Meet the 23-year-old Ho-Chunk farmer who inspired Olbrich Botanical Gardens’ indigenous installation

The garden is growing traditional Native American crops such as corn, squash, beans, tobacco, gourds and milkweed.
Rita Peters working in the indigenous garden
Courtesy of Erin Presley
Rita Peters working in the indigenous garden.

Upon discovering an Indian tea installation at Olbrich Botanical Gardens nearly two years ago, Rita Peters, 23-year-old of Ho-Chunk descent, had to learn more.

Erin Presley is a horticulturist at Olbrich and runs the Herb Garden, a place where she chooses to showcase different cultures. When Peters was an Olbrich volunteer, what she thought was a Native American garden, was instead a partnership with a local Ayurvedic spa to create an Indian theme for the Herb Garden. Presley explained that she was growing tropical plants, such as bananas, and a range of Ayurvedic herbs and spices like ginger and turmeric.

“That really got us talking and I thought, ‘this is amazing,’” Peter says. “Foraging for food is such a big part of our culture so I thought it would be really cool to have an indigenous garden and incorporate native plants.” In that moment, Peters planted the seed for the concept for a new garden, which blossomed this spring.

As lead coordinator for the Indigenous Garden, Peters first connected Presley with Elena Terry, her Ho-Chunk relative and an advocate for honoring and sustaining indigenous cooking practices. “Elena talks about our seeds and our way of life and our food in such a beautiful way that I knew she would be able to help,” Peters says. Terry helped develop a seed list and provided resources as they pushed forward with their plans.

indigenous garden at olbrich

The arbor made of maple saplings was constructed by Rita Peters’ uncle using traditional techniques. Courtesy of Erin Presley

This summer, and likely into early fall, the Indigenous Garden is growing traditional Native American crops, such as the “three sisters” (corn, squash and beans), tobacco, gourds and milkweed. Peters says the Herb Garden also has many native plants beyond the Indigenous Garden, including sage, sweetgrass and hopi red dye. “We have quite a bit of native plants that have been in the garden for a long time and keep coming back, so we highlight those to let people know that they’re native to America and have either medicinal purposes or other uses,” Peters says.

Olbrich’s event organizers are working to acknowledge indigenous culture throughout their programming. On the home garden tours, guides stop to pay respect to native land, and a recent book club centered on “Braiding Sweetgrass,” the New York Times best-selling book by Robin Wall Kimmerer on indigenous wisdom (Milkweed Editions, 2015). A sweetgrass-braiding workshop at the Indigenous Garden is in the works for fall. “I’m just really proud to be a part of everything, and I’m also really proud of Olbrich,” Peters says. “I didn’t think [my culture] would have this really beautiful effect on everybody and trickle into different departments.”

indigenous garden at olbrich

Courtesy of Erin Presley

Peters’ experience at Olbrich and her recent involvement in gardening has awakened her passion for horticulture. It’s also given her a new appreciation for her Ho-Chunk heritage. “I’m going to school for horticulture because I never really tied my day-to-day life so heavily with my culture until I started to garden and work with other horticulturists,” she says.

Perhaps what’s most special about the garden is the mark Peters’ loved ones have made on it in support of her and the mission to keep ancestral foodways alive. Peters turned to an aunt who is a language apprentice to source the Ho-Chunk names for each plant grown in the garden. Soon, visitors will be able to scan a QR code and hear the correct pronunciation of the names — voiced by Peters herself. And an arbor made of maple saplings was constructed by her uncle using traditional techniques. “Having my relatives involved brings more sentiment to this project,” Peters says. “When I get to share with my family, it makes me proud that I was raised traditional Ho-Chunk. I feel really fulfilled.”

indigenous garden at olbrich

Courtesy of Erin Presley

The project has been equally fulfilling for Presley. “For me, it’s fun to learn about different herbs and vegetables that are used in different cultures,” Presley says. “And there’s no better way to learn than by actually growing them alongside somebody who knows what they’re doing. Rita is the type of person who makes you feel really comfortable and she’s really easy to have fun with.”

On June 25 and July 8, Olbrich is hosting drop-in milkweed soup tastings. Between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., guests can taste the complimentary blend of fresh vegetables and milkweed sourced right from the Indigenous Garden. “There’s a lot of milkweed at Olbrich, so we were able to harvest a lot of it,” Peters says. “We harvest the top blossom and top leaves and it’s just one of those foods that’s popular between June and August in our culture. It’s a perfect opportunity to showcase a pollinator plant that’s being highlighted this summer.”

indigenous garden at olbrich

Courtesy of Erin Presley

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