesson in Ozark subsistence.

At the end of the growing season in late fall, gardeners must salvage what they can before the first frost. Frequently tomatoes and other vegetables are picked before they are ripe and must be used in some unusual dish.  Chow-chow fills that role by combining a hodge-podge of ingredients that may not suffice to make their own dish.

When a cucumber grows too large, it is no longer palatable, however, Ozarkers create innovative dishes that convert something that is usually wasted into something useful. Willodean turns the large over-ripe cucumbers into cinnamon rings. Here is a recipe for over-ripe zucchini squash.

Lucy Monger’s Mock Apple Butter

4 cups zucchini puree
6 tbs vinegar
3 tbs lemon juice
2 cups sugar
1 tsp cinnamon (or more to taste)
Peel zucchini, take out the seeds, and chop coarsely. Place in blender with vinegar and lemon juice. Blend until smooth. Pour into saucepan with remaining ingredients. Blend well and cook on medium heat, stirring occasionally until mixture reaches desired thickness. Cool and keep in fridge or pour into sterilized pint jars while hot and seal. Serve with biscuits or toast. We use the large zucchini that seem to escape picking for this recipe.

Willodean’s Green Tomato Relish

12 cups ground or finely chopped tomatoes
4 cups chopped onions
3 chopped red and green bell peppers
8 cups boiling water
4 cups vinegar
6 cups sugar
½ cup canning salt
3 tbs mustard seed
3 tbs celery seed (if wanted)
2 tbs turmeric

Combine tomatoes, onions, and peppers. Add boiling water, let set 5 or 10 minutes. Drain.  Mix vinegar, sugar, salt, mustard, celery seeds and turmeric. Add to tomato mixture boil slowly for 15 or 20 minutes or until ready to can.  Pour in jars and seal. Makes 6 pints.

The Future of Ozark Subsistence and Agricultural Biodiversity:

While Willodean involves her grandchildren in gardening and canning and encourages them to consume healthy homegrown food, many children in the Ozarks are removed from these traditional processes.To encourage the continued transmission of agroecological knowledge and seed saving, several organizations have collaboratively established Seed Swaps. Today, agrobiodiverse farming in the Ozarks does not occur strictly among Old Stock farmers, rather a wide range of back-to-the-lander and new international immigrants. The Seed Swaps present a diversity of seed savers, in their ethnicity (Guatemalan, Mexican, Hmong, Thai) and in their age and farming background.  Bo Bennett, a college student, excitedly traded his great grandfather’s seeds for other people’s grandparents’ seeds, exclaiming:

I’ve got some seeds.  They’re Moon and Stars Watermelon (Citrullus lanatus).  I got these from my grandmother.  They were my grandpa’s.  He died ten years ago, but she saved this jar of seeds this whole time and never planted them.  He grew them every year when he was alive and they were grown by my great-grandfather also.”

John Hammer, Bo Bennett, UCA student, holding okra seed, Ozark Seed Swap, Mountain View, Arkansas, 2009.  He traded his grandfather’s Moon and Stars watermelon seed at the Swap.John Hammer, Victor Garcia of Independence County, Arkansas, and Kent Bonar, of Newton County, Arkansas, Ozark Seed Swap, Mountain View, Arkansas, 2009.John Hammer, Willodean Smyth with her family heirloom variety Pencil Cob Corn, Ozark Seed Swap, Mountain View, Arkansas, 2009.
John Hammer, Bo Bennett, UCA student, holding okra seed (left).  He traded his grandfather’s Moon and Stars watermelon seed at the Swap. Victor Garcia of Independence County, Arkansas, and Kent Bonar, of Newton County, Arkansas (center). Willodean Smyth with her family heirloom variety Pencil Cob Corn (right). Ozark Seed Swap, Mountain View, Arkansas, 2009.

When Willodean attended her first Seed Swap and realized the interest so many people had in her varieties, knowledge, and traditions, she glowed. She was energized. She now seeks out local heirlooms more than ever, grows them in her gardens, gives them to the seed bank and at Swaps.  She invites young people to her home and shows them how she cans.  When she prepared butternut (C. moschata) and coushaw squash (C. mixta) pies for some neighbor “kids” (forty-somethings), they were shocked not to have eaten such food before. “Wow!  I’ve never had this before,” one remarked. “I can’t believe this food is so much better than store food.” “After hearing that,” Willodean says, “I decided, the good Lord has kept me alive because I’ve got a job to do, to teach young people how to make a garden and can.”

This is the final piece in a three part series entitled Closest to Everlastin’: Ozark Agricultural Biodiversity and Subsistence Traditions by Brian Campbell. 

 Copyright 2010 Brian Campbell – All Rights Reserved
Previously published in its entirety on Southern Spaces and reprinted here with permission.

Check out these documentaries by Brian Campbell! 


The Natural State of America
In the 1970’s, in the Ozark Highlands of Arkansas, “the Natural State,” residents organized and successfully halted the U.S. Forest Service’s planned aerial applications of herbicides; now the group battles their rural electric cooperative to protect the region’s organic farms, wells, springs, and the Buffalo River, the only National River in the United States, from being contaminated by herbicides once again.  Visit the film’s Facebook Page.

Seed Swap
This documentary film uses the development of a seed exchange and agricultural biodiversity conservation project as an ethnographic lens to explore the seed saving subculture of Arkansas and the Ozark Highlands region.  The film showcases the utility of applied anthropology to get the public involved in more localized food systems, presents a wide range of open-pollinated, heirloom seeds of the Ozarks, and illustrates the steps necessary to establish a community seed bank and host seed swaps.

About the Author:

Brian-C.-Campbell-P.h.D._thumb1_thumbBrian Campbell, P.h.D., is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Department of Sociology at the University of Central Arkansas, Conway.  His current focus is on Agricultural Biodiversity Conservation in the Ozark Highlands region of Arkansas and Missouri.

As the Director of CAAH! – Conserving Arkansas’s Agricultural Heritage -Brian has been instrumental in the preservation of the agricultural folkways and knowledge of the Ozarks region through hands on learning and the development of their Seed Bank initiative.   Click here to learn more about CAAH!

…and don’t forget to tell your friends you got it from

2 responses to “Closest to Everlastin’: Ozark Agricultural Biodiversity and Subsistence Traditions (Part Three)

  1. conservingarkansas

    The Natural State of America Screenings:
    Springfield MO Feb. 10, 7:30 PM at Dynamic Earth Equipment
    Overland Park (KC), KS Feb. 11 7:30 PM at Dynamic Earth Equipment

  2. Thanks, Brian.

    Please check out these upcoming screenings for the The Natural State of America!

    Jasper, AR January 27, 6 PM at Newton County Library

    Springfield MO Feb. 10, 7:30 PM at Dynamic Earth Equipment

    Overland Park (KC), KS Feb. 11 7:30 PM at Dynamic Earth Equipment

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