Discovering and Using Native Plants in the Garden

This short report includes news on resources for discovering and using native plants, including book list and authors.


Kavanah Farnsworth.


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News brief on resources for discovering and using native plants in the garden from established garden authors. 

What is a true "native" plant? According to Native Texas Gardens, (Gulf Publishing, 1997) it is one that has grown in a particular area without having been brought there by humans and can survive nicely without any help from us. Native Texas Gardens is the latest in a series of books by Andy and Sally Wasowski about landscaping and using native plants in the garden. The foreword celebrates an "emerging new land ethic."

This ethic emerges from what the Wasowskis see as a new interest in different design options and a desire to preserve regional biodiversity. Although their book is dedicated to showcasing about 100 Texas gardens, it is also instructional to anyone interested in the principles of gardening with native plants: conservation of water, soil, and other resources (including time); reducing pollution and chemical use; and increasing wildlife habitats. The large colorful pages list plants by common and scientific names and profile people who have embraced native plants as part of their gardens and their lives.

Native Texas Gardens also exemplifies a new trend in plant resources—that is, specialization and regionalization in order to provide more thorough and accurate information. In one of her previous books, Requiem for a Lawnmower (Taylor Publishing, 1992), Sally Wasowksi presents her belief in the need for region specific guides. Authors trying to present a broad scope of information, she says, rarely understand special needs and conditions. On the other hand, regional authors address the unique conditions in selected parts of the country. They are experts who live with the plants they write about and have tried the methods they describe.

A fine example of what Wasowski is talking about is Kahanah Farnsworth's newly updated edition of A Taste of Nature (Sunbelt Publications, 1997). The first edition of the book, which appeared in 1994, is a guide to 76 edible plants of the Southwest. The book also includes 12 plants that are poisonous, and her discus sions emphasize the care and knowledge that need to accompany any person's decision to explore the world of native edibles. Farnsworth's favorite sources are about plants of a specific region (see resources listed at the end of this article), but she makes an important point when she says that plants are separated more distinctively by habitat than by region (e.g., a cold climate or a mountainous region is far more telling than a classification like "Arkansas" or "the upper Northwest"). Thus these regional books can help narrow the scope for beginning edible plant enthusiasts, but they may be applicable in many similar geographical regions.

Farnsworth's book also includes recipes that make this resource particularly relevant to the modern forager since many doctors and nutritionists now advocate eating many different kinds of food, particularly organic and whole foods, in order to maintain optimal physical and mental health. Edible plants can provide natural alternatives to drug therapy and offer interesting meals and snacks that provide vitamins and minerals so often lacking in the modern diet.

Farnsworth, a former teacher and avid hiker, has studied with several Native American tribes, including the Cahuilla of Palm Desert and the Miwok with the Yosemite Association. The use of and reference to Native American legends, spirituality, and methods is not unique or new to the educated edible plant enthusiast. Tom Brown, Jr., who began a 12-book series on survival skills in the 1980s and heads a tracking/survival school in Asbury, New Jersey, bases much of his writing on his work with an Apache man named Stalking Wolf.

Brown, who recently released The Way of the Scout (The Berkley Publishing Group, 1995), is currently working on another book about tracking and can tell you from experience how to survive in the wild with nothing more than a knife and some knowledge of native edible plants. His Guide to Wild Edible and Medicinal Plants (Berkeley Books, 1985) introduces a spiritual connection with the use of the earth and her plants. It is not region-specific but does include personally verified information as well as a unique perspective from Brown's intense treks into the wilderness.

Doug Elliott is a forager who wandered North America for more than 20 years. Elliott, who spent seasons devoted to full-time gathering and studying of herbs in northern New England, at the foot of the White Mountains in New Hampshire and along the rockbound coast of Maine, later traversed the Appalachian mountain chain to West Virginia with a trowel, plant books, and "much neglected sketch pad." In his book, Wild Roots (Healing Arts Press, 1995), he provides a spectrum of underground root structures accompanied by illustrations. Spikenard, for instance, is a plant found in moist woods throughout most of the temperate regions of North America east of the Rocky Mountains. He describes the external features of this plant, the dozens of tiny white-petaled flowers that appear in mid or late summer, the purplish black berries that can be identified early in autumn. His detailed drawings of the underground structures of plants such as spikenard make identification feasible (a difficult task because the aboveground parts of these plants die and shrivel away in the fall). His explanations of these plants include their uses and any special lore associated with them (in this pleasantly aromatic plant's case, the autumn-dug roots are tender and mild-flavored, making it valuable for emergency food; and its root can be made into an excellent cough syrup).

Harvesting edible plants can be dangerous if you are not sufficiently skilled and knowledgeable. Using regional, experience-tested, and part-specific guides can eliminate a lot of guesswork to assure you are not eating plants that are poisonous or ones that might be tainted by the environment in which they grow. Authors such as Wasowski, Farnsworth, Brown, and Elliott all emphasize the importance of identifying and avoiding contamination, controlling disease and insects, monitoring susceptibility to microbial infection, being aware of naturally occurring carcinogens, knowing and understanding all foods we eat, and incorporating practices to ensure its safety and wholesomeness.

In addition to the books examined in this article, other excellent guides exist. Following are those recommended by some of the featured authors and source listings of this article.

The most important resource, however, is your own experience. So, arm yourself with new and old sources of information, and return to your "roots."

Sally Wasowski recommends:

For native plants: The National Wildflower Research Center's Wildflower Handbook (Harper Collins, 1996). A state-by-state listing of nature preserves, arboretums that feature native plants, conservation and native plant societies, local Nature Conservancy offices, native plant nurseries, landscape designers and architects, etc. For monitoring pesticides: National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides, Washington, DC. Ask for pamphlet "Safety at Home."

Kahanah Farnsworth recommends:

American Indian Food and Lore, by Carolyn Niethammer (Macmillan Publishing, 1974).
Flowering Plants: The Santa Monica Mountains, Coastal and Chaparral Regions of Southern California, by Nancy Dale. (Capra Press, 1985).
The Wild Food Trail Guide, by Alan Hall (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976).
Western Edible Plants, by H. D. Harrington (University of New Mexico Press, 1984).
Discovering Wild Plants, by Janice Schofield (Alaska Northwest Books, 1989).
Plants Your Mother Never Told You About, by James Wiltens. (Deer Crossing Camp Press, 1986).

Tom Brown, Jr., recommends:

PRACTICE! For guided courses on survival that include hands-on experience in gathering edible plants, contact the Tracking, Nature and Wilderness Survival School, Asbury, NJ.
The Field Guide to Wildflowers of Northeastern and North Central North America, by Roger Peterson (Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

Horticulturist's Guide on the Internet recommends:

Sturtevant's Edible Plants of the World, edited by U. P. Hendrick (Dover Publications, 1972).
Poisonous Plants of the United States and Canada, by John M. Kingsbury. (Prentice-Hall, 1964).
Vegetable Diseases and Their Control, by A. A. MacNab, A. F. Scherf, and J. K. Springer (Wiley, 1986).