Native Plants of the Deep Woods

My winter work this year centers around woodland management. Specifically, I’m clearing out invasive honeysuckle bushes to make room for a massive replanting of native woodland plants. Last week we looked at native plants for the woodland edge. Today we venture deeper into the woods to consider native plants that thrive under the shade of the canopy. These plants are just as important to the forest ecosystem as the large trees that so often receive all the glory. Yet most of the time, when land that was previously cleared is reforested, little to no attention is paid to the understory. The native plants that once carpeted the forest floor do not return once the new trees have grown tall enough to shade them unless someone comes back to replant them.

The trees I have planted on this farm as part of the wetland restoration project are still too young to provide the kind of shade needed to shelter native woodland plants, but we also have about three acres of existing mature woods on this farm. That existing woodland is where I am focusing my efforts right now. As you peruse the (limited, non-comprehensive, preliminary) list I have compiled, you may notice a theme. Many of these woodland plants are slow-growing, delicate plants that require very specific habitats, protection, and patience. These plants require and deserve our respect, and in return, they offer potent and valuable gifts. I wish them luck, and I wish you luck with all your forest gardening projects!

Indiana Native Shade Plants

Do your own thorough research before touching, foraging or ingesting any new plant. Mistakes can happen and so can allergies, interactions, and idiosyncratic reactions. Information presented in this article and elsewhere on this web site is for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose or treat any health conditions. View our full legal disclaimer here.

  • Ramps (Allium tricoccum). Also called Wild Leek, this gourmet native woodland vegetable has been dangerously overharvested in the wild. I look forward to establishing a large population of this plant over the next 7-10 years, which is how long they take to grow from seed to maturity. Although this is a popular herb that people love to forage, I do not recommend foraging this plant from the wild. Since it takes so long to mature, if you are removing as much as one tenth of the ramps you find in a given area, you are overharvesting it. Since the plant is already threatened, I suggest planting your own shady ramp garden so that you can be sure you are increasing the bounty of this precious native herb rather than decreasing it.
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  • Ostrich Fern / Fiddleheads (Matteuccia struthiopteris). In early spring, the tightly-curled fronds of this plant can be harvested and eaten cooked. It is said to resemble the flavor and texture of asparagus, though I haven’t had an opportunity to try it myself yet. It is important to prepare and cook fiddleheads correctly, but I’ve seen many inspiring recipes for them in lots of different cookbooks and blogs, and they even appear on the menus of fancy restaurants sometimes! I look forward to getting to know this plant better through this project. As far as I know, Ostrich Fern is the only fern species that is edible.
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  • Wood Nettles (Laportea canadensis). Wood Nettle is in the Stinging Nettle family, but it’s in a different genus from the Slender Nettles that grow along the woodland edge. Wood nettle is extremely prickly, with even more stinging hairs than stinging nettles! I haven’t personally tasted wood nettle yet, but like stinging nettle and slender nettle, wood nettle is said to be edible as a cooked green, and produces a strong fiber. However, wood nettle does not have the same medicinal uses as slender nettle and stinging nettle.
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  • American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). American Ginseng has been dangerously overharvested in the wild. Its roots are valuable for their medicinal properties. It is a delicate plant that requires just the right conditions to thrive, and takes several years to grow from seed to maturity. I have observed some indicators that it might grow well here, but I’ll have to try it to know for sure.
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  • Pawpaw (Asimina triloba). The pawpaw tree produces more fruit in full sun, but it has the ability to grow in shade as well. I may try planting some in my woods to see what happens.
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  • Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum). The bulb, leaves, and flowers of the trout lily are said to be edible and medicinal in small quantities, though I haven’t eaten this myself. It is considered by some sources to be a threatened plant, and it’s another slow-grower, taking about eight years to blossom into maturity. This is a species that I have identified as already present in my woods, and one that I am trying to protect. I have chosen not to harvest any of it, at least for now.
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  • Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense). Host plant for the Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly, this native herb grows in shade and part shade. Its name comes from the gingery flavor of its roots, and it does have a history of edible and medicinal uses by indigenous peoples. I don’t think I’ll eat this plant myself any time soon, because modern research has revealed toxic compounds present in this plant. However, I still want to re-establish it into my woods for its many ecological benefits.
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  • American Hazelnut (Corylus americana): The American Hazelnut is one of the most useful and most adaptable plants I have encountered. From full sun to full shade, average soil to moist soil, this plant can flourish almost everywhere. The nuts it produces are, by all accounts, very similar to commercially available hazelnuts. In addition to the edible nut, this plant also permits heavy pruning, and the cut wood is useful in many applications such as basketry, garden trellises, and other structures.
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  • Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis): Bloodroot can grow in shade or part shade. It grows in abundance on my land already, and so far I have observed it exclusively along the woodland edge, so I’m placing it in this category. It may be that once I open up more light in the woods by removing the honeysuckle bushes, bloodroot will spread into the deeper woodland spaces. Bloodroot is a medicinal herb, but it’s a serious medicine and not for lighthearted use. I don’t feel comfortable working with this plant at this stage in my herbalist training, but I love this plant and I hope it continues to thrive here for years to come.
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  • Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum): Like Bloodroot, Mayapple can grow in shade or part shade, but on my land I have only observed it growing with Bloodroot along the woodland edge. I have never used this plant for food or medicine myself, but some do. It’s another serious plant with deadly poisonous parts, but the ripe fruit is said to be edible and choice. It’s a beautiful plant, often cultivated as an ornamental.
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  • Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides): A native medicinal herb of the deep shade, this plant is on the United Plant Savers “At Risk” list.
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  • Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis): Many states consider this plant threatened or endangered. It is a beautiful plant from the buttercup family, at home in the deep shade and highly valued for its medicinal uses. This is another slow growing, native woodland plant that asks for our patience and consideration.
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  • Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria). Unlike most of the plants that I’m interested in, this plant is poisonous, so don’t eat it! However, it’s a beautiful native wildflower that I have identified in my woods. I’m glad it’s there, and I am working to protect it.
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  • Mushrooms. Mushrooms aren’t plants, but they are an integral part of the woodland lifecycle. Many mushrooms are edible and/or medicinal, and could make a valuable crop under the canopy. If you’re interested in growing a specific kind of mushroom, you can inoculate logs in your woods by drilling holes in them and filling the holes with wooden pegs or sawdust that have been previously inoculated with that type of mushroom. Shiitake and oyster mushrooms are commonly grown this way.

