Ten Eclectic Selections for the Northeastern USA
As a field botanist and native plant grower, I come to permaculture from a side road. With the flora ever foremost in my thinking, I see permaculture as a way to renew exhausted human landscapes with beauty, complexity, and diversity using plants as the fundamental building blocks.
The selections below are of northeastern American native plant species that I feel are especially worth consideration for perennial agriculture. Some of them are underknown, if you will, or less than fully described: the list is unorthodox. I have skipped some well-known natives, such as pawpaw, serviceberry, persimmon and ramps, though they make it onto my lists consistently for any permaculture-inflected project we work on, as consultants or growers.
There is a certain amount of consistency in habitat requirements among the plants on the list. The plant selections below are species which appreciate mesic soils, perhaps with a bit of richness in the form of organic matter and a fairly circumneutral pH. That is, they do well in the soils that most farmers and gardeners strive for already, by adding composts and amendments and building soil tilth. The one possible exception, black huckleberry, is an acidophile in the wild, but with a fair range under cultivation.
There is a spectrum of variation among the plants below, but generally they thrive along edges and are tolerant of some degree of shade, as well as a fair amount of sun. They fit well into the "mid-successional" or periodically disturbed sere, which seems most fruitful (literally) for perennial agriculture.
These are all species I've used, some occasionally, some intensively, in both permaculture designs and in the kitchen. All are species I grow or have grown in our native plant nursery,
. Where I have a gap in experience, or questions, I will try to be transparent about it in the descriptions. I welcome comments and corrections!
Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
A prolific perennial vegetable with a wide harvest window
Common milkweed is a widespread species of fields and edges, roadsides, and other semi-feral habitats. It thrives in the rich and altered soils of former agricultural fields, and appears to have a high requirement for soil fertility and sun.
Milkweed is an aggressive spreader and is competitive in disturbed and urban settings, such as feral floodplains and abandoned lots. Given its high food values, this is not necessarily a negative. It is also a superlative insect nectary and the host plant for a number of specialist invertebrates, including the monarch butterfly.
While formerly maligned for its supposed toxicity, it is becoming apparent that milkweed is a pre-eminent perennial vegetable with minimal toxicity concerns. I'll point the curious in the direction of Sam Thayer's
The Forager's Harvest
for a thorough treatment of misconceptions regarding the toxicity of this plant, as well as for recommendations regarding safe preparation.
Milkweed offers three edible parts spread throughout much of the growing season, as well as the possibility of "cut and come again" harvesting of shoots. These edible parts are:
1. The "asparagus" phase: harvesting of pliable shoots in spring, and soft new growth (shoots and leaves) until buds appear.
2. The "broccoli" phase: Unopened flower buds, plus young leaves and soft stem growth
3. The "okra" stage: The young seedpod with soft, white, somewhat undifferentiated inner parts (before seeds harden and silk becomes stringy)
The flavor of each phase is excellent, and the plant can be prepared in many ways, from lacto-fermented flowerbud pickles to curried fried seedpods.
Black huckleberry in flower
Black Huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata)
Blueberry's forgotten kin
Black huckleberry is a low ericaceous shrub, two to three feet high, bearing crops of delicious, blueberry-like fruit on slender woody stems. Like other heaths (such as blueberries, wintergreen, and mountain laurel) it thrives in acidic soil. It is tolerant of a pH as high as 6.5. A signature for its habitat preferences could probably be simply expressed as "oak woodland".
Where upland oaks dominate, especially on thinner, more acidic, or more highly drained soils, huckleberry is likely to be found (or thrive).
Black huckleberry is colonial, spreading by underground stolons. It is deer resistant and long-lived. It fruits more consistently and abundantly given higher light levels, but can fruit in moderate shade.
I include black huckleberry because it is virtually unknown compared to its native kin, lowbush and highbush blueberries. To me, huckleberry's flavor is on a par with, or superior to both. However, it is simply not available to purchase as food.
A caveat about black huckleberry is that it is a slow grower, and stocked by few nurseries. However, given the ubiquity of appropriate habitat and the prospect of a delicious, novel (to many) native fruit, it is worth innovating with.
