Last month I perused the native plant bare root offerings from our county’s Conservation District online. Every fall they offer a variety of bare root starts that they deliver in late winter for pickup, usually in February, to get into the ground before spring arrives. It got me to thinking as I was deciding what to order – what around me has been growing for hundreds, if not thousands, of years on our island? What is considered native, or rather indigenous? And beyond that, on the main land the number of items growing goes up quickly. There is a lot there we could be growing. Plants that are more adapted to deer, to birds, to insects. That will come back yearly with often no help from humans.
It is an area where we are trying to work on growing more plants that grow here naturally, but are also a reliable source of food. Ones that once planted, you can walk away from, and they will grow without the need of humans. For creating a food forest that welcomes animals and humans both. These plants don’t need fancy soil.
Now having said that, not all are going to taste “good” to modern tastebuds. Many berries won’t be sweet like a grocery store massive strawberry is. The indigenous people that first walked the land and harvested, they used the berries often with other ingredients. Some are ripe and sweet, others will taste tart no matter how long they are on the plant.
While I would tell you to go into the wilds and learn to recognize plants/berries, in this case I am encouraging you to buy plants and start them on your land, be in the ground, or large pots. Buy plants from ethical growers. Those who grow plants from existing plants, not going into parks and digging up plants, then reselling them to the public. But not only that, but you know you are buying the right plant.
The list goes from sea level to the start of alpine tundra in the mountains of Washington State. In general most of the plants will grow overall, but with some limitations of course. Some plants do need enough cold hours to reset every winter, or the opposite is cacti won’t grow where it rains 9 months of the year. We live in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains, so we get less rain – a lot less – than Seattle does, and cacti actually grows wild in one area of the island we call home. It’s always neat to see it thriving, right next to wild Nootka Rose bushes and Snowberry.
The one caveat is not every plant will transplant well. Most will grow well, but you might find your land isn’t right for Evergreen Huckleberry (which grows like a weed on our land) and plants such as Red Huckleberry are very finicky and often die. For the finicky plants, you will need to make sure their new home mimics how it would be in the wild (an example is Red Huckleberry often grows out of rotting evergreen trees, so you will need to add in bark and make it acidic enough).
A food forest may be messy in appearance, but it reduces watering needed, it provides shelter to birds and small animals, promotes native bees. It can be hard to let go of the traditional “garden” look, but it is worth trying. Start a small corner this coming spring, and then continue on. Or, if you live on acreage, take a section of forest (should you have that), and then cultivate an area on the edge of the trees. Recreate how it would be in the wild.
My other advice is to read up on big plants gets – growing native Blackberries takes up a lot of space, as do Black Caps (which must be grown carefully, as the spines are sharp). Not all native edibles are pretty looking (Devils Club) and many are messy (Thimbleberry, Salmonberry).
You don’t have to grow all of these. But try a few. And see how they do. You might just be surprised.
Berries Native To Washington State:
- Alpine Wild Strawberry
- Beach Strawberries
- Bearberry (Kinnikinnick)
- Black Cap (Black Raspberries)
- Black Currant
- Evergreen Huckleberry (Found lower in elevation, all the way to sea level) (Prefers poor soil/dry, near acidic evergreen trees)
- Golden Currant
- Madrona (red berries) (needs dry/rocky soil, prefers being near acidic evergreen trees))
- Mountain Blueberry (low bush)
- Mountain Blueberry/Huckleberry (Also known as Bilberry)
- Mountain Black Huckleberry (Found by streams)
- Oregon Grape Berries (Grows well with Salal)
- Pacific Crabapple
- Prickly Pear Cactus (in dry areas)
- Red Currant
- Red Huckleberry (very picky, needs to be near acidic evergreens)
- Salal Berries (Grows well with Evergreen Huckleberry)
- Salmon Berry (Grows well in wetter areas, near evergreen trees)
- Saskatoon Berry (Juneberry/Service Berry)
- Thimble Berry (Grows in wetter areas)
Non Berry Edible Native Plants To Washington State:
- Bear Grass (Grows best at altitude, not at sea level)
- Bitter Cress
- Blue Camas (proper identification is very important) (needs a meadow area to grow)
- Cattail (wetter areas)
- Devils Club (wetter areas)
- Lamb’s Quarter
- Miner’s Lettuce
- Mountain Sorrel
- Rosehips (for making tea)
- Stinging Nettles
- Wild Mint
- Wild Rose (petals)