Edible Native Plants for Earth Renewal

Would you like to turn your yard into a food forest? Naive plants provide essential food for wildlife, but there are several that are popular with humans as well. You can’t buy these in stores, in some cases because they don’t ship well, so your yard gives you the opportunity for trying some delicious new treats.

 

There are many more plants besides these that have edible parts. These are highlighted because they are available for sale, for the most part have parts that can be eaten without injuring the plants, and are thought to be safe, assuming you only eat the edible parts. Be sure to get the exact species, using the scientific name! Other plants in the same genus may be toxic.

Be aware that neonicotinoid and other types of systemic pesticides persist in plants for months or even years. Ask your seller whether the plants were ever sprayed, or shop at a garden center that guarantees the plants to be neonicotinoid free.

For details about growing and eating these plants, with links to recipes, see this spreadsheet.

native edible plants

How long will it take before you can harvest?

It depends. If you are planning to eat the leaves, you will have those right away. For fruits, almost all plants will produce the most when given full sun and the optimum moisture and soil fertility for the species. In less than optimal conditions, don’t expect to be feeding your family any time soon! Shade trees take decades to produce nuts. Blueberries produce fruit in small quantities the year after you buy them then more and more over the following few years.

Nuts

Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) - Shade tree - Hard work to extract but good.

Hazelnut (Corylus americana) - Shrub - Smaller than the ones sold in stores but slightly sweeter and milder.

Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) - Shade tree - Nuts taste like sweet walnuts.

Berries

To eat raw or cooked

Black Huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata) Small shrub.

Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) - This is where commercial blueberries come from. You must prove acidic soil by adding amendments if needed.

Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium pallidum) is native to Northern Virginia but hard to find for sale. Vaccinium angustifolium is native elsewhere in Virginia. The berries are smaller than the Highbush Blueberry.

Serviceberry (Amelanchier species) - Small trees. Don’t plant near Eastern Red Cedar.

Common Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) - Tree.

To cook into jams, jellies, pies, syrup, wine, etc.

Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) - Nice shrub

Common Black Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) - Tall shrub

Other Fruits

To eat raw or cooked

Viburnum species (Viburnum nudum, prunifolium) - Shrubs

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) - Small tree

American Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) - Shade tree. Mushy ripe fruits are tasty; underripe are painfully astringent.

American Wild Plum (Prunus americana) - Small tree. Tart fruit. As is the case for commercial plums, the pits are poisonous.

Chickasaw Plum (Prunus angustifolis) - Small tree. 

Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) - Flowering shade tree. Tasty though small and tart cherries. As is true for commercial cherries, the pits are poisonous.

Wild Strawberry (Fragraria virginiana) - White flowers. Tiny but delicious fruits. Not to be confused with the non-native weed that has yellow flowers and tasteless fruit.
 

To cook into jams, jellies, pies, syrup, wine, etc.

Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) - Sweet but astringent.

Spices

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) - Shrub. Berries for spices, twigs for tea.

Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) - Small semi-evergreen tree. Leaves for seasoning, flowers for pickling.

Beverages

New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus) - Shrub. Leaves for tea.

Sumac species (Rhus aromatica, copallinum, glabra) - Shrubs. Fruits to make Sumacade. Must be cooked or dried to avoid toxicity.

Beebalm (Monarda didyma) - Perennial flower loved by butterflies and hummingbirds. Leaves for tea, flavor.

Sumac (Rhus aromatica, copallinum, glabra) - Berries for Sumacade.

Other

Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) - Fiddleheads - must be boiled for 3 minutes before frying, sauteeing or baking. Do not confuse with other fern species.

Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) - Perennial flower, can be aggressive and hard to eradicate. Edible tubers.

Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) - Perennial flowers, great for butterflies and bees. Leaves for flavoring, flowers for garnish.

Pickerel Weed (Pontederia cordata) - Pond plant. Cookes leaves; seeds raw or cooked.

Wild Roses (Rosa carolina and palustris) - Edible hips and flower petals.

A caution about foraging:

We strongly urge you to not take native plants or their fruits from the wild. This practice made sense when there were few of us without alternative sources of food or medicine, but now that humans have appropriated the vast majority of land in the world for ourselves and for the animals we eat, we have left very little space to assure the survival of other species. Please leave the native plants alone so they can reproduce and support the innumerable other species that depend upon them. It is illegal to remove anything from public lands without permission, and even if you get permission to do so on private land, removing native plants damages the ecosystem. Of course, many wild plants such as Garlic Mustard that people use for culinary purposes are invasive introduced plants. Nevertheless, eating wild plants has its hazards. It is not easy to distinguish science from fantasy, and it is even harder to distinguish one type of plant from its many look-alikes.

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