Native Plants

Native Plant Foods in Indiana Culture

When you think of Hoosier cuisine, how many native plant foods come to mind?

When I visualize a classic Indiana meal, the kind of food I was served in childhood under the banner of home cooking, I envision a very specific dinner (or is it supper?). There was always meat of some sort, and in my family it was always from a farm animal such as chicken (originally from India), beef (Middle East, Europe, India), or pork (Eurasia). Next to the meat, we usually received vegetables such as sweet corn (Mexico), green beans (Central and South America), and a “starch” such as bread, pasta (wheat comes from the Middle East), or potatoes (South America). Sometimes there would also be a salad with iceberg lettuce (Middle East), carrots (Asia), and tomatoes (South America). When we ate fruit, it was usually an apple (Asia), a banana (Asia), an orange (Asia), table grapes (Eurasia), Watermelon (Africa), or Cantaloupe (Middle East, South Asia, Africa).

How did these foods from all over the world come to represent Indiana culture, and why didn’t any of the food plants that originate here make this list? I recently received an inquiry about this from a reader, so I will do my best to address it here. I’m a farmer rather than a historian, but I have studied this extensively and I have some thoughts about how it all came to be. What follows represents my personal perspective, as formed from books and articles I have read, lectures I have attended, and some observations I have made. My list of sources (to the best of my ability) is available at the end of this article.

An Elder Beech Tree In Winter, Branches Blowing In The Wind

Culture & Colonization

Colonization has shaped many facets of this country, and food culture is no exception. Settlers arrived on this continent by ship, mostly Europeans, and they brought their own fully formed cultures with them. They brought their own seeds and livestock to recreate their favorite dishes from home. They brought their agricultural styles, their knowledge and techniques, their garden plants, their mindsets, their dreams and their ways of life. There was some exchange with the indigenous cultures, especially in the earlier days when colonists were located mainly along the East coast, but most of the settlers were not very interested in making major changes to their established ways of life. The domesticated plants that people of the First Nations were growing in their gardens were more readily adopted by the newcomers than the wild native plants, and these were mostly native to South and Central America. The pioneers surely foraged and hunted to supplement what they were able to grow, but the culture they were building did not center a hunt and gather way of life.

Habitat Loss

As people of European descent moved into the land that we now call Indiana, many of them sought to establish farms and settlements that resembled those of European cultures. Native plants began to lose their habitats as forests were cleared and wetlands were drained to make room for the style of agriculture that the new inhabitants wanted to practice. Native plants struggled to compete with the introduced plants that had been specially selected and introduced because of their vigor and insect resistance. New plant diseases and herbivorous insects arrived on inbound ships with disastrous consequences. As a result, our native plants lost their habitat and their equilibrium.

Presently, many native plants are rare, threatened with endangerment, or endangered. Some of the plants we encounter most often in this part of the world are actually introduced or invasive plants. Many of our native plants should never be foraged. They need our protection, and they need us to plant more of them so that they may have a chance to re-establish themselves. This is why I advocate growing native plants as agriculture rather than foraging for most native plants. If we plant them, we protect them, we steward them, and we value them, then they have a chance to thrive again. Examples of threatened native plants include ramps, goldenseal, and ginseng. Visit United Plant Savers for a longer list of at-risk plants.

Industrialization

Some native edible plants still grow vigorously and abundantly to this day, yet they do not make up a significant part of Indiana food culture. I believe this is largely a result of our industrialized way of life. Most people don’t have the time to process all their own food from scratch. Most people don’t crack their own nuts, let alone mill their own flour or press their own oils. At some point in our nation’s history, factories and infrastructure grew up around certain crops and not others. It is difficult (but not impossible) to change that. We got used to eating things that can be flown in or trucked in from all over the world, so that we can eat the same things year-round. Highly perishable, locally grown, seasonal treats became less prominent. We learn to eat what the grocery stores provide. We plant what we are accustomed to eating. The cycle repeats unless interrupted.

Redbud Tree In Bloom (Cercis canadensis)

Surviving and Reviving Native Plant Food Traditions

Although native plant foods don’t take center stage in Indiana cuisine, they are still a part of it. We find them in festivals, in celebrated seasonal meals, and in our stories and songs. Starting in February, we see maple syrup festivals popping up all over the state. In April, we can warm up with a comforting cup at the Sassafras Tea Festival and Civil War Living History in Vernon. The bravest and most daring of eaters might venture into Kentucky to taste pokeweed at the Harlan County Poke Sallet Festival. In autumn, the southern region brightens for the Mitchell Persimmon Festival. People flock to the Ohio Pawpaw Festival en masse each year. We savor the persimmon ice cream at the Parke County Covered Bridge Festival. Have you enjoyed maple syrup on your pancakes recently? Maple syrup is a native plant food! Pecans, sunflower seeds, blueberries, and cranberries are all familiar native plant foods.

Perhaps you shop at a gourmet grocery store. I recently spotted sunchokes (a native plant food) for sale at my nearest Whole Foods for $5.99 per pound. Ground cherries (some species are native) also seem to be making a comeback in grocery stores and farmers markets. Shelled black walnuts are sometimes available at grocery stores, and fiddlehead ferns are occasionally served at gourmet restaurants. In the fall, check roadside stands and farmers market booths for persimmon pudding, a local delicacy.

Other native plant foods are ripe for revival. Raspberries and blackberries are already common items at most grocery stores. It would be an easy (and fun!) transition to begin including our native black raspberries and wild blackberries to that selection. Pawpaws are definitely making a comeback as a local, seasonal fruit. Elderberries are frequently available as wine, jelly, or medicine. Often, it’s the non-native variety that is commercially available, but our native Black Elderberry can be used in all the same ways. We have a native hops plant, several native mints, a native strawberry, several native grapes. In fact, the very popular concord grape was a selection from one of our native species. Other native edibles such as acorns and crab apples and pine needles might be a bigger stretch for the population at large, but for adventurous eaters like me, learning how to reconnect with those flavors is part of the fun.

So next time you sweeten something with maple syrup or sink your teeth into a nutty pecan square, know that you have enjoyed a native plant food. Imagine all the other exquisite flavors out there waiting to be celebrated, championed, and protected. Maybe they’re waiting for you.

Note: This article discusses edible and medicinal wild plants. Always do your own thorough research before touching, foraging or ingesting any plant that’s new to you. Identification 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 and entertainment purposes only and is not intended to diagnose or treat any health conditions. View our full legal disclaimer here.

Sources & Further Reading

The Highlight Reel (most relevant):

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus; Mann
The Miami Indians of Indiana: A Persistent People, 1654-1994; Rafert
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants; Kimmerer
The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture; Berry
Planting the Future: Saving Our Medicinal Herbs; Gladstar
Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England; Cronon
Bringing Nature Home; Tallamy

Additional Sources:

Unbowed: A Memoir; Maathai (Absolutely excellent, but only slightly relevant)
An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (ReVisioning History); Dunbar-Ortiz
Mexican-Origin Foods, Foodways, and Social Movements : Decolonial Perspectives; Peña, McFarland, Valle
Understanding Cultural and Human Geography; Robbins
The Taste of Conquest: The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice; Krondl
Lost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food; Newman
Decolonize Your Diet: Plant-Based Mexican-American Recipes for Health and Healing; Calvo, Esquibel

Additional Credits

“Indigenous Food Ways and Adapting to Change”, live lecture by Chef Nephi Craig in 2020
Live lecture by Karen La Mere in 2022