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  • Nan Mccarry

Unearth the Ancestors: Wild Crop Relatives at Watermark Woods!

Updated: May 28

Dioscorea VillegasFind Wild Relatives of Crops at Watermark Woods! By Nan Mccarry


Last year I posted about a few of the many edible plants that you can find at Watermark Woods.


Today I want to talk about my favorite group of plants! These are the wild relatives of crops. Did you know that all crops have wild relatives? These can include the ancestor of the domesticated crop (such as the ancestor of corn/maize, teosinte), but crops also have other “cousins.” Domestication is simply the process by which wild plants adapted themselves to human tending and the disturbed environments we create, eventually becoming dependent upon human cultivation. Usually, this takes thousands of years, but a few, such as blueberry and strawberry, have been domesticated more recently.


Some of these wild relatives are edible, but many are not – in fact, one of the hallmarks of domesticated crops that makes them different from their relatives is that over the eons many crops have lost the natural bitterness that plants make to deter pests, thus making them more palatable to us.


Eastern North America has a rich flora of wild relatives of agricultural crops, including wild apples, beans, blueberries, cranberries, grapes, onions, and sunflowers. It’s important to note that for some of these, such as apples, grapes, and onions, the domesticated crop originated in Eurasia, but there are wild relatives here nonetheless. These wild relatives have important genetic diversity needed to make our crops resilient to many stressors: pests and pathogens, drought, salinity, flooding … all of the things that we gardeners know can be problems for our fruits and vegetables.


I’ve been planting some of these wild relatives in my food forest. At some point, I hope to access genetically diverse individuals to plant what is called an “ex-situ” collection, but for now, this is just for fun and education.


Here are some crop cousins that I’ve bought at Watermark Woods:


Cherry, plum, peach, apricot and almond relatives:

Prunus virginiana – chokecherry

Prunus serotina –black cherry

Prunus americana – wild plum

Prunus angustifolia – Chickasaw plum


Apple relative:

Malus coronaria – crabapple


European hazelnut/filbert relative:

Corylus americana – hazelnut  (good to eat if you can find the right cracking tool)


Passionfruit relative:

Passiflora incarnata and P. lutea – passionflowers (Side note: I recently read that “P. incarnata is self-incompatible” and mostly male flowers are produced, which explains why we don’t get many fruits when we plant it.


Yam relative:

Dioscorea villosa – wild yam


Blueberry relatives:

Vaccinium corymbosum – highbush blueberry (delicious of course. Blueberry was domesticated only a little over a century ago, so is probably very closely related to the wild crop).

Vaccinium angustifolium – lowbush blueberry


Onion/garlic relative:

Allium cernuum – nodding onion


Persimmon relative:

Diospyros virginiana – this is both a wild relative of the domesticated Asian persimmon and a wild utilized plant.  And, many cultivars have been selected over the years, so it’s semi-domesticated.


Berry relative:

Rubus odoratus – flowering raspberry


Strawberry relative:

Fragaria virginiana – this is one of the parents of our domesticated strawberry!


Sunflower relatives:

Many Helianthus are found in the nursery. All are wild relatives of the domesticated annual sunflower. Sunflower was one of the few crops that was domesticated in the area that became the United States.


To follow Nan:

 Instagram: @successionalforest

McGuire, C.M. Passiflora incarnata (Passifloraceae): A new fruit crop. Econ Bot 53, 161–176 (1999).




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