New England’s Native Edible Plants
When you think about New England foods, a cornucopia of images come to mind- corn, squash, apples, you name it. You may be asking yourself what naturally occurring, edible foods are indigenous to the New England region. There are a variety of naturally occurring, edible plant species as evidenced by the native tribes that cultivated and foraged for them. Today, we will review a few that you can still find across the northeastern United States when strolling through wild land.
When you think about New England foods, a cornucopia of images come to mind--corn, squash, apples, you name it. However, despite their deep association with northeastern harvests and culture, none of these crops are indigenous to New England. Apples, for example, were first cultivated in what is now modern-day Kazakhstan; corn and pumpkins, as the crops we know them to be today, were first domesticated in Mexico. You may be asking yourself what naturally occurring, edible foods are indigenous to the New England region. There are a variety of naturally occurring, edible plant species as evidenced by the native tribes that cultivated and foraged for them. Today, we will review a few that you can still find across the northeastern United States when strolling through wild land.
Hickory:There are 5 species of hickory trees native to the New England region, most of which bear a delicious edible nut and provide valuable resources to the flora and fauna of the area. Shagbark, a common hickory variety, produces the largest and more flavorful nuts of all the species in New England, imparting a sweetness similar to maple syrup combined with the texture of a walnut. The nuts are ready to eat come mid-September and continue to ripen through October. These little nuts are incredibly nutrient-dense, containing as much protein per ounce as chicken and acting as a great source of calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, and potassium. Hickory nuts can be eaten right out of the shell, roasted, and added to any dish for a tender crunch, ground, and incorporated into porridge as native tribes would, or reduced into a sweet syrup.
From August through early September across many coastlines in New England you find deep blue berries ripening on bushes nestled between sand dunes. These tart little berries are called Beach Plums. The Beach Plum shrubs thrive in the well-drained soil of coastal areas producing fragrant white flowers in the spring and fruits come summer. These little trees are multifunctional, providing pollen for bumble bees, foliage for caterpillars, nesting zones for migrating birds, and a tasty snack for the knowledgable forager. Beach plums’ thin layer of flesh is often used for jams or jellies, adding the perfect sour twist to sweet and savory summer dishes. What's more, this tart berry is packed with vitamins A and C, riboflavin, potassium, fiber, and phenols, supporting heart health and immunity.
An opportunistic vine you’ll see growing up neighboring shrubs and trees, the groundnut is a legume that produces beans and underground tubers- both of which are edible and were a staple crop for Native Americans and early North American colonizers. Like other members of the bean family, groundnuts practice nitrogen fixation which keeps soils fertile by pulling nitrogen from the atmosphere. The groundnut tubers can be harvested from the first 6 inches of topsoil in the fall after the vines die from frost or in spring once the soil is thawed. With a higher concentration of protein than that of other tubers like potatoes, ground nuts are a nutritiously dense starch. After peeling or boiling the woody skin off, the tuber can be consumed raw or cooked, tasting similar to sweet potatoes with a floury texture.
Fox Grapes:Native to New England, this wild grape grows on a vine in well-drained soils and moderately wet conditions like marshlands or forested wetlands with lots of sun exposure. These woody vines grow on the natural trellises of their habitat like thin tree branches, shrubs, and bushes. There are a wide array of cultivars within this species, one you may be familiar with is the Concord Grape, a tart fruit popularly cultivated for use in jams and jellies. Like many fruits in New England, you’ll typically find ripened fox grapes through the month of September when they give off a rich wine-like aroma. Not only can humans consume the fruits, but the young tender leaves are great for stuffed grape leaf recipes come June.
Foraging for these, and other, native plants can be an effective way to get outside, stay active and engage with the natural world around you. Be sure to bring a plant identification guide, and forage only what you need and can confidently identify; remember, always opt-out when in doubt. Happy foraging!