Most to all native plants have edible or medicinal uses. After all, before the original immigrants arrived in North America there were no grocery stores or pharmacies — just the great outdoors and nature’s bounty.
There is a wealth of information available on the medicinal and herbal uses of native plants, and we generally don’t dip our toes into those waters. But when it comes to yummy berries, fruits, and nuts we don’t shy away from offering suggestions on edible uses of our native plants.
Here are just a few of the native edible plants. Please check our current availability to see what is in stock at this time.
Black Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)
Use them in jams, syrups, or wine. Try making fritters from the flowers! The berries must be cooked before eating. It’s large, early June blooms are pollinated by many insects. Forty species of moths and butterflies will visit elderberry for nectar or habitat.
Elderberry prefers moist soil and will form a thicket. It is best used in a hedgerow, or back of the border. With enough moisture it will produce berries with just 5 hours of direct sun a day. Plant it away from the drip line of larger mature trees that will compete with it for moisture. It can be planted with ninebark or silky dogwood for a mixed thicket with high wildlife and bird value.
Serviceberry (Amelanchier sp.)
There are 20 or more species of Amelanchier. All are large shrubs, small trees with graceful leaves and delicate white flowers. They can naturally cross and hybridize, leading one of our favorite authors (William Cullina) to refer to them as ‘promiscuous rascals’. They are generally adaptable to, and tolerate, a variety of soils.
Serviceberry and Shadbush are two of the common names for Amelanchier. You may need to beat the birds to the harvest, but its worth the battle for a snack fresh from the tree. You can also make pies, jams, and cakes with them. They also have high value to birds and the ecosystem, so Amelanchier is an important addition to any native landscape.
They are susceptible to Cedar Apple Rust, so be on the lookout for it, especially if you have junipers in the area. (Junipers are the alternate host for Cedar Apple Rust.) You can rejuvenate serviceberries with a hard pruning. Remove older and weaker branches as they decline to help the plant remain vigorous.
Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum)
Yes, blueberries — the kind you buy at the grocery store — are native. You do need acidic soil for these (pH 4.5 to 5.5), so get a soil test if you aren’t sure if your soil is appropriate. The ‘wild type’ or ‘straight species’ will set fruit throughout the season. Over time, selections have been made so harvest is more predictable. Some blueberries are early season, some mid-season, some late season. You will get more fruit with two different blueberries for cross pollination. Since the straight species blooms sporadically throughout the season, it has the potential to be a pollinator for any of the selections. For more information on Blueberries, check out this guide we put together.
Red Raspberry and Black Raspberry (Rubus sp.)
Selections of Rubus ideaus are recognized by pollination experts as providing nutrition for bees, as well as nesting material. Birds and butterflies will also visit your plants. Raspberries are easy to grow. Keep black raspberries at least 75 feet away from other varieties to prevent the spread of viruses. For more on care and planting of raspberries and the various selections we carry, see https://edgeofthewoodsnursery.com/raspberries
American Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon)
Yup, the same cranberry that we make the sauce from! A dainty, low growing plant with leathery, evergreen leaves, 2 to 6 inches high, 2 to 3 feet spread. It will grow in a garden in full sun to part shade, with moist to wet, acidic soil. Ideally placed in wetland or bog, it can be grown in a container or hanging basket. Its small pinkish flowers in late spring and early summer become tart red edible cranberries in autumn.
Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa)
Chokeberry may not sound appetizing, and trust me, they are not when raw. However, the juice of chokeberries is used to make jellies, jams, juices, and wines. Aronia products are popular in Europe, though not as popular in the U.S. Black chokeberry grows 3 to 8 feet tall with an equal spread. In spring, clusters of white flowers decorate the plant, and black berries ripen in late summer. Fall color ranges from orange to scarlet to intense red.
Corylus Americana (American hazelnut)
Two are needed for best berry set. These nuts are rich in protein and flavor can be used in any recipe calling for filberts or hazelnut. Another thicket forming species, it can tolerate dry to wet and needs full sun for best nut production. They can achieve height of 12 feet or more when mature.
The Polyphemus moth and the Common Dagger Moth are some of the pollinators you will find on corylus. It’s worth planting just to see these amazing creatures.
Carya ovata (Shagbark hickory)
The nuts are similar to pecan and can be used similarly. Plant this one for your children or grandchildren. It’s a majestic tree that bears nuts starting at about 10 years of age but doesn’t bear large crops until 40 years.
Prunus Americana (American plum)
The fruit is used in jams or jellies and the sweeter ones can be eaten raw.
Diospyros virginiana (Common Persimmon)
Persimmon is a medium sized tree whose fruit provides more energy (calories) per ounce than potatoes or peaches. Eat them when the skin is soft. If the skin is still firm, the bitter flesh will dry your mouth out. Persimmon are often baked into breads or cookies. Try making puddings or cakes with them, or drying them.
Persimmon are dioecious, meaning there are male and female trees. The male trees will not produce fruit. Female trees often produce a few male flowers and can therefore be self-fertile.
Grow persimmon in wet to dry soil, with six or more hours of sun a day. Even in poor soil they will produce fruit. They are a suckering species. They host many pollinators including the Luna Moth.
Asimina triloba (PawPaw)
Yes, the Pawpaw is native to Pennsylvania and grows happily on bottom lands and floodplains. Native Americans used the fruit fresh and made it into cakes and sauces, or dried and used it as winter food.
This is another thicket forming tree/shrub which requires 8 or more hours of sun a day to produce fruit. Hand pollination will help increase yield. Although PawPaw sends up suckers and colonizes, you need two genetically different plants for cross pollination and fruit set. In other words, the abundant suckers of PawPaw will not help pollinate each other. A second, genetically different PawPaw is needed.
The PawPaw Sphinx Moth and Zebra Swallowtail are two of the pollinators that depend on PawPaw.
TUBERS AND LEAVES
There are several species of native mints. Some are sweet and some are savory. All are definitely ‘minty’, each with their own characteristic. A nice change from the non-native spearmint and peppermint. Read more about the native mints here.
Helianthus tuberosus (Jeruslaeum artichoke)
An important food for native Americans prior to 1600. This is the popular ‘sunchoke’. Each plant typically produces 2-5 pounds of tubers per year. Raw tubers have a nutty flavor. Grate them raw and add to salads, or boil and mash like potatoes. Try roasting them and adding soup! Read more about it here.