Native Garden Foods – Growing An Edible Native Garden
By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist
Growing an edible garden is a way to keep fresh fruits and vegetables ready on hand with minimal expense. Developing an edible native garden is even easier and cheaper. Planting foods that naturally occur in your region provides you with plants well adapted to the conditions and resistant to many pests and diseases.
As an added bonus, native herbs and vegetables are plentiful and attractive to birds and other wildlife.
Why Grow an Edible Native Garden?
You don’t need to be in the middle of a pandemic to appreciate fresh food from your own garden. Growing native garden foods is just another way of supporting wild flora and fauna, as well as putting diversity in your diet.
There are a host of native plants you can eat, varieties that naturally occur where you live and will thrive with just minimum care. Native edibles are almost foolproof in their growing requirements, having adapted to the region over centuries.
Wild foods have unique properties in that they have survived with no human interaction and are modified to enjoy their range’s conditions including soil type, rainfall, temperatures, animal browsing, disease, and pests of the region. This makes native edibles somewhat easier to raise than exotic or bred varieties.
Many of our native herbs and vegetables double as both food and medicine. Wild foods should not be gathered as a rule, since many are threatened, but there are many native plant nurseries to source wild varieties.
Unusual Types of Native Garden Foods
When you think of wild edibles, you may think of mushrooms or berries. These are items it is usually okay to forage for, but many other types of plants should be left alone to support wild habitat and continue to reproduce. Some of the wackier types of native forage are weeds.
Purslane is a very common weedy plant with plump little leaves. It tastes great in a salad or can be sautéed and added to any dish. It is high in Omega-3 fatty acids, numerous vitamins, as well as folate, thiamin, and niacin. In North America there are many other wild weeds such as:
- Ball Mustard
- Bull Thistle
- Stinging Nettles
- Yellow Dock
- Wild Leek
- Prickly Lettuce
Growing Native Plants You Can Eat
There are many berries, trees, shrubs, annuals, and perennials that are wild foods. Make sure your soil will support each plant’s needs and try to stick with those that grow in your type of situation. That means if your property is very treed, choose plants that like forested areas, with dappled light and rich soil. If you live in an arid zone, select plants that like gritty soil, plenty of sun, and daytime heat.
A list of potential candidates for many regions might look like this:
- Oxeye Daisy
- Solomon’s Seal
- Wild Bergamot
- Wild Ginger
- American Persimmon
- Black Walnut
- Wild Onions
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Edible Native Plants For Your Garden
Many native species have been used in some way as food in the past. This list has been limited to to the more practical examples of foods you might be able to harvest in reasonable numbers on a residential property. These include species which are prolifc enough to withstand some regular harvesting or those for whom only portions of the plants such as fruits or leaves will be harvested.
This list is only intended to guide you in some things you might plant around your home, never collect native plants in the wild. Most native plants are threatened by habitat loss and degradation so they cannot withstand the additional pressure of harvesting. Furthermore, this is illegal on any public property. Fruit and nut collection must even be limited to a few individual samples only (one possible exception to this would be raspberries and blackberries which are quite abundant).
Here are several books that provide additional useful information:
Edible Native Plant Catalog
Description: American Plum (Prunus americana) is a small, deciduous, single trunk tree or multi-stemmed shrub which occurs in rocky or sandy soils in woodlands, pastures, abandoned farms, streams and hedgerows.
Comments: The plums are eaten fresh and used in jellies and preserves, and are also consumed by many kinds of birds. Numerous cultivated varieties with improved fruit have been developed. A handsome ornamental with large lowers and relatively big fruit, American Plum is also grown for erosion control, spreading by root sprouts.
Description: Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa),Bee Balm or Horse-Mint has a lovely violet blossom and distinctively aromatic foliage. It is a familiar component of prairie and savanna communities on all but the wettest of soils.
Comments: This showy perennial, frequently cultivated, has aromatic leaves used to make mint tea. Oil from the leaves was formerly used to treat respiratory ailments. The leaves smell minty.
Description: Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is a rough, weedy perennial which commonly occurs in fields, open woods, waste areas, roadsides and along railroad tracks. It typically grows 3-4 feet (less frequently to 6 feet) tall on stout, upright stems with thick, broad-oblong, reddish-veined, light green leaves (to 8 inches long).
Comments: There is general agreement that young milkweed shoots, leaves and pods are edible after boiling. The two questions are how many times should you change the water and should the water always be boiling or can you put them in cold water to start? A third authority considers them famine food only. It is best to say you will have to experiment. We want to get rid of the bitterness because it is toxic. Said another way, don’t eat any milkweed that is bitter after cooking. Taste it and wait 30 seconds or so.
Description: Leadplant (Amorpha canescens) is a native that typically occurs in open woodlands, glades and prairies. This pea/bean family member is a somewhat ungainly, deciduous shrub growing 1-3 feet tall and featuring slender, dense, 4-8 inches spike-like clusters of tiny, bluish-purple flowers with gold anthers which bloom in May-June.
