Grow Your Own Food – Edible Native Plants for New England

Elderberries have a tangy flavor that makes interesting wine and jellies.

Front yard gardens, balcony veggie gardens, community gardens, victory gardens… growing your own food is making an enormous resurgence these days – as the economy and fuel prices makes fresh food flown in from other places prohibitively expensive.

Most traditional vegetable crops grown in New England are native to other parts of the world, but what did indigenous people eat before European settlers cleared the forests and began tilling the soil for wheat and potatoes in the 1600s?

Native Americans hunted and fished for subsistence, but few people realize that they were also small-scale farmers. Although largely nomadic, Native Americans in New England formed temporary and permanent settlements where they cultivated blueberries and other fruits and maintained orchards of hickory nut trees, as well as small crops of maize (corn), squash and beans in small areas that they cleared by burning the underbrush. Probably they also foraged for a variety of wild mushrooms.

During the early days of European colonization, the Native Americans offered these foods for trade with the new settlers, who struggled to grow their familiar crops in the cold, harsh growing conditions of New England.

If you’ve joined the grow-your-own movement and would like to include some native New England food plants into your landscape, here are some suggestions for edible native plants that you can easily cultivate at home.

Jerusalem Artichoke tubers can be steamed, roasted or fried like potatoes.

Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) – the edible tubers, which form along the plant’s underground roots (rhizomes), can be cooked like potatoes. Aggressively spreads into stands if not heavily cultivated, so plant Jerusalem Artichoke (also known as sunchokes or earth apples) in an area where it won’t overtake other plants – never in a bed with other plants! The yellow flowers attract large numbers of pollinators and beneficial insects, and the seeds are popular with American goldfinches and other small seed-eating birds. Tubers can be dug in fall, or left in the ground and heavily mulched with straw to extend the harvest season for several weeks.

All perennial sunflower plants (Helianthus) grow very tall and need to be planted where their sheer size won’t dwarf the surrounding landscaping.

Groundnut/Wild Bean (Apios americana) is a twining perennial vine in the pea family. Dusky-pinkish/brown typical pea flowers turn into edible beans, but it’s the crunchy tuberous “nuts” that form on the roots (similar to peanuts) that are the best reason to grow this plant. A common name for groundnut is Indian Potato, suggesting that this was an important staple of the Native American diet.

Apios american flowers are self-pollinating, with a light fragrance that attracts some insects. Groundnut foliage is the host plant for the silver-spotted skipper butterfly (Epargyreus clarus). Photo by Stefan Bloodworth, courtesy the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at http://wildflower.org

 

Wild leek/Ramps (Allium tricoccum) – strongly flavored bulbs which are smaller than their larger, domesticated onion relatives. Pretty white umbels of flowers bloom in the summer in an effect very similar to the non-native Garlic Chives often grown in herb gardens. Ramps will grow anywhere that receives at least some springtime moisture. Use them like scallions to add a sharp taste to your cooking.

Wintergreen/Checkerberry (Gaultheria procumbens) – A low growing evergreen plant of cold woods with bright red berries that often persist right through the winter, suggesting that they’re probably not much of a bird favorite. The flavor of checkerberries is the same minty flavor of Wint-o-green Lifesavers. Berries were mostly used by Native Americans for brewing a medicinal tea, but they are also edible and can be used in muffins and cakes – note that they do add a strong flavor so you might want to use the berries somewhat sparingly. Wintergreen grows in dry to moist shady areas but really flourishes in an area with more sun.

 

Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) – the native “wild” strawberries have delicious fruits smaller than the large cultivated varieties of strawberry (which are hybrids between Wild Strawberry and a South American variety). Easy to grow in dry or medium-dry soil, it can be used as a low, thick ground cover in the toughest of locations. Its close cousin the woodland strawberry (Fragaria vesca) grows in more shady conditions.

In the wild, Fragaria virginiania has a sparse habit, but if kept weeded, it can form a solid weed-suppressing mat for a tough area, such as a driveway’s edge.Photo by Thomas L. Muller, courtesy the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at http://wildflower.org

Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) and Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium) – these are the berries that New England residents and visitors have picked for generations in the summertime…the highbush are tall shrubs of wet areas, and the tiny lowbush berries are from the small shrubs growing in pine barrens. If pine trees grow on your property, you may see the lowbush blueberry pop up on its own, seeded by birds who adore the fruits as much as we do. Blueberries are considered a “super food” by nutritionists, loaded with antioxidants and nutrients for good health. If any berries actually make it to the house without being eaten, you can freeze them or turn them into delicious jam, juice or pies.

Newly opening blueberry flowers are visited by buzz-pollinating native bees, who are necessary to ensure good fruit set. Photo copyright Ellen Sousa/THBFarm.com

Common Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) – clusters of  sugary purple berries ripen in summer after the white umbels of spring blooms are pollinated by insects. If the birds don’t gobble them up, you can use the berries to make wine or a tangy jelly.

