Are Edible Natives a Viable Crop Alternative?

by Rebekah L. Fraser
2/12/2014

New York-grown juneberries ready for fresh market sale.

        Often masquerading as weeds, native plants grow wild in meadows, forests and urban settings. Now appearing on grocers' shelves and the menus of upscale restaurants you can find aronia berry, maitake mushroom, elderberry, fiddlehead fern, wild ramp and many other edible natives. With unique flavors and higher nutritional value than many cultivated crops, edible natives attract foodies from all walks of life. Foraging has become so popular that some produce wholesalers carry wild edibles. Will these native edibles remain the cash crop of foragers, or is there money in cultivating them as well?

        Mark Ruma, vice president of Ruma's Fruit & Gift Basket World in Everett, Mass., has carried fiddlehead ferns, wild ramps and wild blueberries for the past 15 years. He sources the wild produce from foragers in New England and Canada and sells to wholesalers nationwide, who then sell to food service accounts. Ruma ships fresh fiddleheads and ramps nationwide, and also packages fiddleheads in clamshells for grocery store chains.

        Although Ruma moves over 300,000 pounds of fiddlehead ferns each year, from April to June, he believes he could sell a lot more if the supply were available from commercial growers. "In the last 15 years, the market has grown," he reports. "We're seeing a greater demand, because people are searching the Internet for this product."

        Restaurants on the wild side
        The more chefs learn about the nutritive value and unique flavors of native produce, the hotter the trend of serving wild food becomes. Many chefs find their own wild food or work with private foragers. Some use services like Seattle's Foraged & Found Edibles, New York's SOLEX fine foods and Baldor Specialty Foods, or the Bay Area's Marin Organic.Porcini harvest at Log Haven restaurant, Salt Lake City, Utah.

        "Here in Houston, we stuff squash blossoms, make juice out of prickly pears, grill cactus paddles, and make a mole with hoja santa [root beer plant]," says Staci Davis, owner of Houston's Radical Eats. She relies on foragers as well as farmers to supply native edibles for her menu.

        "I love the prickly pear. When it's in season, it turns fuchsia, and we make a juice out of it. Nopalitos, the leaves from the same cactus, taste like green beans when cooked properly. We also use muscadine grapes in the summer, and Jerusalem artichoke for soup. We use various herbs and greens like Mexican mint marigold and purslane in our salads. We use sassafras in our gumbo."

        From pecans to persimmons to figs, Davis uses upwards of 10 pounds of native produce a month.

        Chef David Jones, of the award-winning Log Haven restaurant in Salt Lake City, Utah, favors the intense flavors of ramps, wild onions, wild asparagus and young fiddlehead ferns. At the same time, he appreciates the delicate taste of miner's lettuce, and serves about 20 pounds of wild mushrooms per week. His pastry chef takes advantage of the elderberries that grow wild on Log Haven's property.

        Jones takes as many ramps as he can procure during the season and freezes what he can't use to extend their menu life. "If they were available commercially, I would assume the season and growing periods would expand. If a local farmer was growing native plants, it would expand my menu offerings to seasonal rather than specials only."

        "Flavor and quality is always better with wild foods," says chef David Santos of Louro in New York City. Santos forages pine needles to flavor ice cream and purchases other wild foods from suppliers. He's currently developing a dessert, called A Walk Through the Woods, that incorporates pine needle ice cream, black trumpet and porcini ice cream, maple sugar "dirt" and foraged wild Maine blueberries. "It brings people back to the roots a bit, and if [the foods] are truly local, it lessens the carbon footprint," says Santos.

        Timothy Fischer, executive chef of Crystal Springs Golf Resort in New Jersey, displays a dish of foraged wild edibles: morels, clover, ramps, wild spring onions, wildflowers and blossoms, fiddlehead ferns and stinging nettles served with lamb.Chef Michael Rotondo spent eight years as the executive chef at Charlie Trotter's in Chicago before moving to San Francisco. At San Francisco's Parallel 37, Rotondo serves about 5 pounds of wild edibles per week, including chickweed, sorrel and chanterelle mushrooms. He usually serves edible native plants raw or slightly wilted to keep the integrity of the plant and its nutritional value. He also works with the bartender to incorporate wild edibles into cocktails, for food and cocktail pairings.

        Rotondo says wild plants can contribute major nuances in any dish. "They also can take the main stage," he adds. "They offer specific peppery notes, sweetness and textures. Sometimes they have a completely different flavor than expected."

        Timothy Fischer is executive chef at Crystal Springs Golf Resort in northern New Jersey's Kittatinny Mountains. Although the resort has a 56-acre farm, plus a smaller organic chef's garden on one of the hotel properties, Fischer reports that the resort has a strong nascent foraging program that supplies each of the resort's 12 restaurants.

