Why I Farm Native Plant Foods
I wasn’t much interested in native plants until I came to live on this land in August of 2015. I knew that native plants were good for the wildlife, and that they could be pretty, but I was only interested in edible plants. I wanted to start a farm that would provide healthy and diverse organic foods for people. And I thought that native plants belonged mostly in the hedgerows and wild places. I could imagine native plants in the landscaping, because I had seen them there, but I never imagined them in food production. I had never seen them in orchards, I had never seen them in vegetable gardens, and I rarely saw them in garden catalogues. Those catalog plants are packaged with such wonderful marketing, aren’t they?
Then, native plants started to catch my attention. In autumn of that first year, I tasted a nut from a mature shagbark hickory tree I found in the woods. It was the most delicious nut I had ever tasted. An idea started to form in my mind. Where have these been all my life? Why aren’t they a crop? Could they be a crop?
Before the sale papers were even signed, I began to realize that my land was unusual. The field at the bottom of the hill was flooded on move-in day, and I stared out across a doomed corn crop drowning in about four feet of water. Permaculture visions of “fixing the water problem” with earthworks danced in my head. I thought about berms, drainage tiles or a detention pond. I wanted the land to be productive, and I wasn’t familiar with any useful plants that could grow in wet conditions. Everything in the garden catalog wants good drainage.
That winter, I called in some experts for advice. My local representatives from the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Soil & Water Conservation District both came out to advise me about the best way to proceed. When I asked them how to drain the field, they explained that wetlands, including floodplains like mine, are a vanishing resource that is vitally important for the ecosystem. The water is not a problem, but an asset. They told me that there are native trees that can survive the floods, protect the habitat, and produce some sort of an edible harvest. If I was willing to think outside the catalog, it was possible to protect the wetland and its many ecological benefits and grow food in that field. We could build the best of both worlds. I thought of the hickory nuts.
In my first summer here, I ate wild black raspberries that I found growing along the edges of the fields. Their complex flavor conjured up long forgotten childhood memories of blue raspberry candy. Marketing or not, these were first rate foods. One by one, native plants captivated my attention with their mouth watering fruits, their bountiful nuts, their nutritious greens and their astounding ability to grow and thrive in soils where no self-respecting peach tree would ever be caught dead. On a dry sandy slope? Yes. In heavy clay soil? Yes. In a boggy marsh with nonexistent drainage? Heck yes. I started reading about the native food-bearing plants of my region. I learned about the American hazelnut, the wild plum, the pecan. Many of them seemed very crop-worthy. I already knew that growing native plants was a good thing to do, but I thought it was an altruistic, sacrificial thing. Pecans are not a sacrifice. Pecans are amazing.
Even with their bold flavors, abundant yields, and easy care requirements, most of these native plant foods haven’t become mainstream in our settler culture. Their diverse, beautiful, interesting fruits seem new to most of us. They feel like a novelty in the same way as the exotic and tropical fruits that are so difficult to grow and have so little ecological value here. There are so many native food plants that I could never grow tired of them. They opened my eyes to a realm of possibility previously unnoticed. I felt like I was really seeing my homeland for the first time, and it was dazzling.
Native plant foods are sustenance. Long before European settlers arrived on this land with their grain crops and livestock animals, the people of the First Nations were already thriving here on native plant foods, companionably planted gardens, and cleverly managed herds of wild animals. In my county, the original inhabitants include the Miami, the Kaskaskia, and the Kickapoo tribes. The indigenous peoples of the Eastern United States have done wonderful work to balance the herds and woodlands of this region and to propagate the choicest edible and useful plants. We have them to thank for this rich botanical legacy. It is impossible to separate the natural history of this land from its relationship with its people. Many tribes are still active to this day.
I’ve been diligently studying the native plants of this region for several years, and I keep a running list of edible native plants. My list has grown to include several hundred plants from over 100 different genera. Every time I think I’ve finally found them all, a new one surfaces and the list grows. I’ve been steadily obtaining seeds for these plants and working towards the goal of growing all of them here, either as crops or in smaller plantings as a way to know them better. This work has become a significant part of this farm, and it brings great joy and purpose to my life.
When I first gazed out at that flooded corn field on move-in day, I did not yet know the ways in which it would change my life. When I look back over all the twists and turns that lead me to this land, it feels so improbable that I actually ended up here. Whether I arrived by fate or coincidence, I wouldn’t rewrite my story any other way. I am overflowing with gratitude for this land, these plants, and the new perspective they have brought me. I am thankful for the water, which pushed me out of my comfort zone and expanded my field of possibilities. I love this thing we are co-creating, a thing that I once thought impossible. I love watching it grow, and letting it grow me. Neither of us will ever be quite the same.