Amazing Edible Plants
The species native to the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed are full of wonders. Not only are our native plants, they are incredibly useful. Filtering polluted runoff, holding the soil solidly beneath our feet and protecting us from heat, hurricanes and everything in between is all in a days work for native flora.
But, there is one more amazing thing that native plants can do—feed us! Whether you are growing native plants in your yard or on your balcony for spicing up your every day meals or going on a trek to find the most delicious of woodland plants, eating native plants can be nourishing and delightful.
We asked Alliance employees which native plants are incredible enough to don their dinner plates and here’s what we heard:
Given the fruit of the Asimina triloba tree, you might think you were offered something off a tropical island. Surprisingly, you would be wrong. The pawpaw, native to and relatively widespread throughout eastern North America, likely owes its extended range to native Americans who loved and cultivated the tree.
The pawpaw tree’s fruits are dusty green on the outside when ripe and a yellow color on the inside. You can learn more about the pawpaw at plants.usda.gov. (Photo courtesy via Alice Crain/Flickr)
This tree grows to between 10 and 40 feet tall and has pear shaped leaves with smooth edges and a long tip. You can find the pawpaw in open areas in well-drained and wooded areas in the central and southern areas of the Chesapeake Watershed. You can collect ripe fruits after they’ve fallen from the tree or pick them slightly under-ripe and wait for them to soften.
Though “fiddlehead” may refer to the uncoiled frond of a fern, many use the term for the edible fronds of certain ferns. Though a handful of fern species are delectable, the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) is most available in our area, specifically in the upper portions of the watershed.
Ostrich fern fronds are edible at this stage of development, commonly referred to as the fiddlehead. (Photo courtesy of Priya Jaishanker/Flickr)
The ostrich fern can be found alongside shaded stream sides and can be grown in gardens. Should you grow or find the ostrich fern’s fiddleheads to eat, cook them (in a similar way you would asparagus) to avoid upsetting your stomach.
The fruits of the serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea)are sometimes described as being similar to blueberries and are fit for baking into pies or pastries or for eating plain. Many mammals and at least 40 species of birds enjoy eating the fruits of the serviceberry.
Berries are reddish-purple when ripe and are said to resemble a small apple. (Photo courtesy of dbarronoss/Flickr)
Widespread throughout eastern North America, this shrub can be found in a variety of habitats across the Chesapeake watershed. The serviceberry is an excellent native shrub to plant because of its use to other native plants and versatility. For more information on the common serviceberry, visit plants.usda.gov.
This herbaceous plant can be found throughout the watershed and different subspecies of this mint (Mentha arvensis) are native to eastern North America, temperate regions of Europe and Asia, including the sub-continent of India. Used by many peoples throughout history for its medicinal purposes, this herb can be chewed or used to make a tea to help sooth an upset stomach.
Wild mint can be distinguished from cultivated varieties by its flowers, which grow in whorls. (Peter O’Connor/Flickr)
Wild mint is a hardy species that is relatively resistant to diseases. You can grow wild mint in your garden or commonly find it in grassy fields.
Although this is the state fruit of Maine, the lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium) can be found in wooded areas of the Chesapeake watershed at higher elevation or grown in gardens or farmed. Native American people would routinely burn underbrush areas to stimulate the lowbush’s growth and berry production, a practice still used by those who cultivate the lowbush blueberry.
The lowbush blueberry is said to be more flavorful than the highbush variety, though its berries are less abundant and smaller. (Captain Tenneal/Flickr)
Fruits of this native blueberry ripen later in summer and are a favorite of many mammals, including the black bear, and birds.
Widespread throughout the United States, the Jerusalem artichoke, also called sunroot or sunchoke, is a native sunflower whose tuber is healthy and delicious! Unique in that the tuber is not full of starch, but rather inulin, which gives the root vegetable an understated sweet flavor.
Steaming may be one of the best ways to cook the root of the native sunflower, Jerusalem artichoke, as it can fall apart when boiled. (Jindrich Shejbal/Flickr)
The Jerusalem artichoke is very cold tolerant, in part, because of inulin, which also gives the vegetable many added health benefits. Inulin is often included in many pre-biotic supplements because it supports the health of beneficial gut microbes and also helps support the absorption of calcium and magnesium.
There are many more delicious plants in our watershed than just these six, so feel free to let us know about your favorite edible native fruits, herbs and vegetables!