Can I Eat My Garden? 

There are entire books on edible wild plants and on foraging, but I’ve never really paid much attention to them (even though I do have a few on my bookshelves).  For me, growing native plants is all about feeding Mother Nature, not about feeding me. But this year I harvested the first of my native wild black currants (Ribes americanum) with the hopes of possibly making a small batch of jam. So I thought for today’s article I would share with you some of the edible plants that grow in my garden and how I have used them. I’ve been told there are lots more that are edible in my garden than what I discuss here, but I’ve never tried tasting them. (Perhaps in the future I may do a series of articles on edible native plants that you can grow. But that will take a lot more research than I have time to do at the moment.) 

Wild Black Currant – Ribes americanum 

I planted two Wild Black Currant shrubs a couple of years ago. Last year they had a few currants, but this year they were loaded with fruit. Interestingly, the currants do not ripen all at the same time like the non-native red currants I have. Instead, one or two currants in each cluster will start to ripen, eventually becoming ripe enough to pick (if you get them before they fall off) and there will still be tiny green fruits on each cluster along with currants at various stages of ripeness. This makes harvesting a slow and tedious process. I collected fruit as it ripened over a period of a couple of weeks and put them in the freezer to make into jam once I had enough. That will be a winter project. 

Wild Black Currants don’t taste quite the same as their European cousins – I find them to be a tad more bitter, but any black currant jam recipe will work – though you may want to add a little more sugar.  

Wild Black currants will do well in any moist, well-drained soil (even heavy clay) and tolerate part shade to full sun. They get up to 6 feet tall and so far the plants in my garden don’t seem to be suckering, but if a stem touches down on the soil it may root. (Because of this, starting new plants from cuttings is very easy).  

Wild Ginger – Asarum canadense 

An early spring blooming plant of the forest floor, in my opinion Wild Ginger only superficially tastes like store bought ginger – the flavours are a bit more complex (one author described it as more peppery). You can grind it or slice it and use it in traditional recipes in place of commercial ginger but use with caution. This plant contains Aristolochic Acid (AA) which, in large doses, can be fatal – do your research before cooking with it. It does, however, make a good tea when steeped (AA is barely soluble in water so you would be unlikely to get enough to harm you). 

Wild Ginger wants full to part shade in moist rich soils. It will tolerate drier soils once established and is a great ground cover under those shady maple trees. 

Jerusalem Artichoke – Helianthus tuberosus 

The tubers from this sunflower relative get to about the size of fingerling potatoes (or even fist sized in some varieties) and can be cooked any way you cook potatoes. My personal favourite is to roast them in the oven with a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper. (As with oven roasted sweet potatoes, this seems to intensify the flavour). The center will go mushy when it’s cooked this way, but they are quite delicious. I’ve tried them pan-fried and boiled, too, but I always go back to oven roasting.  

Be forewarned, though – the tubers contain a lot of the soluble fibre inulin which can cause gas and bloating in some people (hence one of the plant’s common names – fartichoke). 

Jerusalem Artichoke will grow well (some say too well – it is a fairly aggressive spreader) in loose, well drained soils in full sun to part shade. But it’s not all that fussy about soils – a friend grows it very successfully in her garden which is heavy clay. It does like the soil to be a bit on the moist side for larger tubers, but it will rot if the soil is too wet. 

Wild Black Raspberry – Rubus occidentalis 

There are few treats sweeter than finding a Wild Black Raspberry bush full of ripe berries along the edge of a forest in early to mid-summer. Though they tend to be a little “seedier” than their red commercial cousins, they pack a lot of punch into a thimble-sized fruit. I like to eat them fresh, on their own or mixed with other berries, and drizzled with cream, or with a dollop of ice cream. But they also make an awesome jam, upside-down cake, crumble or any other sweet treat that you can use red raspberries for. And they freeze well. 

Wild Black Raspberries grow on canes that can reach up to 9’ long or more in full sun to part shade and they prefer moist, rich loamy soil, but will do well in a wide range of soil and moisture regimes. Wherever the tip of a cane touches down, it will root and send up a new stem. These new canes often have a bluish colour, allowing you to readily differentiate them from other raspberries and blackberries.  

Wild Leeks – Allium tricoccum 

Ramps, Leeks, no matter what they’re called, people will go to great lengths to collect these for the table each spring. Unfortunately, unscrupulous foragers have decimated wild populations throughout our region. Use Leeks where you would use their non-native, commercial cousins in your cooking.  They have a sort of garlic-shallot-cross flavour that can be quite intense. (As a young person, I planted trees and traveled to the planting sites in a van of Wild Leek eating co-workers, and the fumes were so powerful I’d sit with my face to the open window – despite the barely above freezing temperatures.)  

Leeks need rich, loose loamy soil with lots of organic matter and full to part shade. The leaves appear in spring for about a month to 6 weeks then disappear till the following spring. But if you’re observant, by mid- to late-summer, you’ll see a stem appear with white flowers that turn to tiny black seeds by early autumn. 

Virginia Mountain Mint – Physostegia virginiana 

I have only ever used Mountain Mint in tea, but its minty leaves and flower buds can be added to salads or used as a condiment (I’m thinking it would be fabulous on lamb chops). The leaves can be dried or used fresh.  

This hardy perennial is happy in most garden soils, from sandy to clay, and full sun to part shade, though it likes soils that aren’t too dry.  

Anise Hyssop – Agastache foeniculum 

Anise Hyssop, though not actually native to the southern Great Lakes region, is a pollinator magnet so I keep it in my garden. The licorice (anise) flavoured leaves and flowers, either fresh or dried, can be steeped to make a lovely tea. And though I haven’t tried it (yet) I recently found a website that said it can be added to hot chocolate, or blended into smoothies or cocktails. 

This short-lived perennial likes dry to medium, well drained sandy soils in full sun to part shade. In my garden, it is always covered with various bees when it’s in flower and the flowers last for several weeks. 

American Spikenard – Aralia racemosa 

The large clusters of burgundy berries on American Spikenard have a mildly sweet, almost floral flavour about them and are said to make excellent jams, jellies or fruit leather. I have only eaten them fresh but have a container-full in the freezer awaiting a slow-down in the garden so I can make them into jam.  

This perennial likes part shade (it is a forest edge species) that grows fast – it can get up to 150 cm (5’) tall in a single growing season before it dies off for the winter. The white flowers appear in early summer and the fruit starts to ripen in mid- to late-August. It prefers wet to medium-moist, fertile, humus rich soils.  

Wild Strawberry – Fragaria virginiana/Fragaria vesca 

As a kid, I loved finding a patch of wild strawberries in the fields at my uncle’s farm. The tiny red fruit packed all the flavour, and more, of the store bought counterparts. A bowl full of wild strawberries with cream was an amazing treat. They also make a great jam, and I have thrown fresh berries in a salad (when I’ve had lots). The challenge in my garden is beating the squirrels and birds to the ripe fruit. 

F. variegata (Wild Strawberry) differs from F. Vesca (Woodland Strawberry) in that the former likes full sun while the latter prefers full to part shade. The berries and leaves look very similar to the untrained eye, but there are subtle differences. Both species grow best in moist to medium moisture regimes (though Woodland Strawberries prefer the wetter end of the spectrum and Wild Strawberries the drier end), and neither is fussy about soil texture (sand, loam, clay). 

Happy (and tasty) Native Plant Gardening.