Organic Gardening & Farming, Plants

Permaculture In Place : Bioregional Plants For Permaculture Designs

When I was a new gardener just beginning to learn how to grow some of my own food, permaculture was the first method that really resonated with me. I was working with very poor soil at the time, and I was struggling to obtain a yield organically. I read every book I could find, tried some ridiculously gimmicky gadgets, spent entire weekends hanging around the community garden hoping an experienced gardener would show up and answer my questions, and frequented gardeners forums online. All of these tactics yielded useful information, but it was through permaculture books that I learned to ignore the gadgets, care for the soil, and to think about a garden as an interconnected, self-sustaining system. Permaculture taught me much about building healthy soil, living in harmony with the Earth, and growing what I use. It was my entry point into a new way of life that has served me well for fifteen years. I now know there are many traditions of sustainable agriculture, each with its own specialties and wisdom. I draw inspiration from Traditional Ecological Knowledge, Agrarianism, modern Regenerative Agriculture, and many more. For the most part, I think they all complement each other nicely.

The design patterns, goals, and ethics of permaculture can be practiced just about anywhere in the world. However, I often see the same plants recommended for a huge diversity of places referred to as “the temperate world”. The list includes comfrey, goumi, Siberian peashrub, bamboo, mulberry, apple, sunchoke, and more. A few of the plants I mentioned are native to my bioregion, but some are really hard to grow organically and others are highly invasive. Introducing an invasive plant species into an area can cause myriad problems, especially by out-competing the native plants that local pollinators and wildlife need for survival. By contrast, if we bring more native plants into our permaculture designs, we can help native pollinators and wildlife thrive.

“Native plants […] are the ecological basis upon which life depends, including birds and people. Without them and the insects that co-evolved with them, local birds cannot survive.”

The Audubon Society

The best news is, we don’t have to choose between growing native plants and growing our own food, medicine, and fibers. In this article, I will share some of my favorite native plants to fill several important permaculture niches. By growing, tending, and using native plants, we can develop a more intimate relationship with our own bioregion. We gain an opportunity to create an even deeper form of abundance, one that nurtures us as well as the birds, insects, wildlife, fungi, and micribiota that co-evolved with the plants of our place.

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.

Slender Nettle (Urtica dioica ssp. gracilis)

Dynamic Accumulators That Aren’t Comfrey

Comfrey (Symphytum spp.) is widely recommended by permaculturists because of its role as a dynamic accumulator. This means that it has deep roots that absorb nutrients from the depths of the soil. When the plant’s foliage is cut down and used as a mulch, those deep nutrients are added to the surface of the soil as it breaks down. Shallow-rooted plants can then benefit from the nutrient-rich mulch. But if you live outside comfrey’s native range in Eurasia, comfrey might become an invasive plant in your area. There have also been some recent scientific studies suggesting that comfrey might not be safe to use as a mulch on food crops, due to the harmful pyrrolizidine alkaloids it contains. Instead, I look to native plants with dynamic accumulator traits.

  • Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica): There are several types of stinging nettle, and one of them is native to almost all of the United States and Canada (Urtica dioica subsp. gracilis). Stinging nettle is one of my favorite plants. I didn’t have it growing on my land when I moved here, so I purchased plants of the native subspecies and planted them along my woodland edge. They’re thriving so far, even in some shady and boggy locations. In addition to working as a dynamic accumulator, stinging nettles can provide food, medicine, and a fiber that can be used similar to that of flax. One caution with this plant: true to its name, it does sting! Special precautions are needed for safe handling, and all plant matter must be cooked or dried before consuming it.
  • Trees (many kinds!): Trees are big time dynamic accumulators! Many, many species of native trees have deep roots that can make use of the nutrients deep down in the soil. When trees shed their leaves, substantial nutrients are given back to the top layer of the soil, and significant quantities of mulch can be provided by a single mature tree. Deciduous trees seem to provide the most mulch, but conifers often shed their needles as well. Bur Oak, Sugar Maple, and Shagbark Hickory are three of my favorite native Indiana trees with robust root systems, and all three of these trees also provide wonderful sources of human food.

Structural Plants That Aren’t Bamboo

Bamboo provides us with great structural material. You can make all kinds of things with bamboo! Fences, trellises, garden stakes, and more. But bamboo is very invasive in many parts of the United States. It hasn’t taken hold on my land yet, and I’m not about to introduce it. Instead, here are some native plants that can be used for similar purposes.

