Cactus growing on a mountain and multiple mountains as the background.

Alex C. McAlvay

Kate E. Tode Assistant Curator, Institute of Economic Botany

Ph.D., University of Wisconsin–Madison
Madison, WI, 2018


Ethnobotany, traditional plant stewardship, domestication, agrobiodiversity


Cropping systems, crop wild relatives, wild edible plants, Brassica, population genomics, community ecology

Research locations

U.S., Mexico, Canada, Ethiopia


Many of our most pressing challenges such as sustainable resource management, climate change-induced biodiversity loss, invasive species, and food security are at the intersection of human culture, ecology, and evolution. My research is focused on understanding the relationships between humans and their environments, the evolutionary and ecological impacts of humans on plants, and the traditional stewardship of plants by different cultures. My work ranges from genomic research, in order to understand how humans have shaped plants through domestication, to ethnobotanical projects, in order to support the continuity and revitalization of cultural traditions related to plants.

Understanding the origins and diversity of our crops

Just as human selection has transformed wolves into a wide array of dog breeds, humans have shaped wild Brassica plants into diverse crops such as kale, cauliflower, and kohlrabi from Brassica oleracea as well as bok choy, turnips, and napa cabbage from Brassica rapa. Despite these crops’ worldwide economic importance and potential as a model for understanding the domestication process, insights into their evolutionary history have been limited due to a lack of clarity about their wild relatives. We are working to clarify the domestication history and nature of wild crop genetic resources for B. rapa and other Brassica crops in order to better understand the process of domestication and escape from domestication (feralization) as well as novel sources of diversity to protect our crops from climate change.

Shaping the land: Indigenous cultural ecosystems

The Indigenous peoples of this continent have stewarded ecosystems for thousands of years through burning, transplanting, pruning and other management of otherwise “wild” plants. I am currently working with the Shinnecock Nation in the Northeast and multiple Tribal Nations and First Nations in the Pacific Northwest to document, preserve, and revitalize the cultural practices and landscapes that are tied to cultural identity and provide plant foods and medicines. In partnership with researchers and citizens of the Shinnecock Nation, we are working to document traditional plant knowledge and cultural burning practices. In the Pacific Northwest, we are working to build a network of Tribal Nations and First Nations to discuss how climate change may impact cultural ecosystems, how cultural ecosystems may be revitalized in the interest of food sovereignty, and how cultural ecosystems may serve as evidence for land rights claims.

Maslins: revitalizing a traditional agricultural practice for climate resilience

Wheat, barley, and other small grains face substantial yield losses under all climate change scenarios. In the past, many grain fields in parts of Africa, Europe, and Asia looked more like wild grasslands, with mixtures of different species of wheat, barley, rye, and/or other crops. In a few countries, this practice of growing mixed grains, also called “maslins,” persists, and may represent a risk-management strategy for coping with climate variability. Farmers in Ethiopia are already experiencing the impacts of climate change through altered drought cycles and range expansion of pests. In the northern highlands, many small-holder farmers sow traditional mixtures of wheat and barley varieties to mitigate these and other climate-related stresses, but these practices are being quickly replaced despite a lack of research on their potential benefits. Similarly, in the Republic of Georgia, a global center for wheat diversity, at least 12 distinct cereal mixtures are documented, but many are no longer planted or planted in vary small areas. This work combines farmer interviews, agroecology, and GIS to characterize the ecological and social drivers of agrobiodiversity at a landscape scale and the potential of traditional cropping systems to buffer against climate uncertainty.

Connecting endangered languages and Indigenous plant knowledge

Due to emigration, changing lifestyles, and other factors, words for plants, ecosystems, and other elements of nature are among the most rapidly disappearing in endangered languages. We are working to document the Wixárika language, also known as Huichol, an endangered Uto-Aztecan language from West-Central Mexico with a focus on ecological terms and ethnobotanical knowledge. The project is a collaboration with native-speaker language activists Gabriel Pacheco and Tutupika Carrillo, postdoctoral linguist Stefanie Ramos Bierge, Mexican universities, and nonprofit community centers. This interdisciplinary effort will provide the key tools to fill knowledge gaps in Wixárika linguistics and ethnobiology as well as a basis for Wixárika language preservation and revitalization efforts.


My research has been made possible by funding from the National Science Foundation, National Geographic, The University of Washington’s Earthlab, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability.

Selected publications

Mabry, M.E., Bagavathiannan, M.V., Bullock, J.M., Wang, H., Caicedo, A.L., Dabney, C.J., Drummond, E.B., Frawley, E., Gressel, J., Husband, B.C. and Lawton‐Rauh, A., 2023. Building a feral future: Open questions in crop ferality. Plants, People, Planet.