A naturally-occurring ground cover in front of a stone wall
Virginia Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum)
An edible shade-tolerant groundcover and bee nectary
Virginia waterleaf is an herbaceous groundcover, found in rich, moist soils, frequently in association with stream corridors and canopy trees such as sugar maple and American linden, which offer a rich leaf litter. It flowers in May and is a superb nectar resource for native bumblebees.
Its tender, new foliage (in spring, and again in early fall) is edible as a cooked green. It has a good flavor raw but the light hairiness of the leaves is irritating uncooked. I like to prepare it braised in a skillet with olive oil and wild alliums, as well as other seasonal greens such as garlic mustard, tall coneflower, dandelion, amaranth and lambs-quarters.
As a shade-tolerant, moderately spreading groundcover nectary with edible foliage and ornamental appeal, Virginia waterleaf deserves more attention from permaculture farmers (and wildflower gardeners).
Wood nettle in a shady mountain cove
Wood Nettle (Laportea canadensis)
A nutritious staple green
Wood nettle is a tall, colonial herb of rich, deep soils, such as those found along rivers and streams, and in rich mountain coves. It resembles its relative, stinging nettle, in its stinging hairs, but has larger leaves arranged alternately (as opposed to oppositely) along the stem.
Wood nettle complements stinging nettle well, in that it arises later in the growing season (emerging after most spring frosts) and offers tender shoots and foliage after stinging nettle has become coarse. Also, its larger leaves are more tender and more savory as well. I have assumed that its nutritional content is on a par with stinging nettle (which is well-known for its nutritional value and high protein level), but lack data to substantiate this. Presuming this to be the case, wood nettle can also be used to create herbal tea for people and compost tea for plants, with a similar effect to stinging nettles.
Nettles broadly speaking are also fiber plants and wood nettle can be used to create cordage.
Wood nettle can be established along partly shaded edges, especially given the presence of some soil moisture, or naturalized along waterways and swales.
Bee balm at our nursery
Bee Balm (Monarda didyma)
A native spice and herbal polychrest
Bee balm is a stunning crimson wildflower in the mint family. Its native habitat is along the margins of flowing water, such as in light gaps along forested streams. It can be found associating with such species as Joe Pye weed, spicebush, wild yam root, cardinal flower, primarily concentrated along the Appalachian mountain chain.
Bee balm has edible flowers and foliage. The flowers are a delicacy, with an aroma of rose, citrus, and oregano and the sweetness of nectar. The long crimson tubular corollas are accessed by and attract hummingbirds and swallowtail butterflies.
The foliage has a significant oregano/thyme quality, but with its own character, deep and almost musky. It makes a fine culinary spice, and an herbal tea with carminative and nervine qualities (great for someone with an upset stomach due to anxiety, for example). We use the herb for tea on a regular basis throughout the growing season, and my young son grazes on the flowers frequently during their bloom time, from June-August.
This plant is well known as an ornamental but neglected as a native spice, tea plant, and medicinal. It is one of the plants on our land the use of which approaches a sacrament.
Giant Solomon's Seal
Giant Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum biflorum var. commutatum)
A shoot vegetable with a promising root
Giant Solomon's seal is a tetraploid version of the (here in New Jersey) more common smooth Solomon's seal. While the latter is usually a short herb of dry oak uplands, Giant Solomon's seal is an impressive-statured herb that I've seen growing along the banks of the Delaware River and in limey soil on a roadside near Pohatcong Creek. Otherwise, I know it only as a garden species.
Giant Solomon's seal has a tall, arcing stem, with alternately ranked, somewhat clasping leaves. Early in the season, before the leaves have unfurled, it makes a delicious shoot vegetable, a lot like asparagus but without the "aspara-piss" finish. It grows and spreads prolifically from a large white knuckly rhizome showing old bud scars (the "seals" of its name). Both shoots and rhizome pieces can be sustainably harvested while maintaining an expanding clone of the plant.
The rhizome is white, sweet, starchy, and nutritive. I've prepared it, thinly sliced, like roast potatoes. It was pretty good, but could use the sensitivity of a good chef to really make it shine.
We often use the tinctured rhizome (a tasty tincture in vodka) for joint (esp. knee) and back problems, a usage that follows Matthew Wood and Jim McDonald. It is very effective. Other traditional herbal uses abound.
Great Solomon's seal thrives in a rich, organic garden soil. It is quite shade tolerant but we've also cultivated it in full sun in a moist, clay soil.
