Native Plants, Healthy Diet?

A cousin of Salvia columbariae (Chia) is the latest super-seed to hit the grocery shelves.

As a child growing up I had a father that advocated the virtues of the natural food movement popularized by the 1960’s/70’s generation. Even though at the time I didn’t appreciate the benefits of eating a healthy diet, that soon changed as my palate began to mature with the onset of adult hood.

During those exploratory years I read that people questioning the right diet for themselves could look to the region where they grew up. Refining the idea further, they could also consider areas that resonated as ‘home’. The philosophy professed that one’s ideal diet would emulate that which native peoples of that particular region would have eaten.

At the time I discovered this philosophy I was living in Utah. I began to ponder what my ’home region’ diet would consist of. Hailing from Southern California, it dawned on me that the ideal regional diet for myself would be native Californian, hence California Cuisine.

Upon further research, I realized that California Cuisine was made up of mostly exotic foods endemic to the other four Mediterranean climates. The ideal diet I was seeking would consist of authentic California Cuisine. These sources of sustenance would occur naturally in the mountains, foothills, valleys and coast line of California. I began to ponder that which the indigenous people of California would have included in their diet.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the incredibly diverse flora and fauna of California supported fifty two tribes of aboriginal people, the largest population of all the states in the union. Along with traditional lean meats acquired from hunting deer, rabbit, foul and seafood, the original California Cuisine was made up of grains, fruits, acorns, shrubs, succulents, forbs, and the seeds of native grasses and wildflowers.

Today forward-thinking Californians are beginning to realize that they can enjoy the health benefits of authentic California Cuisine right in their own backyards.  There are many plant species available that not only provide aesthetic interest, water savings, and habitat restoration, but provide the very food sources that the indigenous inhabitants included in their healthy and tasteful diets. These plants are easy to grow and make a tasty and interesting addition to the contemporary balanced diet.

As a garden designer specializing in California’s native flora, people often ask my opinion with regard to the ethnobotanical aspect of native plants. Ultimately, site conditions of your home garden will dictate which plants work best, but popular examples of plants that will tempt your taste buds include Miner’s Lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata), Mexican Elderberry (Sambucus mexicana), California Grape (Vitis californica). Seeds of Blue Wildrye (Elymus glaucus), Red Maids (Calandrinia ciliate), Tidy-tips (Layia platyglossa), Goldfields (Lasthenia glabrata) and  Chia (Saliva spp.). Other common favorites for the native garden include Buckwheat (Eriogonum spp.), Artemisia spp., Prunus illicifolia, Ceanothus spp., Purple Needlegrass (Nassella pulchra).

There is so much more than meets the eye in the native garden. We can take a cue from our four-legged and feathered friends as well as our states’ indigenous inhabitants. Look a little deeper and discover some of the nutritious and delicious foods that have been hiding in plain sight, right in our own backyards!

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  1. says

    Rob I have often wondered about the indigenous people in my area who made up the Tribes of the Iroquois Nation. What we can eat from our native gardens that they may have eaten is certainly a interesting question. Being curious I will explore a bit more…
    Donna@Gardens Eye View recently posted..Health

  2. says

    Rob –

    Wonderful article! Like Donna, I have often wondered about how the people who came before us sustained themselves and often think about it as I walk through my local wild areas.

    Just like we’ve now got contributors doing “plant this, not that”, won’t it be great to see “what’s to eat- natives” from each part of the country? I’ll contribute something for my area in my December post.

