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Edible native plants for the garden

  • Barbara Robertson
  • Many gardeners tout the advantages of selecting native plants.  These plants fit neatly into our microclimates, tend to be drought tolerant yet can handle our wet winters, and provide food for native bees, butterflies, and birds. But, what about food for us? Can a native plant garden also be an edible garden?

    Indigenous people munched and cooked native plants, of course – they had little choice. And today, some ingenious chefs forage for unique ingredients from native plant sources.

    But I wanted to grow edibles in a garden, not try to identify them in the wild. So, rather than foraging outside, I foraged through research libraries, literature, and cookbooks to find edible native plants I would want to eat. (Edible, I learned, doesn’t always mean tasty.) Then I searched online for California native plant nurseries to see if I could actually purchase my finds. I found more than I expected. Here’s a selection.

    If I had room, I’d plant a Blue Elderberry tree (Sambucus nigra ssp. Caerulea), a tough, easy to grow tree that produces yellow flowers in spring and clusters of small blue-black berries used in jam, syrups, wines, and liqueurs. It can grow from a one-gallon container to a 15-foot tree in three years if it’s happy, and happy doesn’t seem difficult. This native can handle year-round water or dry soil once established, and anything from part shade to full sun.

    Also, if I could find room, I’d want a Thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus), which occupies the same genus as blackberries and raspberries, but has no thorns. Like raspberries, it produces a red hollow aggregate fruit with drupelets around a central core that looks like, yes, a thimble. The deciduous perennial grows to eight-feet tall in large clumps.

    Ribes are a better choice for my garden. Some produce currants (no spines, clusters of flowers), some produce gooseberries (thorns and many small flowers).  Gardeners often plant Ribes for the tassels of hummingbird-loving flowers that bloom in winter or early spring. The best variety for fruit in our area, though, seems to be “Golden currant” (Ribes aureum var. gracillimum), a medium-sized deciduous shrub with yellow spring flowers. It grows naturally in oak woodlands along coast ranges into a small thicket about six feet wide and three to six feet tall. You can tell the berries are ripe when birds show up.

    Another possible candidate for my garden is the Oregon Grape (Mahonia aquifolium). This evergreen native shrub is more often planted for flowers and red fall foliage than food, but its bright yellow flowers lead to blue, grape-like fruit that I’ve read makes good jelly. It grows upright to around six feet and creeps outward by rhizomes.

    Already growing in my part-shade garden are Woodland Strawberries (Fragaria vesca), which have spread as wildly. These Fragaria produce small white flowers and very tiny berries. Had I known better, I would have opted for Beach Strawberries (Fragaria chiloensis), a native known for larger berries.

    I said I wasn’t going to forage, but around the corner, in a gully leading to a creek I discovered a lovely stand of delicate Miner’s Lettuce (Montia perfoliata). I’ve included this delicious little plant because once I returned home I discovered to my delight that I can order the seeds.

    These are only a few of the many available edible native herbs and plants. So, if I’ve tempted you to discover one more reason to plant natives, check your favorite California native plant nursery or website, and create your own list. One warning about native edibles, though. Native animals and insects like them, too. Bon appétit.