Comments: Native Americans used the leaves for smoking and for making a tea.
Description: New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) is a compact, dense, rounded shrub which typically grows 2-3 feet tall. It occurs in prairies, glades, dry open woods and thickets. Cylindrical clusters (1-2 inches long) of tiny, fragrant, white flowers (1/8 inch) appear on long stalks at the stem ends or upper leaf axils in late spring.
Comments: A refreshing and stimulating tea is made from the dried leaves, it is a good substitute for china tea though it does not contain caffeine.The leaves are gathered when the plant is in full bloom and are dried in the shade
Description: Allegheny Serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis) is a small, deciduous, usually multi-trunked understory tree or tall shrub which is native to thickets, open woods, sheltered slopes and wood margins where it typically grows 15-20 feet tall. Features showy, 5-petaled, slightly fragrant, white flowers in drooping clusters which appear in early spring.
Comments: Native peoples dried the small pomes like raisins or mashed and dried them in cakes. Often the dried fruits were mixed with meat and fat to form pemmican, a light-weight, high-energy food that could support winter travellers for long periods if the diet was supplemented with vitamin C to prevent scurvy.
Description: Canadian Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) is a native spring wildflower which occurs in rich woods and wooded slopes throughout the State. Basically a stemless plant which features two downy, heart-shaped to kidney-shaped, handsomely veined, dark green, basal leaves.
Comments: Its basic use is as a ginger substitute in cooking, a flavoring agent, and for making some candy. There are numerous medicinal claims.
Description: Nodding Pink Onion (Allium cernuum) occurs primarily in rocky soils on glades, bluff edges, open woods and. Plants typically grow 12-18 inches tall. Features clumps of flat, narrow, grass-like leaves and tiny bell-shaped, pink to lilac pink flowers which appear in loose, nodding clusters atop erect, leafless scapes rising slightly above the foliage. All parts of this plant have an oniony smell when cut or bruised.
Comments: All parts of this native food are edible raw or cooked, and can be eaten and prepared just like a traditional bunching/green onion. The flavor of this wild onion tends to be stronger than supermarket varieties the taste mellows and sweetens as it's cooked.
Description: Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) is a ground-hugging herbaceous perennial that typically grows to 4-7 inches tall but spreads indefinitely by runners (stolons) which root to form new plants as they sprawl along the ground, often forming large colonies over time. It is native to woodland openings, meadows, prairies, limestone glades and cleared areas including roadsides. bluish-purple flowers with gold anthers which bloom in May-June.
Comments: Fruits are quite small but very tasty and may be eaten fresh off the vine.
We are all familiar with this common lawn weed, but few people realize that this plant can be eaten from top to bottom.
The yellow flower can be pulled from the plant and eaten raw.
Leafs and roots can also be eaten, but leaves taste their best when the plant is still young.
Older leaves can have more of a bitter taste. Leafs and roots taste better after being boiled.
My grandmother used to boil young dandelions and put them in the refrigerator to cool off.
After cooling, she’d add olive oil, vinegar, a little oregano and some pepper. For a picky kid, they weren’t bad at all.
If I was in the middle of nowhere, I’d boil them, eat them and thank God I found them.
We tried cattails in Boy Scouts.
They were a staple for Native Americans.
Both the tips and the white colored bottoms of the stalks are edible raw and palatable but be careful not to eat the fiber as it may cause a stomach ache.
They’re one of the best wild edible plants that provide an excellent source of starch.
Cattail pollen can also be mixed with flour and egg to make cattail pancakes.
The pollen is gathered only from the top of this plant in late June and early July. You’ll know you’ve hit the pollen when your hands turn yellow.
3) Wild Asparagus
Asparagus is one of the best wild edible plants widely found across North America.
If you find it in your life, you’ll probably find it in or around the same location for the rest of your life.
This wild edible is hardy.
Look for old dead stalks about three feet high. Near those, new young stalks can be found. Wild asparagus doesn’t like soil that’s too moist.
It can usually be found along ditch banks or next to railroad tracks.
When we were kids, we picked it along the tracks when we were pheasant hunting.
At least we came home with something!
If you live in a place where summers are dry, you can usually find wild asparagus.
Wild asparagus stalks are usually thinner than those you see at the supermarket. If you cut a stalk as close to the ground as possible, a new stalk will grow back.
In the wilderness, wild asparagus can be eaten raw, boiled, or steamed.
4) Milk Thistle
Another wild edible found across North America is milk thistle.
This is the plant with the purple flower-like top that we see along some highways.
The spines can be removed from the leaves and the leaves eaten with other greens. Stalks can be boiled.
The plant’s roots can be boiled or even baked.
Everybody knows clover and it falls within the group of edible plants.
Clover is everywhere in the United States and very high in protein.
