Mark Lewis, Chmachyakyakya: 8000-year Crops


foragingThe most local form of local eating is wild plant foraging, and Mark Lewis of Arizona has been foraging the deserts and mountains of the Southwest for a long time, harvesting 2000 edibles and 500 medicinals throughout Arizona and the Sonoran/Bajan SW for 45 years using experience and knowledge from his grandfather and his grandfather’s grandfather. Having taught at university since 1983, Mark focuses on scientific and cultural insights about the plants — from economic botany, nutrition, horticulture, and traditional culture — that can inform cuisine based on these plants, Mark gives classes and Walk and Talks and, since 2012, has been presenting and offering prepared samples weekly each Saturday morning at the “Chmachyakyakya: Thirty 8000-year Crops” booth at the Old Town Scottsdale Farmers’ Market using 80 different plants and 30 mushrooms/morels. Some crowd favorites include cholla cactus panna cotta, prickly pear wolf berry shrikhand, and saguaro bao.

CONTACT Mark Lewis at


Hello everybody. Hello everybody, hello. I’m Caryn Hartglass. You’re listening to It’s All About Food. It’s All About Food. It’s All About Food. Thank you for being here. As you know, what we talk about on this program is food and I try to the best of my ability to cover all aspects of food—the good news, the bad news, the delicious news, the toxic news, the cruel news, the happy news, the environmentally destructive news and anything else that’s related to food. I love food. It’s my favorite subject. I have a particular preference for plant foods. We’re going to be talking about a fascinating subject, fascinating to me, and that is a lot of plants out there that we don’t know anything about. I think in our collective memory we’ve done a lot of forgetting of some really important knowledge for our own personal well-being and the well-being of the planet. That’s why we’re going to be talking today with Mark Lewis who’s a forager. The most local form of local eating is wild plant foraging and Mark Lewis of Arizona has been foraging the deserts and mountains of the Southwest for a long time, harvesting 2,000 edibles and 500 medicinals throughout Arizona and the Sonoran/Bajan SW for 45 years using experience and knowledge from his grandfather and his grandfather’s grandfather. Having taught university since 1983, Mark focuses on scientific and cultural insights about the plants — from economic botany, nutrition, horticulture, and traditional culture — that can inform cuisine based on these plants, Mark gives classes and Walk and Talks and, since 2012, has been presenting and offering prepared samples weekly each Saturday morning at the “Chmachyakyakya: Thirty 8000-year Crops” booth at the Old Town Scottsdale Farmers’ Market using 80 different plants and 30 mushrooms/morels. Some crowd favorites include cholla cactus panna cotta, prickly pear wolf berry shrikhand, and saguaro bao.

Caryn Hartglass: Mark Lewis, thank you for joining me today.

Mark Lewis: Howdy.

Caryn Hartglass: Hi, how are you doing in Arizona?

Mark Lewis: Well, it’s toasty today.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, I bet it is, hot and toasty. It’s hot in a lot of places, everything is getting a little hotter, isn’t it?

Mark Lewis: Well, that’s ok.

Caryn Hartglass: “That’s ok,” I like that. That’s ok. We always have to keep a positive attitude.

Mark Lewis: We’ve had some really amazing harvests this year so we just kind of roll with it. Probably we won’t have winter in the future but, for now, we’re just adjusting to the climate.

Caryn Hartglass: Right. Why do you think you’ve had amazing harvests this year?

Mark Lewis: It’s just a combination of when the rains come and how much and how the temperatures are in the winter versus the temperatures in the summer. What we’re seeing right now, at least in Arizona, is a lot of plants that should have been maybe leafing and flowering in February are now doing it in January. Things that were finishing up in October are now going all the way into the end of November, early December. So we kind of have to adjust what we expect. It used to be very easy. You could say, “It’s May, I’m going to go collect XYZ at this location.” And you’d be right on the money because year after year you’ve paid attention to where and what and when. So you know of the many different plants what’s going to have a fruit, what’s going to have a flower but now, at least since 2007 but especially starting last year–very, very different. We’re seeing things that are having fruit and flowers completely out of step with what they’ve done in the past. It looks like, assuming there’s global warming, which I don’t know how else to explain it, it looks like things are starting to adjust to some kind of different climate regimen right now. We’re just watching that and enjoying the benefit of having, for example, this year the palm trees have fruited out twice. The yuccas, twice and the mesquite and wolfberries, three times. So it’s been a really good year. This is the middle of the summer. If things were early we wouldn’t expect them to be doing anything now and yet, things have been early and things are still going full guns. Got a lot of good stuff out there.

