North American native greens and herbs

A while back I mentioned the North American native greens and herbs bed we were developing at the demo garden.  Well, it’s grown since then!

My thought, back in the winter when I was planning the Americas side of the garden, was that we had lots of well-known South and Central American plants (tomatoes, corn, squash, beans, potatoes, etc.) but people who lived in North America must have eaten something besides imports from the south.  I worked with MG Patti Oseroff, who did most of the research, design and eventually planting, to put together a 6×6 foot bed of greens and herbs used by native North Americans before the Europeans arrived.

I have to admit that the final result doesn’t include much (if anything) in the way of plants native to Maryland.  In fact, a lot of what’s in there is from Mexico or the southern U.S.  This is because we had to stick to what was practical and easy to acquire.  For example, we really wanted to grow claytonia (miner’s lettuce), but the seeds needed to be started last fall and the plants were hard to find.  Other plants didn’t make it on the list because they grew from bulbs, were shrubs or slow-growing perennials, or simply cost too much.

One plant we had lots of in the garden already (you can see it in the close-up photo) was lamb’s quarters or chual.  We weeded it out from other beds and transplanted it here!  It’s tasty and good in salads.

The best way to show you our selections is to quote the explanatory sign (which I really am going to put up very soon, maybe tomorrow!  I’m a little behind at tasks like that…).

Giant amaranth!

North American Native Greens and Herbs
Beyond corn, squash, and beans, what plants did the people of North America eat before European crops were introduced?  In this bed we show just a few examples of edibles native to North America.  Some are familiar to our gardens today – as ornamentals, herbs, or even weeds.

Chia (Salvia columbariae) is a member of the mint family native to central and southern Mexico.  Chia seeds can be roasted for a tasty source of nutrients, ground to make a refreshing drink that makes alkaline desert water palatable, or used as a medicine.

Chual (Chenopodium berlandieri) is grown for the leaves, which can be eaten raw or cooked, as well as for the flowering shoots and seeds.  Today it is regarded as a weed (lamb’s quarters), but it was once an important domesticated crop.

Beebalm (Monarda didyma) is native to the American Midwest and South.  It is used as a medicinal plant and a tea.

Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) is actually native to Central and South America but migrated north.  Its flowers and leaves are a delicious addition to salads.

The genus Amaranthus includes several amaranth species native to the Americas, grown for edible seeds and leaves.  It was an important, high-protein grain crop and is still grown today for its health benefits.

Mexican marigold (Tagetes lucida) is native to the south U.S. and Mexico.  It has an anise-like flavor and is used as a substitute for tarragon as well as for medicinal purposes (it’s said to cure hangovers!).

Culantro (Eryngium foetidum) should not be confused with cilantro, though they taste similar.  It is native to Mexico and is used as a food flavoring and medicinal herb.

Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), native to the U.S., can be used in salads and tea, and is also attractive to bees, hummingbirds, and seed-eating birds.

I highly recommend anise hyssop, chia and Mexican marigold as additions to your herb bed or vegetable garden, and culantro if you can give it some shade.  And most of us grow beebalm and nasturtiums already.  Amaranth is majestic, but watch the self-seeding, and I’d say just harvest the lamb’s quarters you already have and eat it.  (We’re also growing quinoa, which is a close relative – I’m watching it to figure out when to harvest the seeds – and hoping we don’t have it inadvertently next year.)

3 Comments on “North American native greens and herbs

  1. You mentioned that you found some herbs and greens that are native to Maryland, but you didn't decide to use them for a variety of reasons. However, I'd really like to find out what those plants were to possibly give them a shot in my garden. Could you post some of your research on this topic? Thanks! Bob

  2. Hi Bob – the best thing to do is get a hold of a book such as Peterson's Guide to Edible Wild Plants, which has lists by food type and gives native ranges – although some of the plants are introduced and have spread in the wild, so you'd need to coordinate the list with another resource (check the Maryland Native Plant Society website).

    Most of the plants are either weedy (cresses, pokeweed, wild onions, wood sorrel) or spread too slowly in gardens to be practically grown for food (trilliums) but there are a lot of them. False Solomon's Seal and Spiderwort are easy to get hold of – there are lots of fruits and nuts as well if you want to go larger.

  3. Looks like a fun project, Erica. You could also try bagging the quinoa seed heads when they get close to ripe.

    When you get close to wanting to eat a batch of quinoa, consider saving the rinse water and using it to wash your laundry. The saponins on the seed coating make a great soap.

    Bob, I've learned a lot from the Native American Ethnobotany Database.

    If you search on greens, you can turn up quite a few.


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