For Further Reading

Native Plants For The Woodland Edge
The Food In The Forest
The Woodland Understory
Native Plant Resources

Book Recommendations

“1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus”, by Charles C. Mann
“Braiding Sweetgrass”, by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Iwígara: American Indian Ethnobotanical Traditions and Science“, by Enrique Salmón
“Wild Food Plants of Indiana”, by Alan McPherson
“Nature’s Garden”, by Samuel Thayer

Other Sources and Resources

United Plant Savers
Plants For A Future
Minnesota Wildflowers
Mountain Gardens
Native American Ethnobotany Database

If you enjoyed this totally ad-free, affiliate-link-free, sponsored-content-free, subscription-fee-free, 100% honest free article, please consider sending some love my way! You can help further this cause of Earth-positive agriculture by commenting on this blog, sharing this article with your friends, following me on social media, and interacting with my posts. If you’re feeling especially generous, you could also toss me a few coins through a free platform called Ko-Fi, or make a purchase from my online shop. Thank you for reading.
“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” -Garrison Keillor

Native Plants for the Woodland Edge

Happy Halloween!

Halloween marks the midpoint between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice. It is a time of transition between fall and winter. Here on the farm, I feel this transition every day. I watch the colorful orange leaves drop from the trees to reveal bare tree skeletons and I listen to the cold winds as they rip through the now-bare hills and howl at my windows. This is not a scary time for me, but rather a time of clarity. I no longer spend my days frantically directing the immense energy of summer growth. I can take the time for contemplation and careful strategy. As the bones of the forest come into focus, I can see paths into places that were closed to me during summer. I can begin to see my winter work with the clarity of an x-ray. It is time to begin cleaning up The Woodland Understory.

This project, in short, involves removing the invasive honeysuckle bushes from the woodland understory, and then reintroducing native plants in their place. I am buzzing with excitement for this new project. Although I don’t believe any plant is a “bad plant”, the honeysuckle has greatly overstepped its boundaries in this part of the world. It has filled in spaces that were meant for other plants, native plants, plants that offer much-needed gifts to the insects, wildlife, and human beings of this place. Many of these native woodland plants offer extremely valuable food and medicines for people, and all contribute to the wider web of the ecosystem.

Into The Woods

The more I learn about the history of this land and its people, the deeper my appreciation grows for this problem. It’s not just that honeysuckle bushes were introduced from Asia, it’s that the native plants of this place lost most of their caregivers, and with that their fighting chance against invasive species. It has been eye-opening to learn of the deep reciprocal relationship that once existed throughout this land between the native people and the wild spaces. The wild spaces were once tended with care, so the wild plants became dependent on their people. The honeysuckle problem is not just about honeysuckle, it’s also about missing plants and missing relationships. The native plants need people to tend them and protect them. I can’t solve this problem alone, but I’ll keep learning about it and I’ll keep working towards that goal. For now, this project is my next step.

Woodland Niches

There are two major categories of woodland plants: woodland edge plants, and woodland understory plants. Woodland edge plants grow on the edge between the dark of the forest and the light of the clearing. Plants from both niches are abundant, diverse, and extremely valuable, and I’ll talk about plants for the deep woods in a future article. Some plants can grow in both niches (like the honeysuckle bush), but may offer different kinds of harvest depending on their placement. Here’s a list of the native plants I am considering for the woodland edge, so you can get an idea of the diverse blend of amazing native plants available for woodland gardeners. We’ll look at these plants individually in more detail as the project progresses!

Native Plants of the Woodland Edge

Do your own thorough research before touching, foraging or ingesting any new plant. Mistakes can happen and so can allergies, interactions, and idiosyncratic reactions. Information presented in this article and elsewhere on this web site is for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose or treat any health conditions. View our full legal disclaimer here.