Caryn Hartglass: Mark, I live in New York City and what amazes me is some of the wild plants that insist on popping up just about anywhere they can. I’ve been on a few foraging tours with Wild Man Steve Brill in New York City who takes us through Central Park and other areas and shows us what is edible although I’m hesitant to forage in those areas just because of all the other life that’s present in urban environments. It’s not as clean as I’d like it to be but I imagine Arizona is very different. You have so much knowledge from your grandfather and your grandfather’s grandfather. Tell us a little bit about your 45 years of foraging and the edibles and medicinals and why you even do it.

Mark Lewis: It’s fun. It tastes good. There’s a lot of vitamins and minerals, especially now. The crops nowadays, except for organics and things that you grow in your own garden, a lot of the stuff has been losing the vitamin wallops you used to get out of the different plants. I read a USDA thing, I can’t remember now, it’s been maybe 5-6 years ago and it indicated for a variety of different plants, like tomatoes and corn and eggplants, it just went down this list of all these common things that we eat and since 1970 it looks like about 40% of the vitamins are dropping out. So they’re the same crops that we’ve been eating, it’s just that…you go to a commercial grocery store, they look pretty but they don’t have the vitamins that they used to have. It’s mostly because the soil is depleted. All of those issues drop away when you’re out foraging because you’re getting plants that A, they have to survive so those vitamins and things…what those vitamins are their protection against the hot sun, the insects, competition with other plants. So they’re packed full of vitamins and minerals that I wouldn’t be able to get if I were just relying on commercial stuff. A lot of the plants here in Arizona…wolfberry it’s the same thing as goji. You hear about goji being a superfood, well all the desert plants are superfoods, almost all the things you would forage because they’ve got the vitamins that we’ve lost from lack of vitamins in the soil after years and years of harvesting. You have to think about it, the yields of the commercial crops have gone way up and we’ve been using the soil forever and ever. It’s got to take away the nutrients that are there. The foraged foods don’t have that problem. So you are getting plants that are related to things—goji, wolfberry, it’s a relative of the tomato—you’re getting all the lycopene cancer protection, you’re getting all the Vitamin C, you’re getting the Vitamin A, the B12 that everybody says you can’t get …you tell vegans you can’t get B12 unless you get it from meat or dairy or pollen or something like that. I can run down a list of plants that we have in spades out here in Arizona, like mesquite pods. They have Vitamin B12 in them. It’s fun to go out there. It’s a confidence builder for little kids to be able to identify and bring home food for their families. It’s like when little kids go out hunting. You’ve got all the vitamins and minerals. You’re preserving the environment because if you do this correctly you want to be able to go year after year. You want to be sustainable. All of these things I think, plus I grew up doing it. It’s three quarters of my food.

Caryn Hartglass: Wow, that’s great.

Mark Lewis: I can’t think of reasons not to do it, really.

Caryn Hartglass: Well, I could give you one reason but not for you personally. There’s 7.4 billion people on the planet and we can’t feed them all by foraging unfortunately. So maybe we need to have a lot less people…

Mark Lewis: Well, people say things like that and I agree. It would be possible to bring more of these kinds of foods into our diet in a cultivated way. We’d have to watch out and make sure we didn’t exhaust the soil again but a lot of these foods I think… These are future foods. These aren’t things of the past. These are things that will save us in the future. Right now in the grocery store…I can’t remember the figures but I’ve heard that we’re relying on something like 6 animals and thirty plants and there are thousands of them out there. They’ve always been there and they’ve always been good. I’m sure that the idea of everyone going out and foraging isn’t viable especially in large cities but it would be possible to bring more of the different kinds of things into our diet I think and in the process our idea of what a farm would be would probably change.

