I have a little personal passion that I would like to share with you today, and that is the preservation and resurrection of native plants and foods. Over the course of the 20th century, many indigenous plants of various regions fell out of favor and have all but disappeared from our environment and food supply. In the suburbs, they were replaced by generic shrubs and landscaping trees, and in agriculture they have been replaced by more homogeneous crops. One of my favorite spots in Chicago the years I lived there was a tiny patch of native prairie grassland that had been allowed to re-establish near Lake Michigan. I would walk through the path and imagine how the land looked before the city had permanently altered the landscape. I was also enchanted to find out that in France, many people know of spots to go in the hills or woods where you can find wild-growing blueberries, blackberries, mushrooms and herbs. Why was this never something I heard of in America? We must have wild edible plants?? Where are all the blueberries?
I feel this state of affairs is a great loss not only for ecosystems but also for the community who could benefit from the flavors and nutrition of various food-bearing plants (and animals for that matter) that were part of the old biomes. When picking trees for our suburban streets, yards and parks, why not pick ones that would not only revive native ecosystems, but might also even offer a food option to the people living in its vicinity?
When I moved with my family in 2015 to North Carolina, I couldn’t wait to take advantage of the climate to begin growing things, and I learned all about the native plants. At first I was dying to replace my yard with lush native grasses and flowers, and read up on the ‘alternative lawn’ movement. My budding activism was nipped, however, when my husband declared that this would be nothing but a haven for snakes, and it might not be appreciated by the neighbors. So I started smaller, focusing on perennials that would have culinary uses and a small patch of wildflowers that are specific to my area. I planted a muscadine vine, (a grape varietal native to the southeast) two fig trees (not native to North Carolina but certain varieties do very well here), and a variety of herbs, all of which have thrived.
My next plan is a bit more adventurous. I just bought two pawpaw seedlings and some persimmon seeds, in the hopes of establishing them somewhere on my property as well. The American Persimmon and Pawpaw are two trees I have heard about that are all but absent from the modern landscape, not to mention the grocery store. People who have tasted the Pawpaw say it’s like a delicious combination of mango and banana. I’m also interested in the hickory tree, which until recently provided one of the staples of native food systems in the form of the hickory nut. Today even an extensive search online probably won’t find you a dozen pawpaws or a pound of hickory nuts.
So next time you’re looking for new trees or plants for your yard, garden or neighborhood, consider native plants, and even better native food-bearing plants! There is something so satisfying about knowing you are re-establishing a plant that has lost its footing, and even more so that this plant will nourish people for years to come. There are lots of websites where you can get information about your local native plants, and companies or universities that sell the seeds. Good luck!
How I imagined my yard:
Renewing America’s Food Traditions by Gary Paul Nabhan