  • Prickly Ash (Zanthoxylum americanum): Although this is one of the plants explicitly named as plentiful from, “A Historical Sketch of Johnson County”, I have spent most of my life in this county never having seen a single prickly ash. I have been trying for years to source seeds or plants to re-establish this on my land to no avail. Finally this year I ordered a seed packet and a single potted sapling from two separate Etsy shops. We shall see what comes of them. I have great hopes, as do the Giant Swallowtail Butterflies who need this as a host plant. This plant has documented uses for food and medicine, though I haven’t had the opportunity to try it myself (never having seen the mature plant).
  • Slender Nettle (Urtica dioica subsp. gracilis): Near and dear to my own heart, stinging nettle might be my very favorite plant. The stinging hairs guard great treasures, as this plant has valuable uses in food, in medicine, in dyes, and in fibers. I have been re-establishing our native subspecies (Slender Nettle) over the past few years, and it is thriving along my woodland edge. Slender nettle supports the caterpillars of several native butterfly species.
  • Elderberry (Sambucus nigra subsp. canadensis): A native plant in the honeysuckle family, Elderberry flourishes along the woodland edge. It’s especially well suited for damp locations, and provides both food and medicine for people. I’ve successfully established some elderberry plants in my floodplain already, as well as in my garden. I look forward to bringing it closer to the woods as well.
  • Spicebush (Lindera benzoin): A fragrant relative of the beloved Sassafras tree, spicebush is a shrub that grows along the woodland edge. Like Elderberry, it is especially well suited to damp locations, and I have those aplenty. Spicebush has established uses for both food and medicine, and it’s also a host plant for the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly.
  • Pawpaw (Asimina triloba): The pawpaw tree can grow in full sun to full shade, though it produces the most fruit in full sun. I think I’ll add some along the woodland edge as well, because in my opinion, one can never have enough pawpaws.
  • American Hazelnut (Corylus americana): The American Hazelnut is one of the most useful and most adaptable plants I have encountered. From full sun to full shade, average soil to moist soil, this plant can flourish almost everywhere. The nuts it produces are, by all accounts, very similar to commercially available hazelnuts. In addition to the edible nut, this plant also permits heavy pruning, and the cut wood is useful in many applications such as basketry, garden trellises, and other structures.
  • Wild Grapes (Vitis spp.): Riverbank Grape (Vitis riparia) already flourishes on this land. There are other native grape species that I’d like to try to introduce as well. The grape vines thrive on the woodland edge, vining up to the tops of trees and knitting the forest together. The fruit occurs where the sun shines, and that can often mean a difficult harvest at the tippy top of the canopy. However, grape leaves have many uses as well, and those occur everywhere.
  • Raspberry, blackberry, and dewberry (Rubus spp.): These delicious cousins thrive and fruit along the woodland edge. Black raspberry and blackberry already thrive here. I’m working to reintroduce the dewberry on the recommendation of a neighbor, who has fond memories of dewberry pie from childhood. These plants can also be grown in the deep woods, but they may not fruit in full shade.
  • Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis): Bloodroot can grow in shade or part shade. It grows in abundance on my land already, and so far I have observed it exclusively along the woodland edge, so I’m placing it in this category. It may be that once I open up more light in the woods by removing the honeysuckle bushes, bloodroot will spread into the deeper woodland spaces. Bloodroot is a medicinal herb, but it’s a serious medicine and not for lighthearted use. I don’t feel comfortable working with this plant at this stage in my herbalist training, but I love this plant and I hope it continues to thrive here for years to come.
  • Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum): Like Bloodroot, Mayapple can grow in shade or part shade, but on my land I have only observed it growing with Bloodroot along the woodland edge. I have never used this plant for food or medicine myself, but some do. It’s another serious plant with deadly poisonous parts, but the ripe fruit is said to be edible and choice. It’s a beautiful plant, often cultivated as an ornamental.
  • Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa): A beautiful and medicinal herb, Black Cohosh can grow in part shade to shade and is well suited to moist soil.

“Tall trees covered the whole county with their wide-spreading branches, depending to the ground, and the shrubbery below arose and united with the branches of the trees…In the open space, in the valleys, grew either prickly ash or nettles, both equally armed with sharp, fiery prickles…Where spice-wood did not grow to thickly, male fern formed a solid mass three feet in depth, covering logs and pit falls so completely”

-Judge Franklin Harden, “A Historical Sketch of Johnson County” (1881)

For Further Reading

The Food In The Forest
The Woodland Understory
About The Farm
Farming the Woodland

Book Recommendations

“1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus”, by Charles C. Mann
“Braiding Sweetgrass”, by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Iwígara: American Indian Ethnobotanical Traditions and Science“, by Enrique Salmón
“Wild Food Plants of Indiana”, by Alan McPherson
“Nature’s Garden”, by Samuel Thayer

If you enjoyed this totally ad-free, affiliate-link-free, sponsored-content-free, subscription-fee-free, 100% honest free article, please consider sending some love my way! You can help further this cause of Earth-positive agriculture by commenting on this blog, sharing this article with your friends, following me on social media, and interacting with my posts. If you’re feeling especially generous, you could also toss me a few coins through a free platform called Ko-Fi, or make a purchase from my online shop. Thank you for reading.
“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” -Garrison Keillor

The Woodland Understory

“The plants have enough spirit to transform our limited vision.”

