Native Edible Plants for the East Coast Garden
In an age of massive “farms” totally dependent on fossil fuel based chemicals and fertilizers, taste, nutritional value, and environmental stewardship have been kicked to the curb. Fortunately, many American’s are questioning the use of such harmful chemicals and stepping back to the basics when it comes to their home food production. If we take a moment and examine our Nation’s history before European colonization, we can see that North America supported millions of native inhabitants without the need of fossil fuel based agricultural chemicals. The indigenous people developed a relationship with their environment and cultivated a diverse variety of native plants. These native plants were able to withstand drought, soil conditions, and insects in their specific ecosystems.
Since Native Americans were able to grow native crops and thrive it makes sense to follow in their footsteps. Although many vegetable crops with grow across the country, such as corn , beans, squash, and sunflowers, the focus of this article is to highlight some native plants of the East Coast that go unnoticed by many gardeners.
Jerusalem Artichokes (Helianthus tuberosis) is the perfect plant to incorporate into the garden. Not only are these plants super hardy, but they can actually become a weed and take over! Jerusalem Artichokes reach a height of six to eight feet at maturity and have multiple sturdy stems originating from the base. Possessing a long history with Native American populations, this adaptable relative of the Sunflower provides the perfect combination of low maintenance with reasonable crop yields. The growing range is extensive and stretches from New England, down to Georgia, and West to the central plains. Their range can be extended; however, as long as the plants receive adequate amounts of irrigation and around 100 frost free days. In my garden, these useful vegetable crops are strong and have proven themselves to withstand high winds, drought, and insects.
From personal experience, it appears to being tuber development in July and blooms in late august or early September. Once in bloom, you will understand why this plant is a relative of the common sunflower with its attractive yellow flowers. The tubers are the edible part of the plant and have a taste similar to water chestnuts. Storage is made easy by simply leaving the tubers in the ground until you need them. If you do not want to battle the cold during winter, you can also dig up what you need and refrigerate them. Apparently you can dehydrate the tubers and even ground them into flour which stores for several months. The nutritional content is not compromised however, so this may be an option for you to try out. The cold actually helps convert the carbohydrate Inulin in the tuber to fructose which gives the tubers a sweet taste. Every so many years you should dig up tubers and plant them in order to keep production up and limit stagnation of a colony. This fantastic native root crop will be a great bonus to your garden and provide food security regardless of political or climatic conditions.
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin), is the unsung hero of the woodland, generously providing wildlife and a variety of uses for humans. This understory shrub can grow to a height of twelve or more feet and over six feet wide. In full sunlight, this shrub will continue to grow upwards and outwards so regular trimming is necessary if you want to tame it. Beginning in early spring, Spicebush makes itself known by busting into bloom with its small yellow flowers that line the stems. When completely leafed out, one can collect the leaves and dry them for use in teas. If you crush the leaves, it will emit a clean citrus scent which is refreshing. Over the course of the summer, the pollinated blooms become green fruits that are about the size of an adult’s pinky nail. These fruits will turn solid red when ripe and are an important food source for migrating birds. You too can enjoy the fruits and use them for seasonings on a variety of meals.
Historically, Spicebush was used as a substitute for allspice and actually mimics the taste fairly well. It is up to you if you would like to crush the hard seed along with the fruit. You can also dry the fruits for later use thereby enabling you to have a nice supply of tasty seasoning. In addition to spice, you can collect the twigs year around and simmer them in pots for an interesting tea. At home, I have planted many Spicebushes around the house, and they handle transplantation very well. Just make sure they get plenty of water for the first week and a half as they establish themselves. Before you go out and get some bushes, you should know that there are male and female plants. Obviously the female plants posses the fruits. You could always take a hike on your property or friends woods and locate fruiting bushes. Once located simply cut back the bush (if it is large), to about two feet above the ground and dig a fairly decent root ball and transplant it. This way you will not waste time in growing male bushes with no berries that is if you want to make spice out of them.
Chestnut Oak (Quercus prinus), is a giant when it comes to native edible plants in the garden. Here on the East Coast this native oak tree has a more restricted range to the piedmont and mountains. The reason why this tree is a valued food source is the fact that it is super hardy, very drought tolerant, and produces large edible acorns every fall. The way I see it is if Black Bears can feast on these nuts to see them through the harsh winter months. If it’s possible for them, why can’t we? Since Chestnut Oak is in the White Oak family, meaning it produces nuts every year and contains fewer tannins (acid), you can enjoy them too. I have heard that you can run the acorns through water to leach the tannins out or boil them.
Personally I have not tried either method as I just eat several acorns at a time, a few times a week, when they are in season. Six years ago I collected the biggest Chestnut Oak acorns and planted them in a section of my yard along with many other types of native hardwoods. Last fall I noticed that one had produced acorns so I collected them and planted them in our fruit orchard this spring. To my knowledge most Oak trees do not produce acorns until the age of twenty, so I was amazed to see this particular tree producing acorns at six years old! I intend to trim these Chestnut Oaks in order to make it easier to harvest and manage as these trees can grow to massive sizes.
Pawpaw (Asimina triloba), is yet another amazing gem when it comes to native edible plants. The largest native fruit in North American, Pawpaw boast drought tolerant, insect resistance, and shade tolerance. This fruit tree would be a perfect addition to a hard to grow shady spot in your garden and requires little maintenance as well. Do keep in mind though that to master Pawpaw, you must first understand its culture. Collect the large seeds from a healthy, good tasting tree. Keep the seeds refrigerator or in a pot outdoors over the winter. Plant the seeds in spring and keep the soil evenly moist. Germination is slow so make sure to mark its location. Step back and let the seed take its time. It may appear that the seed was a dud, but what is happening underground is the seed is sending down a long taproot before it sends out any above ground growth. Say you plant the seeds in May, so you should expect to see above ground growth in late June or early July. So yes it takes time but that is the way Pawpaw likes to do business. The long taproot is another reason why it is challenging to transplant, so seeds are the better option in my opinion. Furthermore, once the seeds are sending out new growth continue to water them to keep the soil evenly moist. The first year the seedlings should be kept in partial shade since they do poorly or will die if in direct sunlight. Planting them in pots makes locating them in the proper first year location easier as you can then move them to a full sun position in year two. Although Pawpaw will so just fine in dense shade, planting them in full sun will enable maximum fruit production.
Speaking of fruit production, early spring before any leaves are out on the other forest plants, Pawpaw will send out attractive maroon blooms along the branches. Pollination by insects is not very reliable so you can pollinate the blooms yourself using a fine tipped paint brush or just your finger. Just gently rub your finger or brush over the bloom and then move from tree to tree just like bees pollinate other flowers. Once fall roles around you can enjoy your fruits! The inside is often very yellow but depends on the region or cultivar. Personally, the taste is a wonderful custard mix of pineapple and banana, but I have met disgruntle souls who do not care for the taste. Either way that means more for you to enjoy so dig in!
Possessing a diverse food portfolio is vital for us in order to preserve our culture and existence. Growing your own food is a time honored tradition throughout the country. Using locally grown native plants adapted to your climate benefits your bank account as well as you and your families’ health. Although there are many more native edible species, the plants listed here are some of the easier ones to cultivate and yield decent crops to the home gardener.