  • Willow (Salix spp.): Indiana has quite a few native willows, and all are useful for various purposes. Willows can be coppiced (cut back to ground level frequently) for basketry, trellises, living fences, or garden stakes. Some people also use certain willow species medicinally. Note that the popular Weeping Willow (Salix babylonica) is native to China, and is classified as an invasive species in parts of the U.S. Instead, look at the native Black Willow (Salix nigra) if you want a beautiful big tree, or Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) if you want a smaller, shrubby form with lots of twigs for basketry. If you live anywhere in the United States or Canada, there is likely at least one native willow species in your area.
  • American Hazel (Corylus americana): American Hazel produces edible hazelnuts, and it can also be maintained by coppicing. My American Hazel trees are too young to be used in this way, but I am told that the prunings will soon be abundant and useful. American Hazel is native to the Eastern and Midwestern United States and Southeastern Canada.
Redbud Tree In Bloom (Cercis canadensis)

Nitrogen Fixers That Aren’t Siberian Peashrub

Siberian peashrub (Caragana arborescens) is native to Asia, and it can become invasive in other parts of the world. Permaculturists often recommend it because of its ability to fix nitrogen, thereby adding fertilizer to the surrounding soil. Here are some beautiful, useful native nitrogen-fixers from my bioregion.

  • Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis). A beautiful native tree that turns many heads every April, Eastern Redbud is also in the legume plant family, which means that it is also a nitrogen fixer. Not only is the redbud tree stunningly beautiful when in bloom, but it has edible parts as well. It’s at least as good a food source as the Siberian peashrub, maybe better. Eastern Redbud has a large native range, encompasing most of the Eastern and Midwestern United States, Texas, and Ontario.
  • Groundnut (Apios americana). I haven’t yet grown groundnut, nor have I eaten it, but I have read enough good things about it to mention it here. It’s a native legume, and it’s on my list to try. Perhaps you’d like to try it too! Groundnut is native to the entire Eastern half of the United States, and Eastern parts of Canada.

The Three Mulberries

Mulberries are useful trees to have around. They fruit prolifically with very little effort, and they can keep the birds busy enough to leave other fruits alone. If a late freeze spoils my mulberry harvest, the birds eat every last one of my blackberries instead. In good mulberry years, there’s plenty of fruit for us all. There are three main species of mulberry. One is native here, one is invasive, and the other is not very well adapted to cold Indiana winters.

The most common mulberry tree is the invasive White Mulberry, Morus alba. This is the weedy mulberry that grows prolifically along sidewalks and fences. It tends to be a small shrubby tree with dense branches and small fruit. Despite its name, the ripe fruits are usually purple, and they tend to be sweet without much flavor to them. White Mulberry loves sunny spaces, tolerates a wide range of soil conditions, and grows quickly. Its leaves are shiny on top and have few if any hairs on the underside.

Red Mulberry (Morus rubra) is our native species, but it’s rare. Red Mulberry is a larger tree with wider branch spacing and larger fruit. Like the White Mulberry, Red Mulberry fruit is almost always purple when ripe. I’ve often heard that Red Mulberry fruit is much more flavorful than that of the White Mulberry. Red mulberry leaves are a darker green, not shiny on top and are more hairy on the underside. Red Mulberry hybridizes readily with White Mulberry, and trees of 100% Red Mulberry genetics are rare. Even if you purchase your trees from a nursery, it is possible that they contain some White Mulberry DNA. Consult a good field guide to make an accurate identification of Red Mulberry- it really is difficult to tell it apart from White Mulberry and its hybrids.

There’s also a Black Mulberry (Morus nigra) which is reputed to be the most delicious of them all. Black mulberry is native to southern Asia, and it isn’t reliably winter hardy here in Indiana. It is happiest in Zones 7-9.

More About Mulberries

“Red and White Mulberry in Indiana”, by Sally S. Weeks
“The Rarest Tree”, by Samuel Thayer
“Native Trees of the Midwest” by Sally S. Weeks and Harmon P. Weeks (book)

Conclusion

The plants native to my bioregion aren’t inherently better than plants native to any other bioregion. They also aren’t inherently less than the plants of any other bioregion. They’re just better for this particular place. When I was a new gardener, I fell into the envy trap set by all the garden catalog companies. I wished I could grow tropical plants, exotic plants, plants from far away. It took me over a decade and two cross-country moves to realize that I had been taking some pretty great things for granted. When I began to appreciate the native plants and the scenery that was right in front of me, it was truly transformational. This new way of seeing changed more than just my garden, it changed my whole life. I hope this article inspires you to take a fresh look at your own place, and the native plants that make it shine. Maybe there’s room for more of them in your permaculture project!

For Further Reading

The Flow of Permaculture
To All The New Gardeners
Winter Snow Day Reading List : 5 Favorite Books on Ecology, Botany, and Gardening
Whole Earth