STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We have news of some weeds in your yard or in a park near you. Apparently, some weeds deserve a lot more respect. A new study calls these native plants a botanical treasure. They are distant cousins of crops that we eat like cranberries and pumpkins. NPR's Dan Charles has the story.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: All the crops that farmers now grow are derived from plants that grew wild hundreds or thousands of years ago. And Colin Khoury, who works at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, says the wild versions are still out there.
COLIN KHOURY: If you see them growing along roadsides, et cetera, those are the ancestors.
CHARLES: In the U.S., there are wild ancestors of blueberries, sweet potatoes, onions, potatoes, lots of crops. Some of them are common. Khoury says you may walk past wild lettuce plants growing along sidewalks and never recognize them.
KHOURY: They look nothing like lettuce. They're scratchy and thorny and little and ugly.
CHARLES: Other crop relatives are rare and threatened. One of Khoury's favorites is a wild sunflower.
KHOURY: The paradoxical sunflower grows just in wetlands in the deserts of New Mexico and Texas, little, salty seeps where there's a little bit of water beneath the soil.
CHARLES: Khoury loves these wild relatives of food crops and not just for sentimental reasons. Take that paradoxical sunflower. It can survive in a salty environment. So plant breeders cross pollinated it with commercial sunflowers and created new varieties that can grow in places where the soil's more salty. These wild relatives may be hiding all kinds of special gifts, Khoury says, maybe genes that could help crops survive diseases or deal with pests or climate disruption.
KHOURY: So these wild plants are valuable.
CHARLES: Khoury and some of his colleagues just finished a survey of about 600 wild crop relatives that grow in North America. They published it this week in the journal PNAS. They found that most of these plants are threatened from things like fires, farming and development. Khoury says so-called gene banks should collect and preserve them. But also, these plants need more protection in their natural habitat. That doesn't necessarily mean setting aside land for them, he says. In many cases, the plants already are growing on public land.
KHOURY: It's more of being aware that these plants actually exist. They're not particularly on the radar of the land managers of large organizations like the Forest Service.
CHARLES: There's some progress, though. The U.S. Forest Service is now conserving wild cranberries on its land in the Southeast and wild chili peppers in Arizona along the border with Mexico.
Dan Charles, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF TOMMY EMMANUEL'S "WAITING FOR A PLANE")
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