IN HIS NEW BOOK, “Wild Plant Culture,” restoration ecologist Jared Rosenbaum says something provocative about gardening with native plants.
“It’s time to expand our vision past supporting birds, butterflies, and bees, and fully integrate the most challenging animal of all, the human being, into our native plant gardens,” he writes.
So what all would that mean, and how do we do that?
Jared Rosenbaum is a botanist and restoration ecologist, and he’s also co-owner with his wife, Rachel Mackow, of Wild Ridge Plants mail-order nursery in New Jersey. His new book, “Wild Plant Culture: A Guide to Restoring Edible and Medicinal Native Plant Communities” (affiliate link), is out this month.
Plus: Enter to win a copy of “Wild Plant Culture” by commenting in the box near the bottom of the page.
Read along as you listen to the Nov. 9, 2022 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
cultivating food habitats, with jared rosenbaum
Margaret Roach: Before we begin talking about the book, I wanted to just hear a little bit about Wild Ridge Plants, and what else you’re up to when you’re not writing books [laughter].
Jared Rosenbaum: Sure. So we’re a native plant nursery. We’re in North Central New Jersey. We grow native plant species from seed that we collect in local natural areas. We have a bit of a focus on forest understory herbs and upland meadow plants, and also have always had a strong interest in those plants that have a long cultural relationship with people, so edible native plants, medicinal native plants, and those used in various crafts as well.
Margaret: Yeah. I will maybe touch on some of these later on in the discussion and I’ll put some with the transcript of the show. You have some videos that you’ve done speaking about those very old relationships of plants with a place and really wonderful YouTube videos, a series of those. So I want to definitely shout those out.
So tell us the short version of what ecological restoration is, because that might sound different to gardeners listening.
Jared: I work as a field botanist in addition to collecting seed and propagating plants here at Wild Ridge. And the short version of my job is to go out and make lists of plants that I see. So I’m often working in county parks, nature preserves, and I don’t think that’s really my job.
I think what my job is, is to observe the plant life at a given site and to come up with a narrative about it. So to look at the health, diversity and abundance of the different wild plant species there and try to figure out, “Why are these plants here?” or, “Why are they thriving?” or, as is so often the case, “Why are they not thriving?” or, “Why do I know that this community here could have other species too, but it doesn’t?” And piecing together that story from field clues, whether it’s looking directly at the plant species there, or sometimes just at their form, like, “Oh, why are all the oak trees here double-trunked?”
Margaret: Oh, yes.
Jared: Putting together those stories is a really interesting process for me. And I have to admit that I’m telling the same story over and over again, and I’m seeing the same woods over and over again as I do botanical survey work. Woods that I know, “Gosh, this place must have been so beautiful X amount of years ago.” Or I can tell by the couple remnant hepaticas here that are flowering or the little browsed-back black cohosh that there could be so much other cool stuff here, too.
But I know that there are elements of that natural area, of that plant community, that are missing. And so for me, ecological restoration is thinking about the story of the place, thinking about how that story may have been truncated or degraded in the past so that it’s not at its full expression, and thinking about how we human beings can fit back into that story.
So if there’s plants missing from that community, what are the missing elements here? And sometimes they’re disturbances like wildfire. And sometimes they’re missing animal species, like large carnivores.
But what I keep coming around to when I’m doing field work is that one of the most important missing elements of these plant communities is actually us, people. And so when I wrote the book, my idea was, “How do we reintegrate ourselves into communities?” And communities mean a bunch of different things. We’re always thinking about creating community. It sounds really good, but there’s a lot of interdependency in communities. There’s a lot of, “I need you and you need me,” and it’s sort of inextricable in some ways.
When I think about plant communities on this continent, and I think about their story, I also think of a deeper story, which is the relationship for thousands of years that indigenous people had with these plant communities. And these were relationships that involved harvest, and they involved tending also. And I think we have a much different idea now of the kind of ecological relationship that indigenous people had with wild plant communities throughout the Americas.
