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 (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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.*
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!
A note to Boston-area readers: please join me at 7pm Wednesday April 4th (tomorrow!) at the Cambridge Public Library for a presentation about how to support pollinator species in our back yards. The event is FREE and sponsored by Grow Native Massachusetts, a non-profit organization dedicated to sharing information and resources about the crucial role native plants play in Massachusetts’ ecosystems.
* 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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