Ecological Land Care is all about participating in your local ecology, rather than merely spectating. And while environmental action usually (hopefully) stems from respect for nature and desire to help preserve/promote essential biodiversity in one’s local region, such involvement shouldn’t lack direct personal benefits: a healthier and more flourishing yard to experience with your children, friends, and pets, the aesthetic beauty of a yard artfully filled with beneficial plants, time and money saved from plants that belong and don’t have to be continuously meddled with (through maintenance and pesticide applications), the ability to reap delicious fruits that grow from native plants for the enjoyment of you and your own, and the benefit to small mammals and birds.
Foraging for tasty and nutritious berries directly from your yard is a great way to improve one’s understanding of nature as something we are a part of, not above or separated from—an essential lesson for adults and children alike.
Because many of our clients have small children, we’ve excluded edible natives like red mulberry and mayapple that can cause sickness if consumed unripe. To keep your choices on the safe side, we’ve included five essentials that are edible raw, have a variety of uses and lack poisonous look-alikes. Regardless, you should always exercise caution when foraging for wild foods, even if they’re in your backyard. Many berries are toxic to humans.
First, some background explaining why growing your food in any capacity is a good idea: Due to the reduction of soil quality by modern agriculture, the nutritional variety of the fruits and vegetables we buy in grocery stores has depleted significantly in the last half-century. On top of this, in the time it takes for crops to arrive at your home from the farm or orchard, the nutritional value significantly decreases. A study by the University of California showed that within a week, some vegetables could lose over 50 percent of the vitamin C they contained at the time of harvest, for example.
This brings us to our first example of landscape-friendly edible native plants: the pawpaw tree. If you’ve never heard of it, that’s because you won’t find it in grocery stores. The fruit the pawpaw produces is so quick to ripen that a batch would lose edibility before being stocked at a grocery store.
1) Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)
With a taste and texture comparable to that of mango, pawpaw has been called “Indian banana,” as it was a common fixture in the Native American diet. Natives used its seeds, which can be consumed raw, pulverized or chopped, for medicinal purposes such as de-worming, digestive health, anti-inflammatory assistance, and more. From Lewis and Clark to the Founding Fathers, the fruit of the pawpaw is a staple in early American history, but industrialization has been commercially destructive to its delicate (but delicious) nature. Regardless, the pawpaw is still prevalent in the wild and the landscape, typically as a small tree.
The fruit of the pawpaw ripen in September and remain ripe until early October, harvestable in late summer/early autumn; it is suggested to store the fruit in a cool, dry place when they reach full size until they are ripe, usually turning yellowish from their original green.
2) Black raspberry (Rubus occidentalis)
This plant, which commonly grows in thickets, is best for your yard’s periphery. Around midsummer, its berries mature (when deep purple/black), and its small, white flowers are produced. Rich in antioxidants like the blueberry, the black raspberry also contains vitamins A, B, C, and E, and assist with many issues related to stomach and back pain.
Like the red raspberry (Rubus idaeus), most of black raspberry’s medicinal qualities are found in its leaves, which are brewed as a tea used for a variety of ailments or to treat external wounds.
3) Highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum)
While there exist many species of blueberry bushes, each one touts the famously delicious and healthy fruit. The Lowbush variety is smaller with a more potent sweetness, and the Highbush is the one most likely to be spotted in a grocery store, and therefore the most well-known.
Famous for both their many culinary uses and nutritious qualities, blueberries have the highest antioxidant levels among popular fruits, a property linked to cognitive function, heart health, and more.
In the Penn State Extention article, “Highbush Blueberry Production” from July 7, 2017, the authors Kathy Demchak, Senior Extension Associate and Jayson K. Harper, Ph.D., Professor of Agricultural Economics and Senior Extension Associate remarked that the growers of the Highbush blueberry would benefit from having open pollination of multiple cultivars in mixed plantings as well as an extended harvest period. Additionally, varieties that ripen early will offer some protection from the new invasive fruit fly called spotted wing drosophila. The Highbush blueberry prefers cultural conditions of the sun to partial shade, and a soil pH on the acidic side of 4.0 – 5.3.
4) Common serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea)
Ripe in mid- to late summer (best when darkened in shade, not bright red), the serviceberry is not uncommon as a landscape fixture because of its attractive white flowers in spring, its attraction of birds and its function as a shrub or small tree, but the actual berries are underrated as a raw food. Similar to blueberries, serviceberries are adaptable to jelly, jam, bread, and more.
Amelanchier alnifolia, commonly known as the Saskatoon Serviceberry, is a close relative to A. arborea and, although not native to our particular region, has recently spiked in popularity in Canada, where it is sold as a “superfruit.”
The ideal environment is sun to shade, dry/well-drained soil.
5) American plum (Prunus americana)
Their white flowers resemble the cherry blossom and also bloom in early spring – the small fruits ripen in mid to late summer and are especially revered in jellies and jams. The thicket-like branch growth is also highly useful as a protective cover for bird species during nesting season.
See Beach plum (Prunus maritima) for fruit with a slightly more tart flavor.
An ideal environment is sun to shade, moist soil. Note that Prunus species are susceptible to black knot, a fungal pathogen that kills the infected area of the tree.
These are only a small handful of examples of native, specifically fruit-bearing shrubs and trees, edible raw and widely desirable. Many more plants used for food, spice, and medicine exist, plenty of which, when correctly prepared, can be turned into restaurant-worthy food or garnish. And of course, there exist many more plants less-than-desirable to the civilized palette that could prove essential in circumstances, in which one lost in the woods or without a supermarket. We will discuss these in further articles, specifically how they can benefit your landscape aesthetically and your local ecology practically.
To the trained eye, the wild forest is a cornucopia of food and medicine. As a homeowner, you’re granted a sliding scale to choose just how wild, native, edible, or medicinally useful your yard is. For the tastiest edibles with the least work and maintenance, this list is your best bet.