One of the really cool things that’s coming out of archaeology right now is the extent to which, even those wild areas that we think of as paragons of wildness like the Amazon, are actually created by this relationship of human beings and their food plants and their medicine plants and their craft plants. And that places—maybe it’s the California coast or maybe it’s the Smokies—all these places actually had a very strong human presence the way you might say that they had a strong presence of wolves, or beaver, or deer. That we are animals in this ecosystem, and we got into this idea that we really live in this almost separate parallel existence. [Above, spikenard or Aralia racemosa in the woods.]
Margaret: [Laughter.] Yeah. Look where that got us, Jared.
Jared: Look where that got us. Yeah. So one of the things that reaches out to me and is so fascinating and fun and also a deep connection is using these plants for food again. These are amazing, delicious, highly nutritive foods that people relied on for thousands of years on this continent. And we can link ourselves in this deep emotional way of reliance on our native plant species if they can become our sustenance again.
Margaret: One of the things about the… I hate to use a word like useful, because that’s obviously not what I mean, because they’re useful in such deeper ways, but the plants that we could utilize as foodstuffs or medicines or whatever, or, as you say, in crafting, that…
So for instance, in the spring, wild ramps is probably the most popular example, besides some of the mushrooms and so forth. And so where I am, rural New York State, Hudson Valley, everybody goes into the woods and takes all the wild ramps, and that worries me. And so you are advocating a little more about we could actually grow them if we understood how, right? There’s not necessarily—maybe there is for ramps—but for a lot of these native plants, there’s not a manual. They’re not in the plant horticulture books that tell you how to grow this [laughter].
And so inspired by reading your book, digging into your book, I sort of tried to take a mental tour around my garden of the native plants and filter which ones were edible or medicinal, or that I thought were, and I bet many more are that I don’t even know.
But like goldenseal, for instance, one of my favorite woodland plants in the garden for a million years here that I have been growing, Hydrastis canadensis [above, at Margaret’s]. So, that’s one, for instance. And I used to grow Jerusalem artichoke, and I have a lot of Aralia racemosa, the spikenard, the native spikenard, and on and on and on. So I thought maybe we could talk about some of the plants that maybe surprisingly to people—aronias, elderberries, blueberries. Yeah.
You had a beautiful video on YouTube a while back about black cohosh, Actaea racemosa, and I don’t really know what it’s… Is it used for a medicinal purpose or something? But that’s an incredible plant.
Jared: Yeah, yeah. So we have this trio of I think medicinal plants of worldwide repute in our Appalachian or highland uplands forest, the ginseng, goldenseal, black cohosh. These are extremely highly regarded medicinal plants and also under a lot of pressure from overharvesting for medicinal herbs industry.
The alternative to medicinal herbs industry is people growing things themselves and being able to utilize plants from their garden for healing and for food, and taking pressure off of these remaining wild populations by figuring out, “How can we grow this in potentially our backyard or our garden?” And here’s the interesting thing about that, though, is all of us have different situations where we live. Where we live was a habitat at one point, and some people still have a really nice woodlot in their backyard, and other people’s backyard is asphalt [laughter]. And so what we garden is really going to depend on where we are.
I think that this is one of the interesting things that the native plant movement is injecting into gardening, which is as we think about, “How can we support the natural world with our gardens? How can we support declining bird and pollinator populations?” our gardens start to ooch outward and get bigger, and they become almost like ecological restorations at the scale of the schoolyard, or the lawn, or the backyard.
And I think we start asking ourselves a different question when we scale up in that way. So in our classic garden, we’re creating, on a fairly small scale usually, conditions that are so nice and so posh and so ideal, and trying to create them for the plants that we’re going to put in there, whether they’re tomatoes or it’s a rock garden.
Jared: With scaling up to more like a restoration, even if it is in our yard, we ask a different set of questions, which is: “What are the conditions in my yard, or my farm, or the woods behind the school?” or whatever it is. But, “What are the conditions on my site? And what kind of plants are already really well-suited to those?”