        Locally foraged items on the menu include: chickweed, primrose, juniper berries, plums, hazelnuts, chokecherries, sassafras root, wild leeks, ramps, cattail shoots and roots, black walnuts, acorns and wild asparagus. Fischer and his team also work with naturalized species, including dandelion and burdock root. "This spring, we featured a dish of completely foraged wild edibles: morels, clover, ramps, wild spring onions, wild flowers and blossoms, fiddlehead ferns and stinging nettles served with our very own farmed Rifle Ranch lamb," says the chef. "Each ingredient was carefully foraged, and the ingredients were able to speak for themselves on the plate."

        Although Fischer has started mushroom logs and morel pits himself, he says, "If someone grew ramps and ferns, it would be great."

        Not all chefs will support large-scale commercial farmers; some favor foragers or small farms. However, one reason to grow native plants commercially is that as excitement has grown about these delicacies, people have begun to overharvest them in the wild, and populations are starting to decline. The habitat for wild edibles is also shrinking due to land development. As native plant species disappear, so do the native pollinators. Growing wild may be good for the planet as well as your business.

        Growing wild
        Some farmers are growing native species already. Sawmill Hollow Family Farm in Missouri Valley, Iowa, claims to be the first commercial grower of aronia berry (Aronia melanocarpa) in the U.S. Elderberries flourish on farms in Wisconsin and Missouri. Still, in this blossoming market, there's room for more commercial production of native crops, and growers tout benefits that extend beyond profit margin and planet.Scallops with amaranth greens.

        "I have really good pollination because I'm supporting plants that support native pollinators, and they in turn pollinate the plants in my greenhouses," reports Kate Kerivan, of Bug Hill Farm in Ashfield, Mass. "People buy bumblebees to pollinate high tunnel greenhouses; I never have to do that. When you think about it, native pollinators are far more important than honeybees for pollination. We probably have six different species of native bumblebees here. Bumblebees evolved with native plants, so they know how to pollinate them, where honeybees don't.

        Honeybees get confused in the greenhouse, bounce off the plastic and die. Bumblebees rarely do that because they have a radar system that gets them in and out of there," she explains.

        A grower of common and uncommon berries, Kerivan makes value-added products from some of her produce and operates a farmstand as well as a pick-your-own operation.

        With a background in conservation, Kerivan's biggest motivation is being a really good steward of the land. To that end, she participated in a USDA program a few years ago to cut back 10 acres of forest to allow the native early successional habitat to emerge from the undergrowth. Native blackberries, dewberries, winterberries, and highbush and lowbush native blueberries are coming up. "I did not plant these, but I am encouraging their growth," Kerivan notes.

        In other areas of her 50-acre property, Kerivan planted elderberries and aronia two to three years ago, and she's already harvesting enough to make elderberry syrup and a triple berry spread that includes aronia berry. She hasn't had enough aronia berries to make a straight aronia berry jam, but expects to have more in the next few years, when the plants are well-established. In the meantime, she's considering adding shadbush to her operation.
"It's not just a mission; it's a marketing strategy," says Kerivan. "Agritourism is growing, and people are passionately interested in what farmers are doing that also protects native habitat. My biggest thrill is showing people the trails we've set up. When they're here, they'll stop at the farm store and hopefully they'll buy something."

        Kristin DeSouza is senior horticulturist at the New England Wild Flower Society's Garden in the Woods in Framingham, Mass. She designed and installed a small native edible garden that includes elderberries, hazelnuts, flowering raspberries, wild ramps and ostrich ferns (fiddleheads). "Most of our food originates from other countries," says DeSouza. "I wanted to educate our visitElderberries.ors to some of the easy-to-grow New England native plants. This garden is about perennial plants, meaning a big initial input, yet bigger return year after year."

        Wild challenges
        One of the chief advantages to growing native plants is the low incidence of disease and pests. Deer and birds do enjoy native berries, but netting takes care of this problem.

        Kerivan's big challenge is editing out the plants that will overtake her native berries without using herbicides. These include undesirable native species and nonnative invasive species. For the past three years, she has had to hire extra help to cut the suckers off the swamp maple stumps to prevent the regrowth of the forest. "It takes an amazing amount of handwork," she says.

        Edible natives to consider
        The key to thriving native plants is to ensure the plant is actually native to your area. Some species have naturalized to a region and are so ubiquitous they may seem like they're native; however, there is a difference, and the indigenous pollinators and wildlife know it. Some naturalized plants are valuable edible crops, like dandelion greens, but it's important to be certain the plants are not considered invasive in your region before growing them.
To learn whether a plant is native, naturalized or invasive in your region, visit the New England Wild Flower Society's Go Botany site at http://gobotany.newenglandwild.org; the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center's Native Plant Database at www.wildflower.org/plants; the USDA's Plants Database at www.plants.usda.gov; or a local flora published for your region.Echinacea.