Rosemary Gladstar

Included in our many diverse habitats, Strawberry Moon Farm treasures 3.5 acres of established woodlands. These wooded acres are my favorite places to explore. In the months of autumn, winter, and early spring, when the woods are not so dense with growing things and I am not so busy in the garden, I walk amongst the trees almost daily. Though 3.5 acres isn’t a huge forest, it’s enough that I can get a little bit lost in them if I’m trying. It’s enough that I can find myself completely surrounded by beings older than myself. Over the years I have learned how to identify most of the tree and plant species on the land. I’ve been delighted and amazed to find that many of them produce incredible foods, medicines, and other useful supplies. These woods have given me peace, insight, and sustenance. It is time for me to give something back to the woods. I intend to give them back their understory.

What Is The Woodland Understory?

When most people think of the woods, they think about the tall trees. But woodlands are made of many layers, and each layer is vital to the health of the whole. The word understory refers to the lower growing shrubs, brambles, herbs, and vines that grow beneath the tall canopy of the forest. This low layer of vegetation is often the most neglected, most damaged, and most threatened. Although some people plant new trees after old growth has been cleared, rarely does anyone come back to re-establish the native understory layer once those new trees have grown enough to form a canopy that can cover them. Invasive plants take over, and this precious habitat for native herbs is quickly filled by more aggressive species. Because of this, many of our native woodland plants are now threatened or endangered.

I am very excited to announce our newest project, to restore the woodland understory with native plants at Strawberry Moon Farm!

Project Details and Grant Funding

This week, I had the great privilege of signing the papers for my second grant award from National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). NRCS has been an invaluable partner to this farm, and in addition to funding our wetland reforestation project, they have also provided information, ideas, encouragement, and guidance. One of the ecology goals NRCS works towards is reducing the spread of invasive woodland understory plants, so they sometimes pay farmers to remove invasive plants such as Asian Bush Honeysuckle from their woods and hedgerows. The funding I received will help me in my endeavor to clear most of the honeysuckle from my woods and prepare the understory for replanting with native plants.

Money from these grants is often used to purchase herbicides to make sure the invasive plants are fully dead with no hope of return. I remain deeply committed to organic and least-harm land management methods, and I have been very up front about that with NRCS. We have agreed on an approach that uses no chemicals or sprays of any kind. It will be a more prolonged, labor-intensive approach, but I’m up for the task. My plan is to cut the bushes down to ground level, attempt to uproot as many trunks as possible, and then continuously mow over any re-sprouts so that they can no longer grow large or produce seeds. Some of the grant money I receive will be used to purchase new seeds and plants to give the understory new life after this transition. The seed of an idea for this project is one of the reasons why I joined the United Plant Savers and enrolled in the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine last year. Both of these organizations value the native herbs of Eastern North America, and I am learning as much as I can about these important plant allies in hopes of establishing thriving populations of them on this land.

Bloodroot In Bloom
Bloodroot, a precious native woodland herb

Thoughts About Invasive Plants

I’m grateful to the honeysuckle for stepping in to hold the soil together and perform the alchemical magic of photosynthesis. Perhaps no other plant could have done so without help. Human beings are meant to be part of nature after all, and wild spaces often struggle in our absence. But now that I’m here to step into the role of human being of this ecosystem, I am turning my attention to restoring balance in the woodland understory.

The land I live on was lushly forested and well managed by indigenous people such as the Miami, Lenape, Kaskasia, and Kickapoo tribes prior to colonization. When settlers pushed north from Kentucky to stake their claim on what is now Johnson County, Indiana, what they found was mostly forested swampland. They didn’t stop to consider how they might live in harmony with that kind of landscape, or what it could offer them. Instead, they made quick work of cutting down all the trees and burning everything in sight. They assumed such destruction was necessary in order to create open fields for the crops they were accustomed to farming. Perhaps it did not occur to them that people were already thriving on this richly forested land before they arrived, or that it was already the picture of abundance. Thriving forests require human management, and people had put a lot of work into those old forests that they thoughtlessly cleared.

Speaking as a person who works with this land every day, I can tell you with certainty that it still wants to be forested swampland. If I stop mowing a patch of ground and leave it to its own devices, it will be thick with baby trees within a year. The trees that grow up on their own are a result of whatever seeds blow in, and are not necessarily the most desirable species or even a very diverse mixture of species. One of the gifts human beings bring to the forest is the gift of creativity. We can look at a damaged field and think, “What if a great oak tree grew here, 50 years from now?” Humans have the power to imagine all the creatures that could raise families in the branches of that oak tree that does not exist yet, and all those that could gather acorns from below, and all the small plants that could grow in its shade. We have the power to plant seeds, to water them, to nurse them through their tender times until they are strong. And we have the skill to guard them against other plants and creatures that would snuff them out before they reach their full potential.

I used to be hesitant to weed out any plant from my garden. After all, every plant has special gifts, and no plants are bad or useless. However, I have grown to be more comfortable in performing my role as a human being of the ecosystem. I see now that removing one plant can be an act of care for another plant. To do so is to be a steward. Careful selection can bring beautiful growth.

I hope this project will bring forth something beautiful and new and ancient. It will take several years to complete, and I’ll update you from time to time on my progress. Wish me luck, and stay tuned!

