Native Plant Food
by Akiva Silver
When I see fields plowed for corn and soy beans, I see total devastation. At certain times of the year it looks like the moon, completely devoid of plant life, the soil raw and exposed to the elements. If it were visible, we’d see huge amounts of carbon floating into the sky. In the summer, these massive fields are mono crops of non-native plants without even a single wildflower hiding. These fields take up more habitat and space than any ‘invasive’ plant.
Invasive plants are often blamed for destroying native plant communities, but are they really the primary reason for declining native populations?
While crawling through thickets of exotic shrubs like autumn olive, honeysuckle, or multiflora rose I can find abundant weeds of all kinds. I will see places for mammals and song birds to hide and feed. I can also expect to see pollinating insects, butterflies, and spiders. I often find native tree saplings like ash and black cherry snaking their way through the dense canopy of shrubs. Despite their aggressive nature, invasive plants conserve and build soil, provide habitat, and support life. The same can not be said for a field that is plowed every single year.
Thickets of exotics receive a lot of negative attention, and much work is being done to towards their destruction. It seems strange that when we see thickets next to a moon scape, we would work on rehabilitating the thicket. The fields of annuals take up far more room (95 million acres of GMO corn alone in the U.S.), and they are far more devastating to wildlife and our climate.
But, we gotta eat, right?
Yes, our food has to come from somewhere, and it is going to take up a lot of room no matter how it is done. So, let’s make the space our food occupies be an ecosystem. Is this possible with so many people on the planet? Can native plants be a part of this? These are big questions that I am excited to be working on. I totally believe we can heal ecosystems and grow enormous amounts of food for ourselves at the same time, in the same space.
To figure this out, we need to step back and look at what’s been taken away to make room for the millions of acres of annual grains.
The ancient American praire supported an estimated 60 million bison along with untold numbers of elk, antelope, and deer. Today, there are 80 million cattle (which weigh less than bison) using that same space. With all of our barbwire fencing, feedlots, antibiotics, and pumped water we are growing roughly the same amount of meat that the native ecosystem supported beforehand. Also, most of these cattle do not feed on resilient native grasses that serve extensive ecological functions, instead they eat corn and soy primarily. In fact, roughly 90% of corn grown is used to feed livestock. If the native praire supported so much animal life, why did we replace it with plowed fields and feedlots?
It is also in the realm of reason that the sale of wild venison could be legal. Regulations would need to take place to ensure a healthy deer population. This would have a significant effect on forest regeneration and certain threatened plants.
By switching from corn and soy fed meat to grass fed meat and venison, we can make a massive ecological shift that would have sweeping positive consequences for plant and insect communities, as well as carbon levels in the atmosphere. Pasture grasses pull carbon out of the atmosphere, while plowed fields release it.
Grain grows on Trees
Changing how our meat is raised is actually a very easy thing to accomplish. Grass fed meat is widely available, we simply have to vote with our dollars at the store and industry will respond to money as it always has.
Where it gets tricky is the grains we eat directly, not through animals. Think of all the wheat, corn, and soy that keeps us moving about at our fast pace. What on earth could replace these high energy foods? Chestnuts, acorns, and hazelnuts is the short answer. These are extremely nutrient dense staple foods that have been eaten by people for a lot longer than annual grains. They can be processed into things like granola bars, breads, and noodles.
I have heard the question many times, can you grow as many pounds of chestnuts as corn? It is not actually possible to answer this with a direct yes or no. An acre of corn will outproduce an acre of chestnuts if both crops are grown in flat, fertile bottomland. However, chestnuts can grow on steep hillsides with almost no topsoil and, they can have an understory of pasture grass that is grazed by livestock. Chestnuts don’t need to be fertilized, plowed, or rotated. So, the pound for pound question is misleading. The truth is, we could eat a lot more chestnuts, they make an excellent flour that can be used to make breads, cakes, crackers, and pasta.
Instead of allowing abandoned farmland to revert to thickets and stands of red maple, we can reforest hillsides with chestnut. We can see good examples of this in places like Turkey, Spain, and Italy. Or, you could come to my house.
Hazelnuts also posses an enormous untapped potential to replace the soy bean. By weight hazels have 3 times the oil content of a soy bean. After pressed for oil, hazels leave behind a high protein meal that is used in energy bars and in livestock feed. The land they grow on can also be used simultaneously to graze animals. This doesn’t work for soy beans. It is interesting to note, that a lot of breeding work is going into finding highly productive American hazelnuts because they are such tough and disease resistant shrubs.
Native Fruits and Nuts
There are so many good choices here that deserve more attention in our agriculture, backyards, and hedgerows. Many native fruits are good by themselves, while others are best when hybridized with exotic species. I have no negative views of growing exotic fruits like apples, pears, and peaches. It is still interesting to see what native fruits and nuts we can grow. I already mentioned chestnuts, acorns, and hazelnuts, but other delicious native nuts include black walnuts, butternuts, and several species of hickory including the pecan.
Excellent and well known native fruits include blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries. Some lesser known species, but still worth growing and eating lots of, include American persimmons, pawpaws, elderberries, currants, gooseberries, native plums, aronias, mulberries, and serviceberries.
My favorite native tuber has to be the Jerusalem artichoke (helianthus tuberosa), also known as j-chokes. They are not from Jerusalem and they are not artichokes. J-chokes are actually a native perennial sunflower. There are endless varieties, both cultivated and wild. They are usually huge plants, easily attaining heights of 10-12 feet with a happy small sunflower on top. Some varieties can be as tall as 16 feet, while others top out at 6 feet or less. They spread rapidly by underground tubers and rhizomes. It is astounding how many pounds of tubers can be harvested from a small patch. No matter how many you dig up, they always come back, and seem to thrive on disturbance. The tubers can be eaten raw, boiled, or roasted. They taste like a cross between a radish, a turnip, and a potato.
Another native root crop gaining lots of attention in the plant breeding world is apios americana, the groundnut. It is not a nut at all, but a wonderful wild and domestic perennial vegetable. In the wild, groundnuts are often found growing along stream banks. In early spring, they can be seen right on the surface, a bunch of small brown tubers strung together by a root. The flavor of groundnuts is outstanding, very similar to roasted potatoes. They are being bred and cultivated on a small scale in this country and more extensively in Korea.
Native Plant Habitat
If we are serious about protecting native plant communities, than let’s take a look at the real threats they face. Habitat loss is the biggest reason that native plant communities collapse, often completely. The sheer amount of space that annual agriculture and American lawns take up is devastating to jack in the pulpits, goldenseal, and thousands of other species. There is zero room for weeds, much less endangered natives, in a field of roundup ready soybeans. Many of these rare native plants could thrive in a different agricultural system based on tree grains and grass fed meat. We do not need to separate nature in tiny preserves. We can have healthy ecosystems all around us, everywhere.
To make amazing changes like reestablishing abundance we do not need to write letters to congress, or protest multi-national corporations. We simply need to do it. Just start buying different products, growing different foods, and getting rid of your lawn. When enough people around here are growing chestnuts and hazelnuts, we can pool our resources and set up a chestnut flour mill and a hazel oil press. We can create change by simply being it and offering a better option to the community around us. Don’t wait for politicians, plant trees now all over the place.
If you enjoyed reading this, check out my book Trees of Power