AZTEC — All summer long, Aztec Ruins National Monument rangers will be helping visitors interpret and make deeper connections with past Puebloan farming practices.

On Tuesday and Thursday mornings at 11:30 a.m., visiting ranger-intern Dave Strawn leads a tour of one of the park's newest additions — a 75-by-50-foot heritage garden on the park's south end.

Strawn, 23, who graduated from Durango's Fort Lewis College with a degree in anthropology, says each of the garden's two dozen native crops have their own stories.

"Each of these plants represent the entire lineage of domesticated plants in the western hemisphere," said Strawn. "These crops can help us understand how Puebloan culture thrived and (give) us a chance to think about our own culture today and how we relate to the land."

At left, Dave Strawn gives a tour of the Aztec Ruins Heritage Garden on Tuesday in Aztec.
At left, Dave Strawn gives a tour of the Aztec Ruins Heritage Garden on Tuesday in Aztec. (Jon Austria/ The Daily Times)

Strawn's association with the garden began after a visit to the national monument three years ago when he asked Dana Hawkins, Aztec Ruins archaeological technician and the garden's creator, if she needed help.

"I stopped by the garden and met Dana and somehow that led to me giving tours here today," Strawn said after completing a tour on Tuesday morning. "Dana and I are huge proponents of experimental archeology, which is reconstructing the life ways of historic people and doing the things they were doing so we can better understand how they thought about them and how they felt about it in their everyday life — really get a deeper grasp of what life would have been like."

The garden's four beds are bursting with crops planted earlier this year — primarily corn, squash and beans. Hawkins consults with area tribes to ensure the garden includes only native plants. She began the garden to best display both the crop varieties that were used by ancient Puebloans more than 1,000 years ago and to recreate as closely as possible farming practices she's researched. She also can share the fruits with visitors.

Dave Strawn on Tuesday leads a tour of the Heritage Garden at the Aztec Ruins National Monument.
Dave Strawn on Tuesday leads a tour of the Heritage Garden at the Aztec Ruins National Monument. (Jon Austria /The Daily Times)

Sixteen-year-old Katelin Spradley, a Bloomfield High School student, volunteers in the garden during the summer months and was helping Strawn on Tuesday.

"When you work here, you learn a lot about native plants," she said. "We've done a lot of work. It's been great."

Strawn described the crops — Magdalena Big Cheese squash, Zia Pueblo canteen gourd, Tohono O'odham domesticated Devil's Claw and Taos squash amid rows of Navajo Robin's Egg and Acoma White corn stalks, some six feet in height. Those are dwarfed by towering Hopi Black Dye sunflowers.

During the tour, Strawn kneels down and picks some fuschia-colored leaves from Hopi Red Amaranth.

"This amaranth is so prolific. It's high in protein and its bitter leaves, high in alkaloids, would make a good salad," Strawn said. "Amaranth and corn together make a complete protein. Many would think of it as nothing more than a weed, but it's also used for dyes, the red color that it's named for." Strawn said Hopi short staple cotton was one of the earliest domesticated crops. He said it originated in the Tucson Basin, in Ariz., 2,000 years ago.

Of all the garden's plants, Strawn emphasized the Puebloan practice of utilizing every aspect of a crop — as a food, a tool, a dye, a soil stabilizer or textile.

"I believe we can understand the past and (that will) benefit us today when we look at the practices of the ancient and modern Puebloans," he said. "I think the Puebloans were masters of their environment ... it's through the diffusion of knowledge and seed stock that we see throughout the Southwest."

James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and jfenton@daily-times.com. Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.