Native West Virginia Foods for Backyard Gardeners


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Native West Virginia Foods for Backyard Gardeners

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Native West Virginia Foods for Backyard Gardeners

  1. 1. HorticultureGeorgette Plaugher, Tucker County AgentWVU Extension Service Nov. 2005 Native West Virginia Foods for Backyard GardenersIntroduction Never collect plants from areas that may have been sprayed with pesticides. This may include Before you bite into those luscious, red raspber- your lawn, a field, power line right-of-way, or road-ries, do you know where they came from? Not side. Keep in mind that state and national parkswhich plant, store, or country, but where their roots are off limits for collecting, and permits may be re-began. Every plant we consume can trace its ori- quired on national forest lands.gins to the wild. When choosing native plants for your yard, For thousands of years, humans have relied on check the scientific name to make sure you havewild foods to survive. Through trial and error, we the right species and select plants that will grow inhave learned which plants are safe to consume your planting zone. Many greenhouses, gardenand taste good too. Native Americans were the centers, and gardening catalogues are goodfirst to use and cultivate wild plants in our part of sources. Consider your soil, amount of annualthe world. They can be credited with taming pep- precipitation, and amount of sunlight in your back-pers, squash, pumpkins, corn, tomatoes, potatoes, yard to determine which plants will thrive.and beans, along with many varieties of fruits. In our quest to develop the perfect fruit or vege- Favorite Foods of Our Ancestorstable, we have lost our reliance on, and knowledge Following is a list of plants that are native toof, edible wild plants. Since supermarkets provide West Virginia. Some of them are excellent forevery type of produce we could want, we rarely landscaping and for attracting wildlife as well as forlook to our backyards or woods to hunt and gather human consumption. Also, many edible plantsfood. Why not try cultivating some of our native introduced from Europe thrive in West Virginia.foods in your own garden? You might just dis-cover that “wild” can be “wonderful”! Herbs and GreensTips for Gathering and Growing Native Foods After long winters without fresh vegetables, Na- tive Americans and early pioneers sought out The most important thing to remember when spring greens to use as tonics to purify the blood.gathering or growing wild foods is proper identifica- They are good sources oftion. West Virginia has many species of plants, vitamin A.and many of them look alike. Because some spe-cies are poisonous, it is best to use a guide such Ramps (Allium tricoccum)as A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants: Eastern or wild leeks are some ofand Central North America (Peterson Field Guides the most popular and well-(R), by Lee Allen Peterson. known spring herbs in West Virginia. As mem- When gathering, you may need gloves, tools, bers of the onion family,and baskets to harvest and transport your foods. they give off a pungentDepending on what and where you are gathering, aroma and have a strongprotective clothing and insect repellant may come flavor. Highly prized byin handy to prevent scratches and bites. Beware many, ramps are relativelyof poison ivy!Programs and activities offered by the West Virginia University Extension Service are available to all persons without regard to race, color, sex, disability, relig-ion, age, veteran status, political beliefs, sexual orientation, national origin, and marital or family status. Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work,Acts of May 8 and June 30, 1914, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Director, Cooperative Extension Service, West Virginia University.West Virginia University is governed by the Board of Trustees of the University System of West Virginia.
  2. 2. easy to grow. They prefer cool, shady areas with Jerusalem Artichokedamp, rich soil high in organic matter. Ramp bulbs (Helianthus tuberosus)may be transplanted to your garden, or seeds can is a member of the sun-be collected from the wild and planted in the fall. flower family. The nameOver time they will spread, creating a fine patch for is believed to haveyou to harvest and enjoy in March and April. Nu- arisen from the fact thatmerous recipes are available, but most folks like to their roots taste some-fry them in bacon grease and eat them with ham, what like artichokes andbrown beans, and corn bread. the Italian word for sun- flower is “girasole.”Wild Onions and Garlic (Allium spp.) can add Hence the corruption offlavor to your favorite dishes. However, they are the word and originationmore potent than domestic varieties. Use them of the name we knowsparingly in salads or in cooked dishes. today. Native Ameri-Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) is a robust, cans introduced them asperennial pot herb widely used in Appalachia at sunroots to the time. Most people consider it a nasty weed. They are commonlyOnly freshly cut, young leaves and shoots are edi- marketed today asble. All parts of the mature plant (roots, stems, “sunchokes.” With their bright yellow sunflowersand berries) are poisonous. To prepare new and healthy tubers, they are a favorite with gar-shoots, boil them twice, discarding the first water. deners and cooks. They can be eaten raw, in stir-Serve like spinach. fry dishes, or cooked like potatoes.Cinnamon and Bracken Ferns (Osmunda cinna- Cattails (Typha gracilis) have many uses and canmomea and Pteridium aquilinum) are not only be harvested throughout the growing season forgood landscaping plants, but they also provide food. In early spring, the young shoots can befood for wildlife and humans. Young “fiddleheads” gathered, peeled, and eaten raw or boiled. In mid-shoot up in early spring and should be collected summer, the flowers or “cattails” can be roastedbefore they unfurl. They can be boiled, fried, or and eaten