Elderberry is an easy shrub for moist to wet soils. If it begins to get leggy, prune the oldest, thickest stems back to the ground on a 3-yearly cycle, which promotes new growth from the base of the plant. Photo by Ellen Sousa/THBFarm.com

Shadbush/Serviceberry/Shadblow (Amelanchier spp.) – one of our earliest blooming native shrubs (blooming in April), the fruits ripen early in the summer and like blueberries, you’ll have to beat the birds to the berries because they are simply delicious. William Cullina writes that the Cree Native Americans mixed serviceberries with buffalo fat to form “pemmican”, which nourished them through long Canadian winters.*

Serviceberry shrubs are tolerant of summertime shade, and will happily grow in the understory of other deciduous trees. Photo copyright Ellen Sousa/THBFarm.com

Wikipedia photo of Ostrich fern fiddleheads

Ostrich Fern “Fiddleheads” (Matteuccia struthiopteris var. pensylvanica) are picked when the crosiers (heads) are tightly curled, usually in April. The flavor and texture is similar to asparagus spears, and fiddleheads can be eaten raw, steamed, boiled, or sautéed with butter and garlic. Ostrich fern grows on the edges of swamps, streams and rivers, often in limestone, and does best in moist to wet soil but adapts to drier soil (where it may go dormant earlier). Note that some other native fern species are also edible, but they are sometimes known to cause nausea, dizziness or headaches, so it’s wise to make sure your fiddlehead is really an Ostrich fern and not another toxic variety. In New England? Use GoBotany from New England Wild Flower Society to identify your species!

If you grow edible indigenous plants, please share your experiences! I’ve only covered a tiny selection of New England native edible plants today – I hope to discuss other edible natives in future articles here and on my personal blog.

Please note that you should never, ever eat food picked from the wild unless you are absolutely certain of the species – many poisonous plants resemble native plants and can sicken or kill you! If you’re in any doubt about the species, don’t eat it!

* Cullina, William, 2002. Native Trees, Shrubs & Vines: A guide to using, growing, and propagating North American woody plants (New England Wild Flower Society and Houghton Mifflin, Boston and New York).

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Comments

    • says

      Thanks Pat. The shadbush grove is in an urban garden in Cambridge MA – such a cool, inviting place to get away from the street bustle and watch the birds…I’ve seen Scarlet Tanagers visit that backyard so clearly it’s a nice oasis for some of our most beautiful forest birds too…
      Ellen Sousa recently posted..NWF and ScottsMiracle-Gro? No!

  1. Sue Sweeney says

    Ellen – great article, thanks particularly for highlighting the lovely but under-appreciated groundnut. The other plants you mentioned are also of high ornamental value (get your flower and eat the fruit!). Here’s the list I once made for a similar article:

    Fruit: crabapple, wild grape, beach plum, blueberry, elderberry, wild strawberry, blackberries and other cane berries, cranberry (in some areas)
    Nuts: hickory, hazelnut, chestnut, black walnut, beechnut, pecan (some areas), acorn
    Roots: Jerusalem artichokes, cattail, groundnut
    Grains and seeds: wild rice, wild sunflower (helianthus)
    Sweets: maple syrup
    Other: seasonal greens, culinary and medicinal herbs, mushrooms

  2. says

    The apios plant is fascinating. I remember reading how the Wampanoags sustained themselves on ground nuts as they were fleeing through the woods and swamps during the First Indian War here in the 1600s. But I never knew what the plant was. It’s actually very pretty and must have grown all over the area around me, enough to feed a starving population. I would love to grow this, for all its associations and for its pea like flowers. I need to do some research!
    Laurrie recently posted..On A Whim

  3. says

    Laurrie – it is interesting – I have never seen it in the wild although I only became aware of this plant a few years ago…I bought it mail order from Tripple Brook Farm but I think Fedco also sells it – looking forward to learning about its growth habit and of course, trying out some of the nuts!
    Ellen Sousa recently posted..NWF and ScottsMiracle-Gro? No!

  4. Ruth Parnall says

    Ellen – We recently collected ostrich fern from a willing neighbor in places where it had crept into grass that he kept rough-mown. We put it in our yard in a place where the fronds will be welcome as part of the design, but in spring we can consider it as source of spring vegetables. Since we live in the part of MA that has limestone bedrock and soils with higher pH, wild leeks are also part of our regional flora and therefore part of the rich woods matrix of our home garden. I haven’t harvested any yet, since the colony is just beginning to increase, but think it’s time to try a few. I read that the leaves are edible too.

  5. says

    I just discovered Ground Nut a couple of years ago at a local park and was fascinated with its culinary history. The USDA plant fact sheet has a great summary of its use including being cultivated for a short time as a potato alternative in Ireland. It’s a wonder why this vine is not grown as an oranmental vine, it’s flowers are really beautiful and showy.
    Heather Holm recently posted..Native Plant of the Week: Sprengel’s Sedge ~ Carex sprengelii

  6. Melissa says

    Ellen,

    Unfortunately, I don’t believe that’s an edible fiddlehead in your picture. Ostrich ferns are smooth and “bald,” so to speak, and deep green whereas this one has a more hairy appearance. The other identifier is that there is a deep V groove in the stem section where you cut them.

