Flagstaff farmers and artists create coloring book to showcase drought-tolerant seeds
A new coloring book written by farmers and Indigenous artists in Flagstaff spotlights forgotten food plants that can survive hot, dry weather. And it includes packets of drought-tolerant seeds. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports, the project’s creators think it’s an imaginative, inclusive way to confront the Southwest’s long running drought.
It’s a busy afternoon at Bookman’s in Flagstaff, where customers crowd round a table that includes stacks of coloring books and trays of dried seeds.
Oakley Anderson gathers a handful. "This is the dried out seedpod," she says, "you open these up, each seed is protected by a little papery protector."
Anderson is a filmmaker and entrepreneur at Superyard Farms. She started the Dry Greens Project to find tough, hardy substitutes for spinach and kale that don’t mind going without rain.
"I like growing plants that use the STUN acronym, which is Sheer Total Utter Neglect," she says.
Anderson’s experiments turned up four plants: Magenta Lambsquarters, Hopi Red Dye Amaranth, and two kinds of saltbush, all cultivated and harvested by people around the world for thousands of years. She says, "For me, one of the most beautiful parts of growing a plant is saving the seed, because…you’re tapping into thousands of years of history between humans and that plant, and you’re adding your own story into that thread."
But many people don’t recognize saltbush or amaranth as tasty options for a salad or a stir fry. When these plants pop up in a garden, they’re treated as weeds. Anderson wants to change that, with a coloring book that illustrates each plant and includes packets of seeds with instructions on how to grow them.
"The coloring book was also just a way for people to discover all these amazing colors that these edible plants come in," Anderson adds. Hopi Red Dye Amaranth, for example, has deep red leaves and flowers. It’s been cultivated on the Hopi mesas for thousands of years, but it nearly vanished after Spanish colonizers outlawed it.
It’s now experiencing a resurgence as a source of food and decoration, says Hopi artist Meg Kabote Adakai. "The seeds are so pretty, they look like little sparkly jewels of all different kinds of reds and blacks."
Kabote Adakai explains amaranth can be used to dye piki (traditional Hopi bread) a red color. Her contribution to the coloring book was a drawing of her grandmother as a young woman rolling out piki by hand, on a flat stone with a fire burning underneath. "Then they just dip their hand in the bowl... they rub their hand across the stone, and then it just cooks, and they roll it up," Kabote Adakai explains.
That drawing is one of several in the book that illustrates the long interaction of humans and plants. For Superyard intern Sara Sprague, the project offers hope for growing food in a climate-changed world. "Especially in Northern Arizona and Arizona as a whole water is, and will be, continuously something of concern, so I think it’s important to have seeds that have adapted to a changing climate, and have been used for millennia," she says.
Local tattoo artist Jara Nez drew most of the images in the book, with inspiration from her family home in Canyon de Chelly. One drawing shows leaves of Magenta Lambsquarters cradled in cupped hands, "and there’s fabric intertwined with the drawing… and each fabric represents different cultures who use Lambsquarters as a source of food."
Nez says just after she finished the picture, she got a surprise. "A bunch of Lambsquarters sprouted in my yard... It was so amazing. I was like: Oh, wow, I just drew these, and now they're sprouting in my yard, that is so cool. I don't know, it was fate or something,."
Thanks to the coloring book, Nez recognized the plant right away—and gathered some to eat.