like corn on the cob. The roots can besautéed. They have a mild, nutty, asparagus-like collected, peeled, and boiled like a vegetable. Theflavor. plant is also useful for making woven baskets andPrickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia humifusa) is more as food and cover for aquatic wildlife. It makes acommon in deserts of the American Southwest, good pond edge plant; however, it has invasivebut it also grows on dry shale barrens in eastern properties.West Virginia. While the spines may scare some Fresh Fruitsaway, this plant has beautiful yellow flowers in thespring and tasty green stems and fruit. The tender Many backyard gardeners currently enjoy the benefits of raising cultivated grapes (Vitis spp.),leaves (pads) should be skinned and all spines apples (Malus spp.), blueberries (Vaccinium spp.),removed. They can then be diced and used in sal- cranberries (Vaccinium spp.), raspberries (Rubusads or stews. spp.), blackberries (Rubus spp.), and strawberriesStarchy Vegetable Substitutes (Fragaria spp.). Their wild cousins can be grown, but the fruit tends to be smaller, seedier, some- Many wild plants produce tubers that serve as times sweeter, and sometimes more tart. Here aresubstitutes for potatoes. They contain starches a few lesser known and used native wild fruits.and are good sources of potassium and vitamins. Flowering Raspberry (Rubus odoratus), a mem-Arrow Leaf (Sagittaria latifolia) - also known as ber of the rose family, has rose-lavendar flowersarrowhead, duck potato, and Indian potato - was a and reddish purple berries. It is an excellentfavorite potato substitute of Native Americans. thornless shrub for landscaping. Its fruit, whoseThe plant, which grows in shallow ponds and wet- flavor varies, can be eaten like other raspberries.lands, has rhizomes that produce edible tubers.The tubers can be harvested in October and No- Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) is a fast-vember by raking the mud. Tubers should be growing shrub or small tree that produces an um-peeled and boiled like potatoes for 20 to 25 min- bel of white flowers in the summer. The flowersutes. This plant also adds character to a backyard give rise to small reddish berries that turn blackpond because of its arrow-shaped leaves and when ripe. The berries can be used in jelly andwhite flowers. wine, but most people consider them bitter when eaten raw.
  3. 3. Red Mulberry (Morus rubra) is a small tree that Acorns (Quercus spp.) are nuts produced by oakproduces blackberry-like fruit known as syncarps. trees. White oak (Quercus alba) acorns are theThe fruit can be eaten raw or made into jelly or pie. favored nut. Native Americans used acorns as aIt is a favorite of birds and other wildlife. Because type of flour. Since acorns contain high levels ofthe tree tends to be messy when it drops fruit, it is tannins that make them bitter, they must be boiledbest planted away from homes and driveways. in two waters before they are shelled, dried, and ground into flour. The acorn flour can be usedServiceberry (Amelanchier laevis, and Amelanch- alone or mixed with wheat flour or cornmeal toier arborea) also known as shadbush and June- make muffins and bread.berry. It is an understory shrub or tree that pro-duces white flowers in early spring and dark purple Walnuts are common trees in West Virginia, andberries in the summer. Its various names can be two species are present, black (Juglans nigra) andtraced to the time of year when (1) circuit riding white (Juglans cinerea). Black walnuts are prizedpreachers were able to have church services after trees for their high-quality lumber and “chees-y” -long winters; (2) shad runs occur in the eastern flavored nuts. White walnuts or “butternuts” areUnited States; and (3) the plants berries ripen. oilier and sweeter than black walnuts. WalnutsThe berries can be used in jellies, jams, and pies contain an omega-3 fatty acid and heart-healthyor eaten fresh from the tree. sterols. Walnuts can be eaten straight from the shell or baked in cakes, cookies, and other des-Persimmon (Diospyrus virginiana) is one of the serts.most flavorful fruits in the wild. The slow-growingtree produces small yellow to orange fruit that rip- Hickory Nuts are the fruit of hickory trees. Pe-ens in the fall. Fruit that does not fall easily from cans and walnuts are cousins of the hickory. Fivethe tree is not ripe and will make your mouth hickory species are found in West Virginia: shag-pucker! There are many cultivated American and bark (Carya ovata), shellbark (Carya lacinosa),Asian varieties. The fruit can be eaten raw, made pignut (Carya glabra), mockernut (Carya tomen-into jellies, jams, cookies, and cakes, or fermented tosa), and bitternut (Carya cordiformis). Shellbarkwith corn meal into “persimmon beer.” It’s also a - which has the largest nuts - shagbark, and mock-favorite food of wildlife. ernut hickories produce the most flavorful nuts. Nuts of the pignut and bitternut hickories tend toPawpaw (Asimina triloba), or poor man’s banana, be too bitter for humans but are consumed by wild- is a pungent and tasty fruit, life. Hickory nuts can be eaten from the shell or borne in clusters on a used in any dish containing nuts. small tree. It is the largest edible fruit Beechnuts (Fagus grandifolia) are the fruit of the native to North beech tree. These three-dimensional, triangular- America and shaped nuts are difficult to open but very flavorful. the only tem- The beech tree is slow growing and becomes very perate member large over time. Therefore, it is best grown on the of a tropical edge of yards or woods. Beechnuts are best en- family. The fruit joyed straight from the tree in the fall. resembles a mango inshape and smells and tastes somewhat like amango or banana. It can be eaten raw or pre-pared in a variety of ways. Many gourmet chefsuse pawpaw in dishes, and the tree has beenwidely propagated.Nuts The deciduous forests of the eastern UnitedStates have many species of nut-bearing trees.Some of these nuts are edible right off of the tree,but others must be prepared before they can beeaten.
