Cultural Roots Nursery: Keeping Cultures Alive Through Heritage Crops

Cultural Roots Nursery: Keeping Cultures Alive Through Heritage Crops

This is part of a series highlighting AAPI individuals bettering the food system. Each person was handpicked for their dedication to creating a more just food system.

Cultural Roots Nursery grows a diverse and culturally relevant selection of vegetables, herbs, and trees for the communities they serve. By increasing the availability and accessibility of these heritage plants, Cultural Roots Nursery hopes to strengthen the local food system and empower others to grow their own ancestral foods. We spoke to Zee, one of the founders of Cultural Roots Nursery, for this interview.

Li (left) and Zee (right) in front of thier farmer's market booth in Old Oakland. Image courtesy of Cultural Roots Nursery.

As a start, what is your favorite heritage plant?

I love okra. I love okra to eat. I love the flower. I love how much food each plant produces, but I especially love the flowers. They're just so beautiful. One of my favorite childhood dishes is bhindi which is basically an okra curry and it's super easy to make and delicious.


Do you all grow okra in the garden?

Yes! Last year I grew 10 plants, which I think was a little too many. They grow really well in this climate. We've found that a lot of our favorite heritage plants that are difficult to find in our local food system will actually grow in this climate and even in our backyard.


From your website I know Lee was born and raised in Monterrey. What about yourself?

I was born in Pakistan and moved to California when I was one. My grandparents are from the Gujarat region of India but moved to Pakistan during the partition.


My grandma is a fabulous cook -- she makes amazing food. Everything I know about my ancestral foods comes from her. Having lived in India for so many years, many of our family recipes are heavily influenced by the region where she was raised.

 Li holding up plants in their nursery.

Li in the nursery. Image courtesy of Cultural Roots Nursery.

It doesn't feel like the partition happened that long ago, but it also feels like the cultural divide is already pretty ingrained. From your perspective, when people talk about the food, do they like to differentiate between Indian and Pakistani cuisine, or is it a point of similarity and familiarity people bond over together.

Pakistani food is generally very similar to Indian food. We use many of the same ingredients and spices -- especially turmeric, cumin, coriander and ginger and garlic. However, many typical Pakistani dishes use meat more frequently than you'd encounter in Indian food.


When did you all start the nursery and begin bringing these culturally relevant, heritage vegetables plants to people?

In July of 2020.


Are you all doing this full time now?

It's definitely a full-time job, but we both also have part-time jobs as well. It's been crazy, like every waking moment right now. But yes, we both basically do this full-time.


Based on both of your influences, what was the process of starting the farm and all the conversations that led up to it?

We both lived together while doing our grad programs at UC Davis. I did my masters in international agriculture and Li did hers in community development. While we were living together, we had this beautiful garden where we spent so many hours growing crops, like okra and bitter melon. Initially [the idea for the nursery came] because someone asked us to grow plants for their business. So, we grew all the standard things like tomatoes and basil. We were trying to look at the bigger picture and see how we could actually make a difference in people's access to culturally relevant food. It's a huge barrier for some communities to obtain the kind of foods that they like to eat. So, we felt like this [nursery] could be a great way to improve people's access to those kinds of foods.


One of the reasons I’m so passionate about gardening is because I can grow crops that hold so much meaning to myself and my heritage. We try to only grow plants that are really special to us. We're not trying to compete with the larger scale. What we can do is provide the crops that are absolutely not available at any nursery, such as luffa gourd and Indian eggplant. There are so many different varieties of eggplants and cucumbers that you just can't find. And we want to be able to increase the availability and accessibility of these plant.


The response has been amazing and it's been so much fun to be able to talk to other people who are excited about these vegetables and to be able to engage with the community and be a resource for them to help with their gardens, even if it's just one plant. It's been really fun.


Even just our presence at farmer's markets makes people think, "oh, maybe I can do this". And they'll pick up the spinach, or a tomato, and think "maybe I can do this". If we can just give someone a little nudge to start growing their own food and learning about where food comes from and teach their kids about that, little moments like that over time could make a huge shift.


Zee with a baby sprout. Image courtesy of Cultural Roots Nursery.

For nurseries, what does expansion look like in the long-term?

Long term, it would be amazing to be able to obtain a larger greenhouse so we can have more space to grow the plants and then eventually be able to sell wholesale to various Asian grocers throughout Northern California. At the moment, we are limited by our space and our greenhouse size. We're doing two farmer's markets, one in Oakland on Fridays and one in Fremont on Sundays and that's all the capacity we have in terms of time, labor, and space. Maybe next year, we'll be able to expand our greenhouse, and then, with the economies of scale, be able to sell to various grocers [and make these plants more accessible to more people].