If you enjoyed this totally ad-free, affiliate-link-free, sponsored-content-free, subscription-fee-free, 100% honest free article, please consider sending some love my way! You can help further this cause of Earth-positive agriculture by commenting on this blog, sharing this article with your friends, following me on social media, and interacting with my posts. If you’re feeling especially generous, you could also toss me a few coins through a free platform called Ko-Fi, or make a purchase from my online shop. Thank you for reading.
“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” -Garrison Keillor

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy these other posts about our woods and ecological restoration projects:
Farming The Wetland
The Food In The Forest
Life in the Flood Plain
Farming the Woodland

The Food In The Forest

One of the iconic paradigms of permaculture is a food forest. The idea is as follows:

“By understanding how forests grow and sustain themselves without human intervention, we can learn from Nature, copy the systems and patterns to model our own forests — ones filled with trees and plants that produce food we can eat.”

Angelo Eliades, Permaculture News Magazine

Food forests are beautiful in concept and application, and many indigenous cultures throughout the centuries have practiced agroforestry techniques along these lines. If you’re starting with a lawn or a farm field, then planting a food forest is kind of like planting turbo-charged garden, and it’s likely to be a major ecological, environmental, and aesthetic improvement over what was there before. But what if your lot is already wooded? Should you cut down existing trees to replace them with food-bearing trees?

I encountered this very dilemma on the land I steward. Strawberry Moon Farm is about 10 acres in size; minuscule compared to all of the neighboring farms. Of this, we have 2.4 acres of frequently flooded wetland, 3.6 acres of woods, and 4.4 acres of former corn fields and lawn. By mainstream thinking, that equates to 4.4 acres of “good farm land”. At first, I believed this misconception about good and bad land, and I was not sure if the 4.4 classically-appreciable acres would allow enough room for all the plantings I had in mind for this farm. I briefly considered cutting down some trees in the woods to make space for more “food trees”. Ultimately, the idea of cutting down lots of trees made me feel a little sick. But don’t we need food? Aren’t there hungry and undernourished people in our community? Isn’t it important to reduce food miles? And, if I plant new trees, does that make up for cutting down existing trees? The old ones? The native ones? Is a food forest better than a wild forest?

Luckily, I was not forced to make that impossibly heart-wrenching choice. And if you are facing a similar tough decision, relax. There is really good news here. The forest is already made of food.

If you have a wood lot on your property, go to your library and borrow a nice field guide for tree identification in your locale. Take it with you as you walk through your woods. Identify as many trees as you can, and write down their names. Later, employ high technology to its highest purpose, and google those trees. Learn all you can learn about them. Search for them in the Plants For A Future database. Search for them in ethnobotanical databases, such as BRIT. Find out as much as you can about the ways indigenous people use them for food, medicine, tools, and fiber. Learn any modern uses. Learn which mushroom species can be cultivated on the fallen branches from each tree. Learn about its importance to wildlife and pollinators, about its lifecycle, and about its impact on soil, water, and air quality. Learn about its native range, and find out if it is endangered. Chances are, most of the trees in your woods have at least one wondrous purpose, and your only real task is to learn how to responsibly partake of their gifts.

In my case, the woods provide walnuts, hickory nuts, acorns, beech nuts, sweet syrups, cherries, grapes, mulberries, fresh greens of many types, edible flowers and seeds, blackberries, raspberries, herbs, and spices. And I am convinced that is not all, that there is much more value in my woods that I have not yet learned to see. We are not talking about a token yield of a few snacks here, but rather about buckets and buckets of harvest every year, for which we need do no work other than learn what it is and be present to gather it and give thanks. In the future, when I have the time available, there is ample opportunity for me to engage with these woods in a more meaningful way. If I remove some of the invasive undergrowth, I could cultivate many more food and medicine herbs, brambles, and shrubs under the shade of the old canopy. I could inoculate fallen logs with edible mushroom spawn, and harvest the fruiting bodies. I could plant young saplings to replace dead and dying trunks, and eventually harvest their bounty. I could reintroduce numerous species of endangered or threatened native plants. I am only beginning to scratch the surface of all that is possible in these woods.

The key skills in farming the woods are to observe with attention and intention, to learn to recognize gifts of great worth, and to learn how to harvest responsibly and sustainably. One cannot approach a woodland with arrogance and a closed mind and expect to leave with an abundant harvest. Unfortunately, that’s what the first colonists of my county did, and it resulted in most of our old growth forests being cleared, most of our wetlands being drained, and a labor-intensive, resource-intensive monoculture imposed over the ashes of a once great land.

“Tall trees covered the whole county with their wide-spreading branches, depending to the ground, and the shrubbery below arose and united with the branches of the trees…In the open space, in the valleys, grew either prickly ash or nettles, both equally armed with sharp, fiery prickles…Where spice-wood did not grow to thickly, male fern formed a solid mass three feet in depth, covering logs and pit falls so completely” …

“During a dry time, two or three men might, by merely sowing and deadening over with fire, burn up the whole superincumbent covering over eight or ten acres in a single day… till the whole county, in an incredibly short time, was brought into cultivation.”

