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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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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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.

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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.

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