The farmer's markets are great. The Fremont farmer's market is predominantly South Asian and the Oakland farmer's market it's predominantly East Asian. It's great because we are able to get the plants directly to people who want the plants.


That's really cool! Being able to be in grocery stores and make it that much more accessible to people would be awesome. It's kind of like that warm feeling of going to a grocery store that you don't think is going to have anything you’re familiar with eating and then suddenly you see some of those snacks and you get really excited.

Yeah, totally! I mean, some grocery stores are starting to carry more Asian heritage vegetables, but it's pricier and they don't always have all the things that you want. For instance, one thing that Li and I both bonded over was bitter melon. It's such an important crop in both our cultures. So, you would think that crop would be more accessible since there is a prominent Asian population in Northern California, but that's one of the crops you can't always find at a grocery store.


In all the work you've done so far, through the nursery and background in agriculture, have you all seen any shifts in local or national agriculture movements that you feel like are helping to grow and support heritage nurseries and farms, or otherwise spread awareness about them?

Definitely. There are organizations that are supporting people of color. We do get a lot of support from various organizations. It's a food justice movement right now, but it's also a shift in the food system. Just in the response that we've gotten in the past month of being at farmer's markets, there's definitely a willingness for people to try to grow their own heritage crops. At the moment what's lacking is just the availability [of these crops]. But I think that there's organizations that are working to make them more accessible to everybody.

The Cultural Roots Nursery greenhouse.

A shot of the Cultural Roots Nursery. Image courtesy of Cultural Roots Nursery.

In the future, what is your like dream collaboration?

I personally would love to work with a nonprofit that helps support food insecurity issues among vulnerable communities. Oftentimes, these vulnerable communities don't have access to the kinds of food they want to eat. One day it would be amazing to be able to supply the plants and grow out these plants to either donate or otherwise provide these culturally relevant plants to food insecure communities. We are doing a little bit of that this year, but it's only a few crops. It would be amazing to be able to grow on a large farm solely dedicated to culturally relevant crops.


I noticed on your website, you have a land acknowledgement and diversity statement. Through your work, have you all been a part of any groups or discussions with or about native peoples, as it relates to heritage plants and agriculture, and intersectional organizing in the food space?

Because we're so new, we haven't. But we definitely do want to be able to contribute to the accessibility of these crops for everyone. We played around with the idea of meeting other people from different heritages to grow plants and sell at our markets. And that would be one way for everyone, not just South Asian and Asian people to have their heritage's plants, but everyone. One day, if we were to form a cooperative or collective that consists of five, six, seven people, and everyone is growing plants from their culture, then we could encompass so many different regions of the world – including Native Americans.


Where do you all source your seeds from?

This is an important point because sourcing seeds for heritage crops has been a huge challenge for us. It's difficult to find viable seeds for plants that are difficult to find in general. This season, both of us have bought seeds and none of them germinated because they just weren't viable. Heritage crop seeds aren't commercially produced by large companies in the U.S. and you have to go through a really long arduous process to import them into the United States. So, we really depend on other growers in the United States that are growing these plants for seed. And growing plants for seed is different than growing plants for the vegetable. You still grow the plant, but you really have to isolate these plants so that they don't cross-pollinate with another type of plant.


You have to find people that are intentionally growing their crops for seed. And even then, mistakes happen. It’s definitely an obstacle to find new seeds. However, there is one agency company, Kitazawa Seed Co., that sources Asian heritage plants and that has been very helpful for both of us.


Even bringing agriculture into the state of California is difficult. Eventually, another aspect of the business that we would love to grow into is growing plants for seed. We both hope to be doing a little bit of that this year with some crops because with plants you also want to adapt them to the climate that you're in. That's just another added layer of complexity to this business. But that would also provide some more freedom and flexibility for us knowing where the seeds come from and knowing that they will be viable.


When you grow plants for seed, you have to be very careful about isolating them from other plants?

You want to make sure that there's no other plants of the same species nearby. If you have a tomato plant next to a pepper plant, those two won't cross-breed, but if you have two tomatoes next to each other, then they will.


It's complicated. And I'm still learning, but farming is one of those things. Anyone can do it, everyone should do it, and you never stop learning each year.


This has been great - thank you for your time today! Do you have any last thoughts?

The idea of cooking with these heritage crops as a form of passing on cultural knowledge and cultural traditions and celebrating your heritage rather than being ashamed of it or trying to blend in. I think all of us should celebrate our own heritage. That's a beautiful thing. We'll learn so many things from each other if we try to keep our traditions alive.

Keep in touch with Cultural Roots Nursery here.