So if we’re taking a lawn and converting it to native plants, we’re not necessarily thinking about your ginsengs and goldenseals and black cohoshes [laughter], but we might be thinking about milkweeds and wild bergamot and wild strawberry and maybe some bayberry, and those plants are also medicinal and edible.
So part of what the book is doing is matching plants to places by talking about this idea of the plant community and talking about all the different plant habitats that we have in our area and also matching people to plants. So what’s going to fit in your site that you might not have to utterly transform your site to be able to host?
And for some people that will be ramps. We’ve actually had really good experience here just seeding in ramps in a variety of places that I never thought they would grow. And so here’s a plant that we largely see in nice, older woods. So we’re talking about Allium tricoccum, leeks, wild leeks, or ramps [above].
Here’s a plant that we largely see nice, fertile streamsides, flood plains and so on, in older woods. It’s also a plant that has these little shiny black seeds that are like tiny marbles and they don’t fly in the wind and they’re not a berry that a bird is going eat and deposit 10 miles away. They’re kind of dispersal-limited other than maybe moving downstream.
And what we’re discovering is just because there’s not a lot of ramps around, doesn’t mean that there couldn’t be a lot of ramps.
Margaret: Yes, yes.
Jared: They need a partner, right? They need a helper. They’re not crossing Route 95 on their own anytime soon. But all these young feral woodlots that we have that were farms back in the ’50s or earlier, all these abandoned landscapes that are rewilding as best they can: These are places where plants like ramps could grow, but they need us to be a member of the community again. They need our transportation skills. They need our human smarts. And part of saying, “Oh, we should eat ramps more,” is saying, instead of just digging them up and selling them at the Union Square market-
Margaret: For a million dollars, right?
Jared: … how can learn what these plants really need and harvest some of those seeds every fall and bring them to another suitable habitat and understand their habitat and understand them well enough to know what that is? So I think there’s this whole process of discovery here. There’s discovering this really delicious gourmet food, and then there’s discovering the personality of somebody else in our community, in this case, a plant being in our community, that needs our help.
Margaret: Right, right. Yeah. No, I mean you’re really on the ground, hands-on learning this. And part is from drawing inferences, as you say, about where you might see it growing naturally and so forth, and the life history of the plant, how it grows and where it grows and so forth.
Some of the others, you write about in the book, you include a passage on something I have a lot of, which is wild ginger, Asarum canadense [above]. I mean, we have the word ginger in the common name, but it’s not a true ginger as in the ginger root. How does that fit in?
Jared: So wild ginger is a little bit complicated. Wild ginger has a long history of use as an edible plant, but it also is part of a plant family that has some potentially toxic elements to it. And it’s one of these plants, sort of like sassafras, that people go back and forth on, because there’s some science saying one thing, and then there’s just a lot of things that we don’t know. So where I’ve landed on wild ginger, but I think that everybody should do their own research, is that the potentially toxic elements, or in this case potentially carcinogenic elements, do not seem to be water-soluble plant chemicals. So I will use wild ginger in a tea, and it has the most amazing aroma. I mean, even if you go out and you have wild ginger in your garden and you just go and scratch and break a root a little bit or the rhizome, really, it’s so spicy and it’s so good. It’s one of my favorite wild aromas out there. But right now, I’m not chopping it into my stir fry and-
Margaret: No, no, no, no, no, no. So I get what you mean.
Jared: … I never will.
Margaret: Right, right, right.
Jared: So sometimes one of the things that people think about when they think about wild edibles is toxicity. “They’re herbs. Is this plant going to kill me?” or whatever. And I really like that because I think that makes you a really good botanist [laughter]. Because if you’re looking at something and you’re like, “This could be a really bad decision. I better check my ID again,” that’s what gets people really looking at the leaves and smelling the foliage and touching the little fine hairs on the top and so on. But the other thing is, oftentimes, toxicity is a matter of preparation, or use. So if I hand you a raw potato, Margaret, “I’m like millions of people, billions of people all over the world eat these,” and you chomp into it, you’re going to look at me with pure hate in your eyes because-
Margaret: Yes, yes, yes, yes.
