Brassica rapa – photo by Alex McAlvay

Mexico is home to some of the highest biological and cultural diversity in the world. Mexico’s more than 68 different cultural groups engage in an array of practices to manage local wild plant resources. By transporting, protecting, sparing, and encouraging otherwise wild plants, the productivity and availability of those resources can be increased. These activities have also been shown to affect the diversity and physical traits of some plant species resulting in unique human-influenced populations.

Because these populations are not always readily recognizable by crop conservationists, these subtle biocultural resources are often overlooked. My work focuses on a widespread edible and medicinal plant in the mustard family, called nabitos, (or Brassica rapa in Latin). Nabitos are used by more than twenty ethnic groups through its range in Latin America where it grows as a weed in agricultural fields. Nabitos provide nutrition in the spring and early summer when staple foods are scarce, and form an important part of the local economy in some areas.

Each cultural group manages this plant in a different manner, with some collecting the seeds for replanting, others tolerating its growth while weeding, and still others protecting it from livestock. This study system provides an unique opportunity to compare a single species under many different management styles. My work focuses on four cultural groups in Mexico: the Rarámuri (Tarahumara) of Chihuahua, Tzotzil and Tzeltal of Chiapas, and Mestizos surrounding Mexico City.

With the help of HAP’s grant, ethnobotanist Alex McAlvay will travel to Mexico to conduct interviews about uses, management, and knowledge. This cultural information will be complemented by genetic studies on the nabitos under management. Alex’s results will aid in understanding the effects of different management practices on wild edible and medicinal plant diversity, and help to better understand the diversity present in Mexican nabitos. In the long run this research will contribute to knowledge on managing wild plant resources not just ecologically, but also evolutionarily, without destroying the diversity that allows them to persist.