        DeSouza believes the native edibles that would thrive on a large commercial New England farm are Allium triccocum and Matteuccia struthiopteris. A. triccocum, the wild ramp, is extremely easy to grow in partial sun on the edge of a field. M. struthiopteris, ostrich fern, is also a high-yielding spring treat. This plant is highly adaptable to varying garden soils and easy to grow. Both plants are low-maintenance and capture high prices in the marketplace.

        Professor Jim Simon of Rutgers University recommends amaranth as a leafy green vegetable, rather than a grain. This hardy plant is native to the Southwest and grows through the summer and into the fall. Unlike most greens, it's both a cool-season and warm-season crop. And it's more nutritious than spinach and beet greens.

        Simon also recommends lamb's-quarter, saying it tastes much better than amaranth and is high in vitamin C.

        "Wintergreen would be a great plant to grow commercially," says Simon. "I don't know anyone doing it, but I think it's a great opportunity." Usually a synthetic agent is used to provide the flavor in wintergreen-flavored products. Wintergreen also makes a pretty ornamental plant. Note: it is grows very slowly and needs shade.

        Higher in antioxidants than blueberry and acai berry, aronia berry (black chokeberry) is native to New England and parts of the Midwest. Although aronia berry is native to the U.S., all of the cultivar selections have been done in Europe, where the berry is popular in nutraceutical products. Aronia berries can be grown in hedgerows and mechanically harvested.

        Varieties of shadbush (serviceberry or juneberry) are native to different parts of the country. Amelanchier canadensis runs wild all along the East Coast. A. stolonifera or A. spicata grows from the Midwest to the Northeast. A. sanguinea grows in dry prairies and savannas in northern New England and stretches as far west as Montana.
The flowers and leaves of echinacea are edible. Varieties of echinacea are native to the Midwest, Tennessee and Texas.

        Both the flowers and the fruit of black elderberry (Sambucus nigra) are edible. Commonly used in jellies, wine and syrups, elderberry is high in antioxidants and is used in nutraceuticals. Elderberry can be grown in hedgerows and harvested by hand.

        Aronia berry.Beach plum (Prunus maritima), a shrub or small tree, is native to the coast of New England from Connecticut to southern Maine. The stone fruit is a tasty alternative for orchardists who don't want to worry about pest and disease pressures. Beach plum likes full sun and sandy, well-drained soil. It doesn't have to grow on the beach to produce a heavy yield.

        Of the numerous species of mulberry tree, only Morus rubra is native to the U.S. M. rubra takes up to 10 years to bear fruit, but when it does, it yields abundant, delicious berries. Harvesting is easy: lay a sheet on the ground and shake the branches.

        Pawpaw tree is native to the U.S. and hardy to zone 5. Pawpaw fruits can weigh up to 16 ounces and measure 3 to 6 inches long. With a custardy texture, the flavor is reminiscent of banana and mango. Shelf life is only two to three days, so consider growing this fruit for value-added products rather than fresh consumption. Visit Kentucky State University's website (www.pawpaw.kysu.edu) to learn about pawpaw research.

        The persimmon tree produces dark orange fruit with a custardy texture. In the wild, its most northern population is in Connecticut, but it is hardy in Massachusetts.

        Black walnut is desirable and has potential, but if you grow this, consider removing the hard-to-crack shell prior to sale.

        The American hazelnut (Corylus americana) produces delicious nuts that are prized by candymakers as well as chefs and consumers. Deer and squirrels also enjoy these nuts, so harvest as soon as the nuts are ripe. It takes about five years for the tree to produce nuts.

        For more information about growing edible natives, contact your local ag extension program or visit these sites:
 
        The author is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts and a monthly contributor to Growing.
 

Native Plant, Rootstock and Seed Resources

If you're interested in trying your hand at growing native edibles as a crop, check out some of these resources to find plants, rootstock and seeds.

  • Stark Bro's: www.starkbros.com (Note: Not all varieties carried by this nursery are natives; some are hybrids.)
 
 
        Photo 1 by Jim Ochterski. Photo 2 courtesy of Log Haven restaurant. Photo 3 courtesy of Crystal Springs Golf Resort. Photo 4 by Michael Tulipan. Photo 5 by OldGreySeaWolf/morguefile.com. Photo 6 by sberg/morguefile.com. Photo 7 by Hietaparta/pixabay.com.