Raw clover can cause problems with digestion, but it can be made into a juice form.
Flour can also be made from dried clover flowers and seed pods.
Tea can also be made from clover, just steep it in water.
Everybody needs a little luck to get out of a survival situation, so try not to eat the four-leaf ones.
6) Wild Onions
If it looks like an onion and smells like an onion, go ahead and eat it. If it looks like an onion but doesn’t smell like one, don’t eat it.
It could be dangerous.
The same rule applies to garlic.
Wild onions like to grow in damp places, especially on the forest floor.
All of the wild onion plants can be eaten, from top to bottom. It can be eaten raw, cooked, or with other greens.
Classified as a grass, bamboo is one of the edible weeds found in the certain parts of the United States.
The fiber content in bamboo is very high.
Shoots should be cut when very young and under a foot tall.
Bamboo cannot be eaten raw. Outer leaves should be peeled off. Remove any tough parts of the shoots.
Cut them into 1/8″ slices and boil them uncovered for at least 20 minutes or longer to rid them of bitterness.
They can then be eaten alone or with other greens. Bamboo shoots are high in fiber, protein, and potassium.
If caught in a survival situation, dried bamboo also makes excellent kindling for a fire.
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This is a common weed we’ve seen before but no one can pronounce the name.
It grows close to the ground, likes shady areas, and looks like a miniature jade plant.
We’d see it growing in sidewalk cracks going to and from school.
It’s one of the most nutritional edible weeds with high Omega-3 fatty acids and beta-carotene.
Purslane can be eaten raw or cooked or mixed with greens.
It’s making its way onto restaurant menus so it’s good enough for a restaurant, it’s good enough for somebody in the middle of nowhere with few nutritional choices.
Wherever you find purslane, it will be around for a long time. Its seeds are viable in the soil for well over 30 years.
Like asparagus, once it’s there, it will always be there.
Violets are edible flowers and they are high in vitamins A and C.
Their leaves can be eaten raw or boiled, or they can be dried to make tea.
The flowers can be eaten raw. Be sure not to eat the roots or stems and avoid African Violets.
Violets have also been used medicinally. A common headache cure is a warm towel soaked with violet tea and placed on the back of the neck.
The daylilies have a long history in China as both edible flowers and medicine.
Young, daylily leaves can be cut at 5 inches and sautéed or stir-fried.
Don’t damage the flower stalks when cutting the leaves because the daylily can be cut again when the buds and blossoms are present.
The buds can be eaten raw, boiled, or stir-fried. Partially opened or fully opened daylily flowers can be battered with a mixture of flour and water and fried.
The roots of the daylily are also edible, either raw or boiled. They pack high nutrition in the late fall after storing vitamins and minerals from the summer season.
My favorite best wild edible plants are berries and they grow everywhere in northern North America.
Wild blueberries and blackberries grow in cool and high climates.
Almost all berries with a dark color can be safely eaten in the wilderness.
Both blueberries and blackberries are loaded with Vitamin C and rich in fiber.
White, yellow and red berries can kill. Stay away from them unless you are certain, especially in a survival situation.
Although grapes are not necessarily berries, I don’t know of a single type of grape that can’t be eaten.
If the birds have eaten all of the grapes, pick the smaller grape leaves and dry them for a couple of days and then boil them for about 20 minutes uncovered.
Any meat you might have can be wrapped in the leaves. If there’s no meat, just eat the grape leaves by themselves.
I’ve eaten at least 10,000 of them and never got sick. Although relatively low in caloric value, they’re rich in vitamins and fiber. I’d even eat them raw after washing them if I had to.
Most people don’t realize that acorns are edible. Not raw, of course, but if you take the time to process them, you can turn them into an acorn flour.
This flour can then be used to bake with just like wheat flour.
Now it does have a unique taste and the properties will make baking with it a bit different.
But as a last resort food source or as a way to use what nature provides, it’s definitely a wild edible you should try.
13) Wild Lettuce
I wanted to highlight one more wild plant that you should forage.
It’s not edible but for medicinal purposes, it’s a great find.
Wild lettuce can be harvested and processed to make wild lettuce extract.
This extract has many medical benefits so it’s worth finding, foraging and harvesting if you happen to come across any of it!
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You Can Never Be Too Careful
Always be sure of what you’re going to eat. Some plants might look like one of these best wild edible plants but instead, they can sicken or kill you.
One suggestion is to eat only a small portion of a plant and then wait an hour to see how your body reacts to it. There are other more determinative tests that can be done on wild edibles that one should learn.
Beware of plants located closer to civilization or roadways as they may have been sprayed with dangerous chemicals.
If a plant smells like almonds, never eat it.
That’s the smell of cyanide.
Remember: Prepare, Adapt and Overcome,
“Just In Case” Jack
P.s. Do you know where the closest nuclear bunker is from your home?
Click on the image above to find out where you need to take shelter.
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