  3. says

    Inspiring and such an appropriate Article for this day Rob!! We should all know how to identify our native edible plants. I confess to not knowing them all. A plethora of fungi, nuts, greens, twigs, berries, root crops etc. that native peoples would have all known and added to meals of lean wild turkey, deer, rabbits and other wild animals that were plentiful in those days. Happy Thanksgiving to you and everyone. It is ‘National Mourning Day’ for many Native Americans.
    Carol Duke recently posted..Gathering Wildflowers Fields and Meadows Gone To Sleepy Seed

  4. says

    Rob, Thanks for this post. In writing our book on growing vegetables in Florida, my co-author and I decided to include a number of native plants that can be grown as crops. For instance, spotted horsemint (Mondarda punctata) produces the same oil as thyme and oregano, so you can use it instead of those Mediterranean herbs. Also perennial meadow garlic (Allium canadense) can be planted instead of (or next to the chives) in the herb garden and used whenever you’d like to add a mild garlic flavor cooked or raw.
    Then of course we have so many native fruits and nuts in Florida, but we did not include any woody crops.

  5. says

    Great post! When I write my wildlife plant profiles on my blog, I include what the native tribes used the plants for including food and medicine. If you’re lucky enough to live in the Pacific Northwest there is a fantastic book that discusses our native plants and includes these uses as part of the text for nearly every plant in the book. It’s called ‘Plants Of The Pacific Northwest Coast: Washington, Oregon, British Columbia & Alaska’ by Jim Pojar and it’s one of my most referenced books.
    Kelly Brenner recently posted..Featured Design Resource:: Reptiles and Amphibians in your backyard

  6. says

    Good article, Rob. I think about what edibles are here in the Santa Monica Mtns and do a little foraging. It makes me feel part of the land, like the native Indians were. A regular in my diet is Pear Cactus (Opuntia littoralis). Coyote can enjoy these, too.
    Kathy @nativegardener recently posted..Her First Autumn Leaf

  7. says

    Excellent article, Rob! I actually came to my love for native plants from the study of how the native people who originally inhabited my area (the Lenni Lennape) used these plants not only for food, but also for healing. So much of this knowledge has been lost. I’m so happy to see others trying to reclaim this lore for their areas.
    Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..Wildlife Garden Thanksgiving

  8. says

    Great information! Now I need to learn about the native foods of my area, southeastern Pennsylvania, though. Reading Charles Mann’s excellent book, “1491” I learned that the first Europeans arriving in this area encountered healthy and well fed indigenous peoples. This means that there were plenty of native plants to keep them well nourished. We actually include some of those in our diet, the three sisters: corn, beans and squash. Now it is the time to learn about a few more and to favor them over some of the non-native foods.
    I am not giving up chocolate, though ;)
    Beatriz Moisset recently posted..Pollinators, the night shift

  9. says

    I love this – looking forward to Sue Sweeney’s December post about edible New England natives…I’ve become fascinated in the past few years about this too..what the Nipmucs (the local native American tribes that lived here in our central MA river valleys) used for foods. Jerusalem Artichoke and American Groundnut are two that come to mind…I see a new movement “Eat Native” :)
    Ellen Sousa recently posted..When Life Gives You Storm Damage, Make Habitat!

  10. says

    This fall I’ve been gathering a lot (1000s) of Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) nuts, from over 100 different trees. In my region, I find that Essex, Middlesex and Worcester County, MA have plentiful opportunities to gather these nuts, as do the Quinebaug-Shetucket Valleys in eastern CT and southeast NH.

    I have heard that native Americans not only ate these nuts (the word “Hickory” comes from “powcohickora”, a sort of porridge the native Americans made from these nuts), but that they planted them in the region as well. If that is true, then I suspect that some of the trees I gather nuts from were planted (or at least their ancestors were planted) by native Americans. So to them, or to other forward-thinking people, or to the squirrels who stashed away nuts in the ground and then forgot them and those nuts sprouted and turned into trees, I am deeply grateful.

    While I keep most of the nuts I gather for eating (baking into pies and cookies, or simply toasting and eating plain or in hot cereal), I have passed along fresh (i.e., still viable and sprout-able) nuts to others for planting, as well as planting some of these nuts themselves. The New England Wild Flower Society is one of the recipients of these nuts. If they are successful in growing then out, then the small trees should be available for purchase in the foreseeable future.


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