-Judge Franklin Harden, “A Historical Sketch of Johnson County” (1881)

Had Judge Harden (one of the first colonists of my county) and his people made a priority to learn from the indigenous people who were already engaged in a longstanding fruitful and reciprocal relationship with this land, perhaps we would all be living a more abundant life today. If he had studied more deeply, he might have learned that prickly ash, nettles, spice-wood (spicebush), some species of ferns, and many species of tall trees already produce premium quality food, and some of those plants have useful medicinal applications as well. Furthermore, there were likely many other magnificent species that he overlooked in his haste to slash and burn.

“There were wild plums, strawberries, grapes, pawpaws, persimmons, crabapples, and many varieties of berries. The acorn of the bur oak, Indian potatoes, and tubers of the water chinkapin, arrowleaf, and Jerusalem artichoke supplied starch. Common milkweed, flowers of the mulberry, early shoots of skunk cabbage, sour dock, wild onion, and a number of other plants were prized as greens. Teas were made from spikenard, spicebush, sassafras, and several other plants.”

-Stewart Rafert, an account of the wild local bounty known and enjoyed by one of Indiana’s largest indigenous tribes, the Miami. From “The Miami Indians of Indiana, A Persistent People” (1999).

I wish I could have seen my state covered by that old and abundant forest made of food. Past harms cannot be undone, but we can choose to learn from the mistakes of our past and to make a better decision today. I’m grateful for the wild spaces that remain, and I will do what is in my power to do to preserve and restore them. The woods on my land are not old, but they are becoming old. A token few trees may have lived a century or longer, but most are 50 years or younger. It is likely that someone of my grandparents’ generation planted the majority of these trees. That planting was a great gift. I hope someday, when a future generation inherits the new native tree forest that I have planted, they can recognize the inherent worth of it, and steward it on into the future. And as I begin to plant the 4.4 “good” acres on this farm, I find my plans evolving towards more and more native food-bearing trees and plants over the more common (mostly Eurasian) orchard crops. The native plants offer a brilliant package of joy and nourishment for the entire ecosystem. Perhaps one day, the old forest of abundance will return to these ten little acres in Johnson County.

For further reading:

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“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” -Garrison Keillor

The American Persimmon

It’s persimmon season! Diospyros virginiana, the American persimmon, is one of my personal favorite fruits. The American persimmon tree is native to a large part of the United States, including south and central Indiana. It is related to the commercially available Asian Persimmons (Diospyros kaki), and to several other trees commercially grown for fruit and timber. This is a low-maintenance tree that is easy to grow organically, and the fruit is an important food source for local wildlife (and for local fruit-loving people). I have planted a few dozen American persimmon trees here at the farm, but while I wait for them to mature and become fruitful, I forage fallen ripe persimmons every September from an established tree in town. I leave all the smooshed ones for wildlife to enjoy, and only take the whole fruits with their skins in tact. Share and share alike.

I grew up enjoying American persimmons in pureed form, usually baked into a regional delicacy called persimmon pudding (though the texture of this dish is more like a brownie than pudding). I have also enjoyed this fruit made into persimmon ice cream and persimmon cake, and both are delicious. Recipes usually call for added sugar in these desserts, but personally I don’t think they need any sugar at all. The fruit is sweet enough all by itself! I can imagine countless other uses for this fruit, if only I could ever get enough of them to try out all the ideas. When fully ripe, American persimmon is very sweet with a soft grainy texture similar to fresh dates. But instead of a date flavor, it has a delicious persimmon flavor. The fruits are round, sized between one and two inches diameter, with one or more seeds in the middle. The seeds are large, and resemble pumpkin seeds. The unripe fruits are very astringent, so you definitely want to make sure you only harvest fully ripe persimmon fruit. It is commonly said that you must wait until after a frost to harvest these fruits, but that is only a myth. The easiest way to harvest is to wait for the ripe fruits to fall naturally to the ground, and simply pick them up. If you own the land the tree is on, you can spread sheets of fabric underneath the tree to speed harvesting and keep the fruits clean.

Although I have grown up enjoying this fruit for as long as I can remember, the only fresh, whole American persimmons I have ever encountered are those I have gathered myself. This is a fruit meant to be eaten soon after harvest, and does not store well. American persimmons are usually processed and sold as frozen pulp, or as baked goods. I do enjoy eating them fresh, when I can get them. This year, I decided to dry some of the persimmons I gathered so that I can enjoy them all winter. I washed them, split them in half with my fingers to remove the seeds, then laid out all the pieces of persimmon flesh onto dehydrator trays in a single layer. I dried them at 130 degrees for about 12 hours. Dehydrator time and temperatures need not be very precise, and if you typically dry tomatoes and other fruits in your oven or in the sun, I think a similar method would work as well for persimmons. The dried persimmons turned out chewy and sweet and wonderful. I have read that the seeds can be roasted and added to coffee, and that the leaves can be dried and used as tea. I have not tried these uses yet myself, but I did dry the seeds for future recipe experiments.

American Persimmon Fruit Prepared for Drying
American Persimmons de-seeded and ready for the dehydrator! A nice tray of lemon balm from the herb spiral awaits the dehydrator in the background. And that knife on the cutting board turned out to be totally unnecessary!
Dried American Persimmons
Finished dried persimmons and persimmon seeds.