    Also, it’s not recommended to eat them raw, especially for anyone who is not used to a higher fibre content in their diet.

    Another interesting ‘wild’ edible is japanese knotweed, which is a nasty invasive here in northern New England. They’re edible when the spears are just coming up, and look a lot like oversized asparagus shoots. They have a slight rhubarb like taste, but I prefer them to be served more savoury. Also, don’t overcook them or they get slimey, like okra

  7. says

    Love your website. As someone who has harvested native plants for food for more than 50 years I was happy to see this article. I am an ecologist who lives in the NW part of the state. There is one common misconception that you have repeated in this particular article. You assume when you write about wintergreen that it may not taste good to wildlife and therefore is available later into the winter season. In fact, there are many plant species (winterberry holly, wintergreen, partridgeberry, and sumac for example) that are not palatable until they’ve experienced several hard frosts (freezing). At this point they become enjoyed by many wildlife species. This is an evolutionary adaptation to assure the spread of seed after natural cold stratification. It also benefits wildlife as they become available for consumption when most of the other food sources are deplete. Just thought you might enjoy this little fact.
    WildBill recently posted..Irruption

  8. says

    Hi Ellen – I enjoyed reading this blog post (with the exception of the wrong photo for Ostrich Fern – I’m glad others pointed that out). This (promoting edible native species) is a favorite topic of mine.

    For native plant advocates, I think the “we can eat it too” aspect of edible natives is a potentially powerful motivating factor to help encourage people to “go native” (as opposed to planting exotic ornamental species).

    Sometimes ecological landscapers fall to take advantage of this additional selling point. See, e.g., these posts extolling the commendable qualities of specific native species as landscape choices without mentioning that they are edible by people (see, e.g., http://www.gardenandthegoodlife.com/2010/11/shagbark-hickory-carya-ovata and http://www.gardenandthegoodlife.com/2010/10/staghorn-sumacs-a-native-to-consider).

    On the other hand: I have also heard permaculture gurus downplaying the food value of native species (and choosing to recommend exotic and potentially invasive species like hardy kiwi instead).

    While I’ll happily collect and munch on edible weeds and invasive species when I encounter them, when I talk to folks about adding new plants to the landscape, I will happily highlight edible native species.

    This is the topic of two talks I will be presenting this March, at the 2013 Ecological landscaping Conference in Springfield on Thurs., Feb 28; and at the RI land and Water Conservation Summit, on Sat. March 9.

    Regards –

    Russ Cohen
    http:/users.rcn.com/eatwild/bio.htm
    P.S.: Link to ELA Conference: http://www.ecolandscaping.org/conference/

    Link to RI Land and Water Summit: http://www.landandwaterpartnership.org/summit.php

    • says

      Russ – nice to meet you at NEWFS and sorry I missed you this year at ELA! I completely agree with your thoughts that although some invasives might function as a food source for people, adding them to the landscape is irresponsible because of their impacts to surrounding ecosystems. As you said, adding native species is always the best choice if you want to best support functioning local ecosystems and maintain populations of the historic food sources that have fed New Englanders for eons…
      Ellen Sousa recently posted..Norcross Sanctuary – Hidden Jewel of Monson, MA

  9. Nancy L.Sparks says

    I Live North of Pittsburgh,Pa. Abouth an hr. This Winter Was one of the oldest Winters We have had in many moons we had Temps of 35 below wind chill ( it was horrid cold ) I AM WANTING TO GROW SOME FIG TREES — my son’s neighbor in Belle Haven, Va. Has a Small grove planted in his back yard that does great for him– & it gets cold on that Ocean front also So what kind can i plant that will do well for me here in zone 4 THANKS

Trackbacks

  1. [...] The berries are edible, useful as a strongly-flavored fruit additive to cakes and muffins. They must not be very tasty to birds, though, because they usually linger into the following spring. [...]

  2. [...] The bottom line is that you need to do your homework.  These days there are lots of websites with info online – and lots of fellow gardeners that will tell you what they do – but be sure to look for reputable sources of information such as state extension publications or similar.  Some people might have a reaction to eating fiddleheads, just like some people have peanut or other food allergies.  So if you have never eaten them before, I would suggest following the guidelines from a site like University of Maine Extension – and just trying out a small amount to start.  I know it might sound like a lot of work, but for many of us – their fresh green flavor that is hard to describe – somewhere between fresh asparagus and just ‘green’ I guess – is a reward well worth all the hard work! You can also read more about other edible native plants- some of which might be a bit easier for beginners to navigate – in a great post by Ellen Sousa here. [...]

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