McAlvay, A.C., DiPaola, A., D’Andrea, A.C., Ruelle, M.L., Mosulishvili, M., Halstead, P. and Power, A.G., 2022. Cereal species mixtures: an ancient practice with potential for climate resilience. A review. Agronomy for Sustainable Development42(5), p.100.

Armstrong, C.G., Earnshaw, J. and McAlvay, A.C., 2022. Coupled archaeological and ecological analyses reveal ancient cultivation and land use in Nuchatlaht (Nuu-chah-nulth) territories, Pacific Northwest. Journal of Archaeological Science143, p.105611.

McAlvay, A.C.; A.P. Ragsdale; X. Qi; K. Bird; P. Velasco; A. Hong; M. Mabry; J.C. Pires; E. Emshwiller. 2021. Brassica rapa domestication: untangling wild and feral forms and multiple origins of crop morphotypes. Molecular Biology and Evolution. msab108

Armstrong, C.G.; J. Miller; A.C. McAlvay; M. Richie; D. Lepofsky. 2021. Functional traits and biodiversity reflect Indigenous Peoples’ Land-Use Legacies in Pacific Northwest Archaeological sites. Ecology and Society. 26(2), Art. 6

McAlvay, A.C.; C.G. Armstrong; J. Baker.; L. Black Elk; S. Bosco; N. Hanazaki; L. Joseph; T. Martínez; M. Nesbitt; M. Palmer; W.C. Priprá de Almeida; J. Anderson; Z. Asfaw; I. Borokini; E.J. Cano-Contreras; S. Hoyte; M. Hudson; A. Ladio; G. Odonne; S. Peter; J. Wall; S. Wolverton; I. Vandebroek. Decolonizing institutions, projects, and scholarship in ethnobiology. 2021. Journal of Ethnobiology. 41(2), pp. 170-191

Mabry, M.E.; S.D. Turner-Hissong, E.Y Gallagher, A.C. McAlvay, H. An, P.P. Edger, J.D. Moore, D.A.C. Pink, G.R. Teakle, C.J. Stevens, G. Barker, J. Labate, D.Q. Fuller, R.G. Allaby, T. Beissinger, J.E. Decker, M.A. Gore, J.C. Pires. 2021. The Evolutionary History of Wild, Domesticated, and Feral Brassica oleracea (Brassicaceae). Molecular Biology and Evolution. msab183

Reyes-García, V., D. García-del-Amo, P. Benyei, Á Fernández-Llamazares, K. Gravani, A.B. Junqueira, V. Labeyrie, X. Li., D.M. Matias, A.C. McAlvay and P.G. Mortyn. 2019. A collaborative approach to bring insights from local observations of climate change impacts into global climate change research. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 39, pp.1-8.

Abera, B., M. Berhane, A. Nebiyu., M.L. Ruelle, A.C. McAlvay, Z. Asfaw, A. Tesfaye, Z. Woldu. 2019. Diversity, use and production of farmers’ varieties of common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris L., Fabaceae) in southwestern and northeastern Ethiopia. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution, 67:339-356.

An, H., X. Qi, M.L. Gaynor, Y. Hao, S.C. Gebken, M.E. Mabry, A.C. McAlvay, G.R. Teakle, G.C. Conant, M.S. Barker, and T. Fu. 2019. Transcriptome and organellar sequencing highlights the complex origin and diversification of allotetraploid Brassica napus. Nature communications, 10(1), p.2878.

Armstrong, C.G. and A.C. McAlvay. 2019. Introduction to Special Section on Action Ethnobiology. Journal of Ethnobiology, 39(1), pp.3-13.

Golan, J. and A.C. McAlvay. 2019. Intellectual Property and Ethnobiology: An Update on Posey’s Call to Action. Journal of Ethnobiology, 39(1), pp.90-109.

McAlvay, A.C.; K. Bird; J.C. Pires; E. Emshwiller. 2017. Barriers and prospects for crop wild relative conservation in Brassica rapa. Acta Horticulturae. 1202 pp. 165-177.

Armstrong, C.G.; A.C. Shoemaker; I. McKechnie; A. Ekblom; P. Szabó; P.J. Lane; A.C. McAlvay; O.J. Boles; S. Walshaw; N. Petek; K.S. Gibbons; E.Q. Morales; E.N. Anderson; A. Ibragimow; G. Podruczny; J.C. Vamosi; T. Marks-Block; J.K. LeCompte; S. Awâsis; C. Nabess; P. Sinclair; C.L. Crumley. 2017. Anthropological contributions to historical ecology: 50 questions, infinite prospects. PLoS ONE 12:2.

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