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“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” -Garrison Keillor

Oaks of Indiana

An oak is a beautiful, long-lived tree. They don’t erupt in floral fireworks in the spring, but their autumnal display is second to none. They’re planted in parks, back yards, and campuses for their generous shade, farmed for their highly valuable lumber, and climbed by adventurous children and young-at-heart alike. The oak belongs to the noble Fagaceae tree family, along with Beeches, Chestnuts, and Chinkapins. Roughly one year out of every three, an oak tree is capable of producing a huge crop of healthful and delicious nuts that sustained many civilizations throughout human history.

Did you make a confused face when I mentioned oak nuts? Yes, we are talking about acorns!

Acorn Uses

Oak Leaf with AcornsAcorns are not suitable for fresh snacking like pecans are, but after some simple processing (involving soaking the nuts in water to remove their bitter tannins) they can be ground into a versatile and gluten free flour that can be baked into cakes, cookies, breads, and more. They can also be made into porridges, soups, and beverages. Their culinary use is more similar to grains than the nuts that might more commonly come to mind, although their cultivation requires none of the ecologically destructive tillage practices and deleterious sprays that are commonly employed in grain farming. The extensive root system of the oak tree helps to protect soil from the forces of erosion, which in turn protects clean water. The many leaves of the oak tree filter the air of the carbon that we have too much of, and infuse the air in turn with plenty of the oxygen that we need more of. Since these trees grow all by themselves and produce plentiful acorns in the wild, we know they won’t be high maintenance as crops. This is Earth-positive agriculture at its finest.

Aside from a few fun experiments with acorns, I haven’t really cooked with them in quantity. But that’s all about to change. For me, 2020 is to be the year of the acorn. I bought a new nutcracker so I can process them in bulk, and gathered all the publications I could find on the subject. Over the past month, I’ve been searching for oak trees everywhere I go, and keeping a detailed log of the species, location, and approximate age of each tree that I find, and noting whether or not the tree is producing acorns this year. My hope is to collect a sampling of acorns from every native oak species to experience and compare all the available flavors, and to collect a large quantity of acorns from trees of the easier-to-process white oak group for recipe experimentation and general winter sustenance. I probably won’t realistically gather acorns from every single native oak species this year, but eventually, I aim to collect them all.

Oak Tree Groups

Oak Leaf VeinsAccording to Wikipedia, there are around 600 species of oak trees, encompassing a multi-continental native range and spanning multiple oceans. Here in Indiana, we have quite a few native species of oak trees from the white oak group and the red oak group. The white oak group produces the sweetest nuts that ripen about six months after the tree flowers, and these nuts require less processing (soaking in fewer changes of water), since they contain lower levels of bitter tannins. The red oak group produces nuts that are higher in tannins, and ripen about 18 months after the tree flowers. Because of the higher tannin content, acorns from red oak trees require more work to process the bitterness out of them (you soak them in extra changes of water). However, all acorns are edible as long as you process them until they are no longer bitter. We have planted one hundred Swamp White Oak trees in our wetland food forest in anticipation of their delicious acorns, and so far they are thriving more than any other tree species we have planted. We also inherited a beautiful mature Bur Oak tree that grows on a steep slope between our high and low fields, and that tree is loaded with acorns this year. Most trees in the White Oak Group have rounded lobes on their leaves, and most trees in the Red Oak Group have pointed lobes on their leaves. However, this is not a 100% hard and fast rule. If you have space for an oak tree on your land, be sure to select a species that is native to your area. Native trees are usually easier to grow and more beneficial to your local ecosystem. Although you might notice some bite marks on the leaves of your oak tree, or an occasional acorn with a hole in it, please don’t spray as these are not usually a serious problem for the tree, and are a sign that the tree is supporting the vibrant web of life in your community.

Indiana Native Trees of the White Oak Group

  • Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa). A splendid tree with a very nice form and especially nice acorns. It is a very adaptable tree whose native range includes all of Indiana, and also dips down as far south as Texas and reaches up as far north as Canada.
  • Chestnut Oak (Quercus montana). Native to upland regions of eastern and southeastern United States, including the southernmost parts of Indiana.
  • Chinkapin Oak (Quercus muehlenbergii). Native to all of Indiana and several neighboring states. Prefers upland soils.
  • Dwarf Chinkapin Oak (Quercus prinoides). Native to all of Indiana and several neighboring states. Prefers dry, acidic soils.
  • White Oak (Quercus alba). A huge oak tree native to all of Indiana, as well as most of the eastern United States.
  • Overcup Oak (Quercus lyrata). A great lowland oak tree native to several southeastern United States, including a very small area of southern Indiana.
  • Post Oak (Quercus stellata). Native to southern Indiana and most of the southeastern United States. A smaller oak tree that prefers dry soils.
  • Swamp Chestnut Oak (Quercus michauxii). Native to a small section of southern Indiana, and several Southern, Eastern, and Southeastern United States. Very similar to Chestnut Oak, but native to lowland regions instead.
  • Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor). Native to lowlands across all of Indiana, and a few neighboring states.

