By Jesse Adams – Resource Planner
Native plants have many benefits. Well-established native plants control erosion by holding the soil with their roots. They reduce flooding by slowing runoff. Trees, shrubs and groundcovers clean water by filtering out sediment and pollutants before they reach lakes, streams and Puget Sound. What you may not know is how delicious many of our native plants can be. For example, you may be used to picking invasive Himalayan blackberries or our native trailing blackberries, but may not know that there are other great natives to choose from as well.
Beaked hazelnut (Corylus cornuta) is easy to grow as well as delicious. It can handle full sun to deep shade with moist to dry soils. It has a moderate growth rate, reaching heights between 5 and 15 feet depending on growing conditions. It responds well to pruning, making it easy to maintain at a size appropriate for your yard. Beaked hazelnut has drooping catkins that add winter interest and it blooms early (mid-winter to early spring). It’s best to harvest the nuts in late summer or early autumn, but you will have to act quickly because these nuts are also favored by wildlife. We have two large Beaked hazelnut bushes at our office that a pair of Steller’s Jays (Cyanocitty stelleri) and squirrels fight over every fall. The nuts can be eaten raw, roasted or added to baked goods. You might even top your ice cream with them.
Picking huckleberries is nothing new in the Pacific Northwest, but wouldn’t it be nice if you could pick them in your own backyard? You can! While Red Huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium) is difficult to establish, Evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum) is a little easier to grow. It prefers shade, but can be grown in full sun if watered for the first few summers after planting. We use Evergreen huckleberry as an attractive shrub on the north side of our office building. It grows slowly, but can eventually reach heights of 12 feet. The small purplish–black berries of the Evergreen huckleberry are sweeter than the red variety, and are best harvested after the first frost. They are good to eat fresh, often making it difficult to resist eating them while picking.
Tall Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) and Low Oregon grape (Mahonia nervosa) have clusters of blue edible berries. They keep their leaves year–round, making them attractive for landscape plants. Tall Oregon grape is an easy to establish shrub reaching up to 10 feet in height. Since Tall Oregon Grape has prickly leaves, be sure not plant it too close to a path. It grows in full sun to part shade and is very drought tolerant once established. Low Oregon grape is a small shrub (reaching approximately 2 feet in height) that is easier to establish in shade. Both have clusters of beautiful yellow flowers in the spring that turn into bluish–purple grape-like berries. The fruit is quite tart and there are mixed opinions about eating it raw. It does however, make a delicious jelly with a flavor not available in retail stores. You can enjoy Oregon grape jelly with oatmeal or with goat cheese on crackers. If you find a good patch of Oregon grape, try this recipe:
Select firm ripe Oregon grapes. Wash, leaving on stems. Place in large preserving kettle, covering with water. Boil 10 minutes, then mash and boil 5 minutes longer. Drain through jelly bag. Measure juice into large preserving kettle and boil 10 minutes. Add ¾ as much sugar as juice. Stir until sugar is dissolved. Boil rapidly until it sheets from a spoon. Remove from heat, skim at once, and pour into hot, sterilized jars. Leave ¼” headspace. Adjust lids and process 5 minutes in a boiling water canner. After processing, take canner off heat. Remove lid. Wait 5 minutes before removing jars.” (OSU)
These are just a few examples of native plants that are useful for habitat restoration and landscaping, as well as eating. One last piece of advice: because some of our native plants are toxic, please verify that what you are picking is edible. There are numerous guides and books in your library that can help you make the right choices.
Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast by Jim Pojar and Andy Mackinnon
Preserving Foods: Wild Berries and Fruits by OSU Master Food Preserver Program