Discovering and Using Native Plants in the Garden

By Pam Alt
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Kavanah Farnsworth.
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Tom Brown, Jr.
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Andy and Sally Wasowski.

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
(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

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

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

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,
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).