Debbie Arrington

Seeds: Eat like a native gardener

Five species of blackberries are native to the greater Sacramento area. “Yes, they create a bramble, but that’s part of a native garden,” says horticulturist Kim Eierman. “It gives wildlife habitat as well as something to eat. Native plants aren’t always tidy.”
Five species of blackberries are native to the greater Sacramento area. “Yes, they create a bramble, but that’s part of a native garden,” says horticulturist Kim Eierman. “It gives wildlife habitat as well as something to eat. Native plants aren’t always tidy.” Sacramento Bee file

Kim Eierman traded the whirlwind atmosphere of Wall Street for a world far away from the bustle of business – in her backyard. She chucked her suits and briefcase for gardening gloves and botany books. Removed from the concrete jungle, she rediscovered nature in suburbia and reinvented herself as an environmental horticulturist.

“I don’t regret leaving Wall Street for a minute,” Eierman said in a phone interview from her New York home. “This is my passion, what I really want to do.”

During her business career, Eierman had worked for major investment banks and brokers. But 20 years ago, she moved out of Manhattan to Westchester County, about 15 miles north of New York City.

“I was always passionate about nature,” she said. “I couldn’t get enough outdoors. When I moved out of the city, I became a master gardener and master horticulturist. I devoted myself to nature.”

In particular, Eierman became a leader in the native-gardening movement. A popular garden blogger on her website (www.ecobeneficial.com), she has grown a national audience, hungry for knowledge about the plants and natural world all around us.

As a longtime gardening author and teacher at several institutions, Eierman saw the demand for more information on edible gardening. More Americans are growing their own food now than any period since World War II. She thought, why not combine interest in edibles with native gardening?

“I call it ‘native-licious,’” Eierman said. “There are a lot of native plants that are edible. They’re not only edible for us, but they can be an important food source for the wildlife around us.”

Native plants, by definition meant to grow where they originated, can flourish without much additional care in their proper environment. In the drought-parched Central Valley and Sierra foothills, that also means native plants can get by with less water.

These low-maintenance plants can add beauty with a bonus: edible fruits, nuts, berries and leaves. They also support beneficial insects, birds and valuable pollinators such as bees.

Eierman has one major caveat: “You really need to stay true to the region where you’re gardening.

“But that shouldn’t be too hard in Sacramento,” she said. “California has the best and largest native plant society around. The California Native Plant Society is a wonderful resource. You want to put the right plants in the right place.”

For all Central Valley gardeners, Eierman highly recommends one native plant that we might not have a big appetite for but that’s vital to a vanishing population.

“Monarch butterflies desperately need milkweed,” she said. “If we want to see monarchs around for our younger generations, we need to plant milkweed in our own backyards. The butterflies will find it. Showy milkweed does particularly well in California. It’s also a fantastic nectar plant, not only for butterflies, but for many other things such as native bees.

“And the young milkweed pods are edible and quite tasty,” Eierman added. “But don’t eat all the seed; you want more milkweed to come up year after year.”

As she discovered more edibles in native gardens, Eierman realized that her approach to native edibles might be an acquired taste.

“A lot of things might be edible, but do you want to eat it? Some things need sugar to be palatable. Some things need a lot of sugar to get to that point. And some things are just too much work or too difficult.”

An example: acorns. A staple of the American Indian diet, they take many, many hours of work to go from squirrel food to usable flour.

“The valley oaks around Sacramento have less-bitter acorns than other species, but they’re still a heck of a lot of work. It’s better to go with some simple things that taste better right off the plant.”

That includes blackberries. Five species are native to the greater Sacramento area. “Yes, they create a bramble, but that’s part of a native garden,” she noted. “It gives wildlife habitat as well as something to eat. Native plants aren’t always tidy.”

Among her other edible native favorites for California:

▪ Black elderberries. “They have big, beautiful white flowers that can be breaded and deep-fried. Elder flowers are used for wine in Europe and to flavor soda. And the elderberries are delicious; it’s one fruit that does benefit from sugar. Elderberry and apple pie is a really good combination.”

▪ Hazelnuts. “This is a native nut that we like to eat – hazelnut flavoring is everywhere – but we rarely grow them. It’s a really nice landscape shrub and quite prolific.”

▪ Black walnut. “This tree grows native in wetter areas but does well in suburban landscapes if you have the room. They’re big trees.”

▪ Huckleberries. “This is a cousin to blueberries. High bush and low bush blueberries aren’t native to California, but California is huckleberry country. They need sugar, but they’re delicious.”

▪ Wild grapes. “These are very valuable wildlife plants, but we can eat them, too – with plenty of sugar!”

▪ Golden currants. “They’re super healthful, and the berries are edible, but again they need sugar.”

▪ Gooseberries. “Some varieties are absolutely yummy, but you’ll probably have to battle the birds to get them.”

▪ Wild onions. “Alliums are wonderful bee plants – unless you’re a beekeeper. You don’t want onion-flavored honey.”

Many other native plants also offer something edible to both people and wildlife, she noted, but do your homework before you start munching. You can get too much of a good thing or have an adverse reaction to some plant parts.

“My rule of thumb: Watch the birds and small mammals,” such as squirrels or chipmunks, Eierman said. “If you see lots of birds and mammals visiting a plant, chances are it’s probably edible for us, too.”

Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington. Read her Seeds columns at sacbee.com/debbie-arrington.

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