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Back to News Updates – November 22, 2019

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Edible Native Plants

Vaccinium corymbosum, almost ripe.

The fruits in your landscape aren’t just for the birds! There are many hardy native plants that provide human-safe (and delicious) edible leaves, fruits, and bark. On Saturday, January 18th learn more about these fascinating and tasty native plants from Russ Cohen, author of Wild Plants I Have Known and Eaten, for his lecture, Edible Native Plants for Every Garden. Below is a Q+A with Russ about edible native plants.

Mt. Cuba Center: What’s the difference between a native edible plant and one that grows in my vegetable garden? Are vegetables not native?

Russ Cohen: Your typical vegetable is an annual plant – eggplant, carrot, pepper, et cetera. You sow the seeds and start them indoors and then put in a raised bed, harvesting the crops at the end of the season, and then you’re done. It’s a perfectly great way to garden—I do it too, I’m happy to grow conventional crops—but native plants are not used to anyone paying attention to them whatsoever. They’re not plants that expect to be pampered or coddled. The mantra I learned from my mentor is if you want to learn how to grow a native plant look at where it occurs in nature and mimic that as closely as possible. As opposed to our vegetables, a lot of our native plants have to go through stratification, a term to describe going through a cold period, basically winter. In nature there’s no greenhouses and they must cope with climatic conditions. The big thing that happens in our region is that it gets cold during the winter, so our seeds have built in dormancy mechanisms that keep the seed from sprouting in winter, which would harm the plant.

The ripened fruits of beach plum, or Prunus maritiana, ready to be harvested. By Flickr user Plant Image Library

Mt. Cuba Center: Are there characteristics (botanical or otherwise) that are common across edible native plant species?

Russ Cohen: Well, not really. For most—not all, but most—of our cultivated fruits and vegetables, there’s a wild counterpart. There’s cultivated blueberries and wild blueberries, cultivated raspberries and wild raspberries. One example I like are beach plums (Prunus maritania). They’re iconic in Delaware along the shores. It’s a wild plant, and the fruit is edible. It’s a plum! It’s smaller than a conventional plum, about the size of a sweet cherry, but it tastes like a plum and you can use it like a plum. The most common way to use it is to make beach plum jelly. For many families who spend time on the shore, it’s a tradition. You hear stories of people eating it at the shore on their summer vacation. Beach plums are also very easy to grow from pits. For every beach plum I eat, I save the pit and grow a tree. I have over 200 in my nursery just from that.

Blue violets (Viola sororia) via Flikr user @wackybadger

Mt. Cuba Center: Where’s a good place to start for those who are curious about cultivating native edible plants in their yards?

Russ Cohen: People should wean themselves off a traditional lawn where it’s just Kentucky bluegrass from end to end and try something new. Some people are OK with tinkering on the edges of the lawn, and some rip out the yard and replace it with native woody perennials—it’s a spectrum of comfort and on any part of that spectrum there are options to consider. For those who have lots of lawn, there are two species I love to recommend: wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) and dooryard violet (Viola sororia). These require no changes to your landscape whatsoever. They are both common plants that do very well in lawns and don’t mind getting mowed or stepped on and spread naturally and have pretty flowers in the spring. Beside the pretty little five-petaled, white flowers that the pollinators love, you’ll get bright, red strawberries. They are small but what they lack in size they make up for in yumminess. You can also make tea from wild strawberries leaves—fresh or thoroughly dried—and the tea does taste vaguely like the fruit and contains lots of Vitamin C. In the case of the violets, the violet flower are edible in salads and can be candied, and violet leaves are edible raw or cooked. By weight they have more Vitamin A than carrots and more Vitamin C than oranges.

Amelanchier lamarckii, or juneberry, in glorious fall color. By Flickr user Andreas Rockstein.

If people want more of a switch, the obvious choice would be blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum). They’re readily available at nurseries and our East Coast soil tends to be on the acidic and sandy side so you don’t’ have to alter the conditions very much. You want to plant them in the sun because, in general, the more sun that fruit and nut trees get, the heavier they produce. There’s lots of other choices, like juneberry (Amelanchier lamarckii) which produces a fruit that looks like a blueberry but tastes like a cross between an almond and cherry. All three plants are related—almonds, cherries and blueberries are members of the Rose family. There’s many different species of juneberries, as well as cultivars, and they’re readily available from nurseries. Juneberries grow in different heights, from 3’ to 30’. You can get what you want in the right size. A typical plant is 12’ with branches that go down to 3’, there’s plenty of fruit for you at eye level and the birds up top—share!

On January 18th, learn basic edible plant identification tips, seasons of availability, preparation methods, and guidelines for safe and environmentally responsible foraging. Enjoy samples of goodies made from wild-collected native edibles after the presentation. Register for Edible Native Plants for Every Garden here. Lecture takes place on Saturday, January 18 from 11 AM to 12:15 PM.