Caryn Hartglass: It absolutely has to. You mentioned earlier how your food has more vitamins. There have been some scientific reports that talk just exactly how you were describing it. We’re a lazy culture right now and our plants are getting lazy because they’re protected by herbicides and pesticides and they don’t have to work as hard to protect themselves. As a result they don’t have the nutrients, which as you mentioned are actually their form of protection. We benefit from that too. I remember reading a book, I think An Unnatural Order by Jim Mason and he went back 10,000 years or so, whenever we believe agriculture started. One of the things he pointed out to me that just got one of those wows from me is that every time we have improved the ability to grow more food the population has increased but hunger has not gone away. So now we have 7.4 billion people on the planet and about a billion of them are hungry.

Mark Lewis: Another billion of them are obese.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, there’s that too. So we clearly need a different food system. And maybe less people on the planet but I would love it if we could, for example, stop raising plants to feed animals to feed people and brought all of that land back to a more wild natural state where we could actually grow some more wild foods. Anyway, tell me what you’ve learned from your grandfather and your grandfather’s grandfather.

Mark Lewis: Well, cactus are delicious. (Laughs)

Caryn Hartglass: (Laughs) Cactus!

Mark Lewis: For example at the farmer’s market, I like to take cholla cactus, that one c-h-o-l-l-a, cholla.

Caryn Hartglass: Oh, the one I mispronounce.

Mark Lewis: Everybody does. So cholla are some of the spiniest…they seem like they’re mean, but you know, but they’re cactus, so what do you expect? They are some of the spiniest, most dangerous things. They’ve got two different kinds of spines on them. The spines you can see are the easy ones. The spines you can’t see are the ones that get in your fingers and then in your eye and all over the place. I hear people say constantly, for example, one woman at the farmer’s market said, about wolfberries. She said, “We have those in my yard, too bad they’re poisonous.” I just thought, OK, used to be people thought when tomatoes were first coming into the mainstream food thing, everybody said that they were poisonous. That seems to be everyone’s approach. First it’s dangerous, it’s going to kill me. Then it usually comes in as poor people food. And then somebody decides it’s super food or something then it becomes chic and hip and then it goes mainstream. I remember when kiwis came. I’m old enough to remember when in the grocery stores you never saw kiwi. You didn’t know what it was, right?

Caryn Hartglass: I remember that.

Mark Lewis: It was weird. It was weird, who’s going to eat this weird thing. Now, you tell kids, “I remember when kiwis came”, they look at you like you were insane. Right now I’ve seen in Albertson’s rambutans. We were military so we knew…

Caryn Hartglass: I love them!

Mark Lewis: Yeah, I know. They’re delicious food. It’s the same with all these desert things. So we’ve got the cactus, we’ve got the prickly pear cactus, which you’re starting to see in the grocery store fairly regularly.

Caryn Hartglass: Are we growing rambutans somewhere in the United States?

Mark Lewis: In California.

Caryn Hartglass: I’m in California right now. I didn’t know that. I’ve got to find them. I used to get them in Costa Rica and I love them but they’re growing here?

Mark Lewis: You e-mailed me and said you right now were over in LA.

Caryn Hartglass: I’m in Northern California.

Mark Lewis: Sorry. Well around LA there are a lot of people growing them plus it’s a commercial crop there now.

Caryn Hartglass: If anybody wants to know what they look like, they’re kind of like a litchi nut, right, with rubbery arms sticking out of them?

Mark Lewis: Exactly, yeah, and they’re delicious.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah

Mark Lewis: We’ve got the prickly pear. There are people growing the goji berries from Tibet in California and Utah. Here in Arizona I’m trying to convince people right now to grow wolfberries because they’re native and they don’t take any extra water. In fact they love to be neglected, essentially. They fit in with the environment here. You see nopalitos, those are the prickly pear pads, the green pads, in the grocery store now. So it’s just a matter of… We have saguaro cactus, those are the big ones that you always see in the Western movies that have the arms, they have edible fruit and edible seeds. The seeds are filled with linoleic acid, oleic acid, omega-3, 6, 7, 9, right, salmon of the desert?