Broadleaf Mountain Mint with numerous bumblebees
Broadleaf Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum)
A native mint for broad usage
Broadleaf Mountain Mint is a meadow wildflower which I know from two powerline corridors in Hunterdon County, NJ. Its habitat preferences seem to be for moist, fertile soils, and sources corroborate the "moist woods and meadows" preference. Like others in its genus, I assume it is fairly plastic in its habitat requirements. Of all the fine
species, I chose this one because it appears
to have a higher degree of shade tolerance than some of the more narrow-leaved species. In drier uplands, I would substitute
However, the comments below pertain to the whole genus in varying degrees.
Mountain mint is a superlative pollinator species, attracting beneficial insects such as small wasps, flies, skippers and bees with its sequentially blooming lobed flowers. because the small flowers are clustered, and the upper bracts have a "frosted" look, the plant has ornamental characteristics as well. It is a spreading species like most in its family, but no more so than many common native meadow perennials such as asters, goldenrods, etc.
The strong, fresh, cooling mint flavor can be used in beverages, as well as medicinally and as an insect repellent. We use mountain mint's anti-microbial volatile oils in an herbal steam for sinus congestion.
Blackcap raspberry in fruit
Blackcap Raspberry (Rubus occidentalis)
A wild raspberry with a twist
Blackcap raspberry is a common and widely distributed species of field edges and open, disturbed woodlands. Blackcaps resemble their well-known kin, red raspberries, in many ways. Their flavor is subtly different from the latter, but on a par. Blackcap raspberry can extend raspberry season, offer a unique color variant for market farmers, and offer some genetic diversity and resilience for the berry farmer used to relying on domesticated cultivars of red raspberry.
The fruits of wild individuals are almost uniformly exceptionally tasty (unlike blackberries, for example), and wild-type canes usually fruit quite prolifically in part sun.
Tall Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata)
A hardy spring green from a colonial wildflower
Tall coneflower is an impressive statured denizen of marshy floodplains and sunny stream edges. It shares its habitat with Joe Pye weed and other charismatic flowers of wild waterways. Its attractive deflexed petals surround a tall, rigid, multi-hued "cone" of fertile disc flowers. It is a robust spreader and will readily form a high-yielding colony.
Flowering stems arise from a basal rosette of deeply cut (laciniate) leaves, hence another of its names, cutleaf coneflower. The basal rosette arises very early in spring, and provides edible greens (cooked) at a time when even dandelions are quiescent. The plants are known as "sochan" to the Cherokee, and are prepared by briefly boiling and then frying in oil with seasoning. I have usually bypassed the boiling, and like to braise them in a skillet in bacon grease or olive oil. It may be that boiling is important, however -- the indigenous people would know food preparation intricacies best. They combine well in this fashion with other spring greens. Its high mineral content compares favorably to kale.
Tall coneflower produces small achenes similar to sunflower seeds. These are very attractive to seed-eating birds, especially goldfinches, and can be used to support these and other beneficial wildlife in multifunctional perennial agriculture.
Wild Columbine (
A sweet surprise to share with the wild
Wild columbine is a short herbaceous wildflower with stunning crimson and yellow flowers, in bloom April-June. In the wild, it grows in partially shaded habitats with limited competition. It is most frequently found along ridgelines, rock outcroppings, and bluffs, almost exclusively on geological substrates with a circumneutral or basic pH, such as limestone and other calcareous or mafic rocks. In New Jersey, I've seen it on diabase, limestone, and on some of the calcareous shales. Its seeds are gravity dispersed and seem to require exposed soil to germinate.
Columbine's primary functions within permaculture design are two-fold. First, its flowers are both edible and stunning, with a sugary nectar reward at the end of its long corolla tubes. This might be regarded merely as a treat, perhaps a flaw for some market-oriented growers. However, exquisite beauty and sweetness are a winning combination... Second, it is a primary species for attracting and maintaining ruby-throated hummingbirds as beneficial wildlife in the permaculture landscape.
Columbine is not likely to thrive within a thicket better suited to aggressive forbs like mints and composites. Instead, it can be used along gravelly edges, stone walls, and in periodically disturbed areas where competition is lesser. It does well in the shade of an open woodland. Columbine may be a species that performs a transitional role, as an open understory planting fills in with fruiting shrubs, for example.