Indiana Native Trees of the Red Oak Group

  • Black Oak (Quercus velutina). Native to all of Indiana, and to a huge range encompassing much of eastern United States. Adaptable to multiple soil types.
  • Blackjack Oak (Quercus marilandica). Native to dry soils of southwestern Indiana, and several southeastern United States.
  • Cherrybark Oak (Quercus pagoda). Native to a tiny corner of southwestern Indiana, but mostly to southern states. Thrives in moist bottomland soils and tolerates occasional flooding.
  • Northern Pin Oak (Quercus ellipsoidalis). Native to uplands of northern Indiana, northern Illinois, and a few other northern states.
  • Pin Oak (Quercus palustris). Native to moist but well-drained soils across all of Indiana, and to our neighboring states to the west, south, and east.
  • Red Oak (Quercus rubra). Native to all of Indiana, and a huge range encompassing most of the eastern United States and parts of Canada. Adaptable to multiple soil types.
  • Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea). Native to splotches of southern, northern, and central Indiana and most of the northeastern United States. Grows best in well-drained, acidic, dry or sandy soils.
  • Shingle Oak (Quercus imbricaria). Native to most of Indiana, as well as our neighboring states to the west, east, and south. Adaptable to many soil types.
  • Shumard Oak (Quercus shumardii). Native to most of Indiana and to the south. Adaptable to multiple soil types.

Side Note

One notable “oak” we thankfully do not have in Indiana is “poison oak”! Poison Oak is not related to oak trees at all. Its in the same genus as (closely related to) poison ivy and poison sumac, and its plant family curiously also includes cashews, pistachios, and mangoes! Poison “oak” is named such only because the leaf shape vaguely resembles the shape of an oak leaf. The similarities end there.

If you enjoyed this totally ad-free, affiliate-link-free, sponsored-content-free, subscription-fee-free, 100% honest free article, please consider sending some love my way! You can help further this cause of Earth-positive agriculture by commenting on this blog, sharing this article with your friends, following me on social media, and interacting with my posts. If you’re feeling especially generous, you could also toss me a few coins through a free platform called Ko-Fi, or make a purchase from my online shop. Thank you for reading.
“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” -Garrison Keillor

Farming the Woodland

When we look at garden catalogues, almost every plant description mentions “Full Sun”.  Almost every common food plant seems to require it, but there are many exciting, delicious, and beneficial crops that prefer shade.  That’s important information, because the mature trees and woodlands that are most often responsible for creating that shade are tremendously valuable.  If we view our trees as a hindrance to our gardening and farming efforts, then we become more likely to remove them, or to avoid planting them in the first place.  When we truly understand the ecosystems trees create, we can enter into a mutually beneficial partnership with them.  Furthermore, many of these shade-loving food crops are native to Midwestern USA.  When we grow native food plants, we nurture not only ourselves but also the beautiful community of wildlife, birds, butterflies, and other insects that depend on those plants.

A Smattering of Deep Shade Crops:

  • Ramps (native)
  • Ostrich Ferns aka Fiddleheads (native)
  • American Ginseng (native high-value medicinal crop)
  • Edible & Medicinal Mushrooms (native and non-native varieties)
  • Nuts or fruits from the large trees creating the deep shade (native and non-native)
  • Maple Syrup (the best syrup trees (sugar maple & red maple) are both native!)

A Sampler of Woodland Edge Crops (part shade):

  • Blackberries (native)
  • Black Raspberries (native)
  • Red Raspberries (not native)
  • Violets (Native violet leaves & flowers are great in salads. Non-native sweet violet flowers are used in perfumes, candies, and flavor syrups.)
  • Red Mulberries (Morus Rubra – native. Not to be confused with the more commonly found invasive white mulberry Morus Alba.)
  • Grapes (several species are native)
  • American Elder (Flowers and berries are used for food and medicine. Native.)
  • Spicebush (Bay Laurel relative. Leaves are used for tea, and berries are used like allspice. Native!)
  • Sassafras (Bay Laurel relative. Leaves are an important ingredient in gumbo (file).)
  • Honeyberry (non-native but non-invasive fruit crop)
  • Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana, native)
  • Stinging Nettles (The stinging mechanism deactivates when cooked properly, and then they are a delicious and highly nutritious vegetable. Some nettles are not native, but Urtica dioica subsp. gracilis is native!)

Woodland cultivation poses different advantages and different challenges than full sun gardening. Some special considerations include:

  • Cleaning up downed trees and limbs after storms
  • Maintaining access paths to the planting areas
  • Removing invasive species
  • Removing poison ivy
  • Reducing Mosquitoes

It’s a fascinating topic and we’re just getting started. I look forward to learning more and more about woodland gardening as I gain experience, and sharing that new knowledge with you here. I hope you’ll try a shade crop or two if you have a woodsy spot on your property! And more importantly, I hope you’ll look at trees as garden friends rather than foes.

If you enjoyed this totally ad-free, affiliate-link-free, sponsored-content-free, subscription-fee-free, 100% honest free article, please consider sending some love my way! You can help further this cause of Earth-positive agriculture by commenting on this blog, sharing this article with your friends, following me on social media, and interacting with my posts. If you’re feeling especially generous, you could also toss me a few coins through a free platform called Ko-Fi, or make a purchase from my online shop. Thank you for reading.
“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” -Garrison Keillor