The Cherokee Nation’s Heirloom Garden and Native Plant Site was filled with trees, flowers, vegetables and history as visitors walked and learned on Saturday.
The site was initially created to preserve heirloom seeds, and shortly thereafter, native plants were added. The Heirloom Garden was started in 2006 and produces plants and crops important in Cherokee culture.
Tour guides Feather Smith-Trevino and Lizz Toombs walked a group of visitors through the garden and explained the significance each one has for Cherokee culture and agricultural history.
Smith-Trevino, cultural biologist for Cherokee Nation, takes care of the garden and works to grow, package and distribute native seeds.
“The seed bank distributes seeds every year to Cherokee citizens – anywhere from about 1,000 to about 5,000 packages of seeds annually, although this year, we distributed over 9,000,” she said.
Toombs works as the tribal historic preservation officer for Cherokee Nation Enterprises Inc.
A tree in particular, the Tulip Poplar was one that didn’t have much hope for survival in Oklahoma.
“It’s not something you see in Oklahoma because it is a Southeastern tree, but it was important for us,” said Smith-Trevino. “We decided to see if we could grow this here, since nobody believed that we could.”
The tree was planted six years ago and it is standing on its own. Tony Harris and his wife, Carra, brought the tree in from Georgia and they said the bark was used to make dugout canoes. The tree can grow to be one of the tallest of the Native American hardwoods.
A tree that was widely used to make a bow and arrow was the Osage Orange, but it was not necessarily the best when Cherokees lived in the Southeast.
“You don’t see this as often, so we made out bows out of Black Locust, but it’s a little less forgiving,” said Smith-Trevino. “Whenever you make a bow, you cut into the tree and find a growth ring, and you shave down on that ring.”
She said that when cutting the ring, it has to be perfect, or the bow won’t last long. Osage Orange is a hardwood and one of the toughest in North America.
Prairie Willow Red Root is commonly used at Cherokee stomp grounds, and Cherokee Medicine Keepers told the Nation the plant grows as both male and a female.
“Our elders came in and told us they use both for different purposes medicinally. One’s actually a men’s medicine and the other is a women’s medicine,” said Smith-Trevino.
She said it’s hard to tell the difference just by looking at the plants, but when they bloom in the spring, the male has a red, fuzzy flower, whereas the female has a green, spiky flower.
The Black Walnut trees are the smallest ones on the site, and they came directly from rootstocks and seeds found at the Cherokee Female Seminary.
“The Cherokee Female Seminary was established in 1851 over in Park Hill, and it was noted as the first female secondary education system west of the Mississippi,” said Toombs. “It was said to rival our neighboring states.”
The Female Seminary was operated by the Nation. It pulled educators from Mount Holyoke College and based most of its education system on that one.
“I think it’s important to know as well that the women teachers were paid equally as the male teachers,” said Toombs. “Cherokee Nation didn’t have a pay gap, and it was also bilingual.”
The seminary burned to the ground in 1887 and the Cherokee Heritage Center is now in its place. The Cherokee Nation Tribal Council chose to rebuild the school north of Tahlequah, and it is now known as Northeastern State University.
Harris said he brought in a lot of the plants and trees, since over a third of what the Cherokees used back East isn’t relatively available in Oklahoma.
“They’ll tell us what they’d like to have and we’ll find them,” he said. “We have a Cherokee garden in Cobb County, Georgia, and we have about 400 or 500 people a day that come through.”
He said the garden is an educational one from which people of all ages can learn.
“We do a lot of education, and by the end of the year, we teach over 900 elementary students,” he said.
The couple haven’t been able to bring in plants for a few years due to a drought in Georgia. However, they said more will be arriving in the spring.
Check it out
The Cherokee Nation’s Heirloom Garden and Native Plant Site is located near the W.W. Keeler Tribal Complex in Tahlequah and is open to the public.