by Erin Harper, University of Illinois Extension
There are several native plants that are great for landscaping and can provide food. These include nuts from trees such as maple, pecan, and hazelnuts; fruits such as ground cherry, persimmon, and plums; berries: blackberries, raspberries, and elderberry; leafy greens; roots: chicory, garlic, and sassafras; and many more. This will be the first of many articles on edible native landscaping. Over the coming weeks, I will highlight a specific native plant or group of plants and detail how to identify them, how to grow and care for them, and how to harvest and prepare them for eating.
Growing native plants is often easier than growing non-native plants. The reason is simple, native plants grew well here on their own long before people started cultivating the land. The plant has been here for a long time becoming resistant to the diseases in the soil, acclimating to the climate, and forming symbiotic relationships with the bacteria, insects, birds, mammals, and other living creatures. Planting natives in your yard often means less maintenance because the plants require less watering than typical garden plants, they are often resistant to diseases so they do not require fungicides, and they can withstand insect pressure so they do not need insecticides.
Many native plants are edible. Some of those include things which may already be growing in your yard or garden and might be something most people consider a weed such as dandelions, pineapple weed, or clover. But what is a weed? It just a plant growing in a place you don’t want it. So even a beautiful tulip blooming in an unwanted place would be considered a weed. Therefore, a weed is just a frame of mind. If you decide you like that plant or you want to eat that plant, it suddenly transforms from a weed to a welcomed garden plant.
Before you eat any plant be sure to identify it. If you are unsure ask an expert. Never eat anything until you are absolutely sure you know what it is. Many native plants that are edible, such as wild onion, have a look-alike plant which is poisonous. Even once identified, only eat a small amount of the plant and wait 30 minutes before consuming more to be sure you don’t have any bad reactions. You should also know what parts of the plant are edible. Elderberry blossoms and fruits are edible, but the leaves will make you sick. Other plants such as thistle must be eaten in their first year, or sometimes plants should be eaten just after they emerge but not later in the season. Some plants can be eaten raw while others must be cooked.
You should only be harvesting plants from your own yard. That means once you have identified a plant you will know in future years if it is safe to eat, when to eat it, and what parts to eat. If you see edible plants in other people’s yards, you must ask permission before picking the plants, even if the plant is by the sidewalk or in the right-of-way. Most city parks and natural areas do not allow foraging, or picking plants, leaves, buds, or fruits. Please check with your local municipalities or natural area managers for specific rules.
Knowing a harvest site is safe is important so you know what is in the soil and what may have been sprayed on the plant. You should always get a soil test for your garden area. Plants get their nutrients from the soil; they can also take up harmful chemicals and heavy metals. You can send your soil to a testing lab to learn what nutrients are in your soil and if there may be anything harmful (list of certified labs: http://www.soiltesting.org/certified_labs). If you pick plants in other people’s yards or in parks there is a chance that a pesticide of some sort has been sprayed on the plant. Many pesticides can be harmful to humans if ingested.
It is important to leave enough plants for insect and wildlife populations to eat and use for shelter. It is also important to leave enough of the plant so it will return the next year. If you harvest too much or don’t let it produce any seed, you may be removing that plant forever. Take only what you need and leave the rest for nature.