  4. 4. Hazelnut (Corylus americana) is the fruit of small, Now that you know more about the foods of ourAmerican hazelnut shrubs. Not to be confused with ancestors, why not bring back a piece of history?witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), hazelnuts are Try planting a few of these native foods in yoursmaller in size than the European varieties avail- garden for yourself or your forest friends. Theable in grocery stores and gourmet food shops. The woods are just waiting to be discovered. The bestshrub is also a favorite food of wildlife. part is - you can take them home with you.Drinks References Since coffee and tea plants are not native to Burner, Raymond. (2001) “Prickly pear cactus: look, butNorth America, they were not known or used by don’t touch.” (Electronic Version). “Wonderful WestNative Americans and early pioneers. As a result, Virginia Magazine.” Vol. 65, No. 7.many plants and trees were boiled to produce teasubstitutes. Roots of the sassafras (Sassafras al- Gillespie, William H. Edible wild plants. (n.d.). Re-bidum) tree can be boiled to make a rootbeer- trieved October 13, 2005, from the West Virginia De- partment of Agriculture Web site: (http://tasting red tea. Twigs of black birch (Betula lenta), Wildwhen boiled, make a spearmint-tasting tea. The Plants.pdf).red berries of smooth (Rhus glabra) and staghorn(Rhus typhina) sumac can be boiled and strained to Grafton, William N. West Virginia native plants with good landscape potential. Retrieved November 11,make a hot tea or cold drink. New Jersey tea 2005, from the West Virginia University Extension Ser-(Ceanothus americanus), also known as red root or vice Web site: (, was commonly used by Native Americans hortcult/flowers/natvplts.htm).to treat illnesses. Violets (Viola spp.) are a versatileplant whose leaves can be used in salads or boiled Greenfield, Jackie and Jeanine M. Davis. (2001). Culti- vation of ramps (Allium tricoccum and A. burdickii).as a tea substitute. Retrieved February 25, 2005, from North Carolina StateSweet Treats University Extension Web site: (http:// One thing Native Americans and early pioneers was a product to sweeten their foods. The Kennell, Holly S. Going native in the vegetable garden.solution was found in the maple tree. Maple sap (2002). Retrieved November 2, 2005 from Washingtonwas first processed by American Indians to make State University Extension Service Web site: (http://syrup and sugar. The sap of the sugar maple (Acer is the most favored, but sap from red Native shrubs…in wildlife landscaping. (n.d.) Published(Acer rubrum) and silver (Acer saccharinum) ma- by the West Virginia Native Plant Society and the Westples can also be used. Since it takes about 40 gal- Virginia Nongame Wildlife Program. Retrieved Novem-lons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, the proc- ber 11, 2005, from the West Virginia University Exten-ess of making maple syrup is rather long. Over sion Service Web site: (, methods have been developed to shorten the 7Eagexten/wildlife/ntvplts/index.htm)process of collection and evaporation. Maple syrup Peterson, Lee Allen. A field guide to edible wild plantscan be used on pancakes and in many dishes as a of Eastern and Central North America (The Petersonsugar substitute. The sugar maple also provides field guide series: no. 23). Houghton Mifflin Company,excellent shade and beautiful color in the autumn New York, NY. 1977landscape. Venable, Norma Jean. Common summer wildflowers of West Virginia. Retrieved November 11, 2005, from the West Virginia University Extension Service Web site: ( wldflwrs.htm). Wild edible plant nutrition. (n.d.) Retrieved February, 25, 2005, from the Internet (