Caryn Hartglass: Everything we need, yeah.

Mark Lewis: Yeah, a lot of the plants here in the desert, especially the cactus, they’re distant relatives of kale and chard and beets, so they’re filled with calcium. The cholla buds, the flower bud of the cholla, is usually one of the things that you eat first, it’s March-April that those are coming out. One little flower bud has more calcium than an 8-ounce glass of milk. It’s easy to see how the people here get some amaranth—amaranth is another super food that people have probably heard of. They grow like weeds here, you can get them for the greens, you can get them for the seeds. Chenopods, which are a relative of quinoa, again, greens and seeds. These things are filled with calcium. You’ve got the prickly pears, mesquite pods, all kinds of calcium in there, Vitamin E, B12. Grandpa taught me a lot and I learned the vitamin stuff because basically those are the questions that everyone asks me at the farmer’s markets and at the colleges when I’m teaching. Year around out here we’ve got basically from January to January there are things that you can harvest. It’s really easy to pull up hundreds and hundreds of pounds of food all year round. Now you had mentioned that you had gone on some of Steve Brill’s walks in New York?

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah.

Mark Lewis: Yeah, there’s a guy who wasn’t appreciated for a long time. He just showed everybody what was right under their noses. It’s true you have to be careful about the cleanliness of certain things but there are a lot of things that are safe. In those gardens…isn’t New York filling up with gardens now?

Caryn Hartglass: To some extent there are a lot of rooftop gardens, urban gardens, people are growing more things in little island spaces.

Mark Lewis: Yeah and a lot of those foraged things can grow there because most of these foraged things, they love disturbed ground. They have a history with people. They are actually out here in Arizona they are indicators that there were people in a location. A lot of them, you see them and you go, “Ahh it looks abandoned now.” I feel like I’m in the wilderness but actually these things wouldn’t be as thick as they are right here if somebody hadn’t been harvesting them.

Caryn Hartglass: Evidence…

Mark Lewis: Yes, in the West a lot of it is like that. These are plants that go way back with the people.

Caryn Hartglass: You have a booth at the Old Town Scottsdale Farmer’s Market and I’m not going to pronounce the name but can you pronounce it and tell me the significance of it?

Mark Lewis: You listed off the Cholla Pannacotta…

Caryn Hartglass: No, the name of the booth.

Mark Lewis: Oh, the booth. Chmachyakyakya, yeah tiny babies can say that. Break it into two parts. If you’re looking at it, if you’re on the radio you’re not looking at it, c-h-m-a-c-h-y-a, stop right there, ok. Second part, k-y-a-k-y-a. Both parts have a “ya” on the end. See there?

Caryn Hartglass: Yes.

Mark Lewis: The first part, chmach, means food or crops, the “ya” is a little grammatical thing there. Then “kyakya” means eternal or forever. These are things that have been around forever, so my booth is called “Eight Thousand Year Crops. Some of the crops go back 12,000 years but all of them go back at least 8. So I’m basically showing people the indigenous foods, the stuff that’s been here forever that people have been taking care of, working with, since 12,000, 8,000 years, chmachyakyakya.

Caryn Hartglass: The way I found out about you is you are looking for sponsors and supporters because you want to participate in Mad Feed in Copenhagen in late August. Tell us what that is.

Mark Lewis: Yes. Mad Feed is…300 people are invited over to Noma, Noma is a restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark. The chef there is René Redzepi. It’s basically 300 chefs and non-chefs and people there exchange ideas about…this year it’s the Kitchen of the Future, the idea. It will be a chance to work with other foragers because one thing René Redzepi is known for is he likes to forage. He’s the man who put Noma on the map as the number three restaurant in the world, focusing on the very, very local foods of Denmark. He goes out and forages for, for example, seabuckthorn, which is a plant with a yellow berry and it’s a relative of jujube, if you’ve ever had jujube fruit…

Caryn Hartglass: Mmhmm.

