Where native plants and food gardening meet
by Sarah Witcher
“The garden suggests that there might be a place where we can meet nature in the middle.” ~ Michael Pollan
For gardeners with limited real estate, the decision between growing food and using native plants can be difficult. Many of us got into gardening because of the sheer satisfaction of planting and growing something to put on our table. There’s nothing quite like the sense of self-sufficiency and connection to the land that comes from food gardening. I will never forget the reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle – a book by Barbara Kingsolver detailing her year-long experiment in growing and farming most of the food her family needs on just one acre of land. However, so many popular food plants are not native to Maryland—carrots, broccoli, lettuce, cucumber, apples, watermelon, and asparagus, for example. So if you love planting native plants to support wildlife AND eating the fruits of your gardening labor, what’s a Maryland gardener to do? The answer: plant native food crops!
The list of edible native plants is long and full of many species that are almost forgotten. Generations of Native Americans have grown, fed, and nurtured plants that wildlife also needed. Much of the knowledge of generations of how to gather and prepare native plants has been buried – but is being rediscovered. Interested in gardening with local food? Here are a few species to get you started, including low-growing, shrub and tree:
Eastern prickly pear (Opuntia humifusa) is the only cactus in Maryland, but has the largest range of any in the United States. Like many of this species, the stem (which acts as a leaf) is photosynthesizes and stores water, but unlike its southern cousins, it contains special chemicals that act as antifreeze in our colder winters. They prefer well-drained, sandy soils and full sun. Flowers can be found on eastern prickly pear in late summer; they are usually yellow throughout their greater range, but in individuals east of the Appalachians, the center of the flower is often red or orange. And after the flowers come the fruits! Despite the thorns, both the rootstock or nopal and the fruit, called a pear, are fit for consumption on this plant when properly harvested and prepared.
One of the great advantages of living in a climate like Maryland’s is being able to grow plants like the humble highbush blueberry (Vacinnium corymbosum). This shrub grows relatively tall, to 6-12 feetand often needs cooler temperatures for seeds to germinate. Although they they prefer moist, acidic soil, altering our existing soil profiles is usually not difficult to create a welcoming home for a blueberry bush. Their white or pink urn-shaped flowers are charming and the berries are a favorite among birds, so be prepared to protect your crop if you want to share!
Did you know we have a native plum? Many people have discovered paw paw in recent years, but American plum (Prunus americanus) is still less well known among wild food lovers. This smaller subterranean tree reaches a height of about 30 feet and showy white flowers in the spring, providing food for pollinators (and perhaps supporting prey for bats!). The late summer red berries are often described as tart and are less popular for eating straight from the tree, but are welcome in jams and jellies. See reader-submitted meal recipes at The DNR Wild Maryland Online Cookbookincluding one for plums.