Mark Lewis: …and also a plant that we have here in Arizona, which is called graythorn or ziziphus. To go there would be a chance to learn from and to share ideas with all kinds of other people who are interested in making foraged food something more mainstream, something grown, something that we start to see in the supermarkets.

Caryn Hartglass: OK. If people wanted to find out more about it and support you, how would they do that?

Mark Lewis: The easiest way would be to reach me by email at

Caryn Hartglass: I’m curious, do you have an idea of how we might incorporate more foraged foods or create more spaces so that wild foods can grow?

Mark Lewis: Find out in your area because all over the United States there are different plants and mushrooms as well, that you can grow either in pots if you have limited space or in a small area of your yard. Any kind of a garden that you can grow you could have your local plants in there. Pickup ones that you think will give you the most bang for your buck, for a lot of people things like amaranth or quinoa or ramps or different kinds of berries. All of these are things that if you know that you like blackberries, do blackberries. Grow blackberries, learn where they live. Go and harvest them. Make sure when you’re out there in the wild that you are careful because you want to be able to come back next year and you want to be able to share this with your family and other people. You don’t want to exhaust a site. You don’t want to hurt the plants, damage the branches and things like that but you do want to essentially engage with the plant and the environment there. If you are careful and you do your homework ahead of time, you’re not going to hurt yourself or get sick and you’re not going to hurt the environment and you’re going to help these plants spread both by growing them and by telling other people about them.

Caryn Hartglass: You’ve also harvested medicinals, about 500 of them. Can you talk about some of them and what they are capable of treating or healing?

Mark Lewis: There’s an awful lot of stuff right there. A lot of things that people have heard about, that if you go to different kinds of natural grocery stores, you’ll see many, many kinds of plants now and maybe you wonder what they are. Well a lot of them grow right here. Elderberry is one of them that’s all over the country. Elderberry is an unusual plant, distantly related to things like honeysuckle and it’s got a chemistry that sets it apart from almost anything which probably explains why it can clear up the flu before you even get it. Obviously you’d want to find out more about anything that’s supposed to be medicinal. There are a lot of books out there. A lot of people have published a lot of good stuff about how to identify the plant and how to tell what sorts of things would be helped by using those plants. There are books that all they do, they have like 50 different plants with photographs–excellent, excellent photographs–that will start you off in the right direction. Here in Arizona we’ve got really three different zones. It’s almost like walking from Mexico up to Canada so we’ve got things that are from all over the country, low land, riparian. Sunflowers, actually parts of sunflowers have all kinds of chemistry in them that will help you. Also think about the idea that the food that you eat is medicinal. You eat the right sorts of foods, then get all the vitamins that you need, balance and diversity of diet, that will go a long way to keeping you healthy and helping you back away if you got diabetes. A lot of the foods that we’ve got here in the desert we recommend so that people will, if they have diabetes, their symptoms will lessen, cholla is one of those, mesquite is another, all cacti, nopalitos, the prickly pear pad—anti-diabetic. They’ve got mucilage in them. There’s just a ton of stuff. There’s a guy named Moehrman and he did two really large volumes of Plants of North America. One of them focuses on food and one of them focuses on medicine. I recommend those for anybody who’s starting out.

Caryn Hartglass: That sounds great. I’m curious, I’m quite curious. It’s mind-boggling. We invest so much on biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. We want to create things. And yet all we need to really do I think is to discover what’s been given to us and what’s there and figure out what everything can do for us. I think we’d be a lot further ahead.

Mark Lewis: I agree.

Caryn Hartglass: Okay, let’s bring more sense to more people. Mark, thank you for joining me and I wish you a lot of luck getting to Mad Feed in Copenhagen.

Mark Lewis: Thank you!

Caryn Hartglass: Thank you for joining me on It’s All About Food, Mark Lewis.

Mark Lewis: Bye bye.

Caryn Hartglass: Bye. Okay everybody, if you happen to get to Old Town Scottsdale, you want to go to the farmer’s market, I think it’s on Saturday mornings and you can meet up with Mark and find out more and try some of these wonderful edibles and medicinals that are out there.

Transcribed by Suzanne Kelly, August 18, 2016

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