Jared: … a raw potato is not French fries, but we know how to make French fries and they’re so good. And that’s so often the case with these wild edibles too, is that they have a cultural tradition of preparation around them that makes them not only safe to eat, but also delicious. And we have to, in some cases, innovate or relearn those things about all these species. And that’s also part of the excitement.
Margaret: Right. So two of the things I think about when you’re talking about that are two that are… They’re “edible,” but not at the wrong time and not in the wrong condition or whatever. Two fall fruits that I have a lot of both in the garden, the aronias, which the word choke, for chokeberry, they call it?
Jared: Yeah, chokeberry.
Margaret: Because, boy oh boy, is that an astringent fruit. And even the elderberries, the timing is everything with the elderberries, right? Even as common as that is, and you see the birds going wild on it. But for us, it’s a useful plant, but timing is everything. So again, you have to do your homework. You have to become intimately knowledgeable, study these creatures not only to ID them but to potentially engage with them in terms of using them in any way, I think.
Jared: Every year I’m tasting the chokeberries. I’m like, “Are you ready yet? Are you ready at all?” [Laughter.] It’s like, no, no. Because it has that astringency.
And it’s the same thing with one of my favorite native fruits, really the plant that kind of brought me into all this in the first place, which is American persimmon. So back when I was a city kid and had just moved to a kind of moldy cottage on the side of a marsh, I was starting to get drawn into plants a little bit. And then I found these little very small sassafras-like trees on the edge of the meadow, and they had these orange fruits on them. What could this be? I mean, I had no idea.
I don’t remember exactly how I figured it out, but we had a couple of field guides kicking around, and I figured out that they were wild native persimmons. And I had no idea that such a thing existed. And these are fruits that when they look really good, like a beautiful shiny kind of orange apple, do not eat them. They’re hard and they’re super-astringent. They’re going to pucker up your tongue in a horrible way. But when they’re all gushy and kind of black and maybe they’re lying on the snow after the first snowfall, they’re nectar of the gods. They’re just incredible. They’re so sweet, and with such an exotic flavor. [Above, a ripe persimmon.]
And that’s another plant that I’ve talked to people who have been super-deterred from because they tried it at the wrong time. But if you get it when it’s really ripe, it’s an incredible flavor.
Margaret: Yeah. There’s a few more I just want to ask you about it in the last few minutes just because, for instance, as I said, I just have been enjoying not just the book but also some of your YouTube videos. You did one about bee balm, the red bee balm, the red Monarda. And I didn’t know, for instance, that you say in New Jersey, where you are and where you do a lot of your field work, it’s not a common plant. And yet it’s such a common garden plant. It’s often a beginner’s… I call it a confidence-booster because it sort of spreads and grows and makes you think you’re a great gardener, but it’s not a common plant.
And I don’t know what types of medicinal herbal qualities it has or doesn’t have, but that was an interesting one too. And groundnut, Apios, is just another really beautiful, wonderful plant that I don’t think people grow. So I just wondered if maybe a couple of those, if you wanted to tell us a little bit about them quickly.
Jared: Yeah. I mean, the first thing I would do with bee balm is when it’s in flower, pluck off some of those flowers and just eat them whole. They have kind of a sugary nectar reward and taste to them, because they’re a hummingbird plant. But that’s mixed with this… So all of Monarda have this kind of overtone of thyme or oregano. They’re in the mint family, they have a lot of allied phytochemicals with some of our culinary mints that we use. So you could certainly use them, sprinkle it on your pizza or whatever. But the flowers have this little bit of sweet, this little bit of citrus, maybe a tiny bit of rose, and then this oregano, thyme overtone. It’s so good. And just think about, just sprinkle that as a garnish on your salad or something-
Margaret: And beautiful. That would be beautiful.
Jared: … and really flavorful and gorgeous, right?
Margaret: Yeah. So the hummingbirds are onto something, huh?
Jared: So the hummingbirds have a sweet tooth, as we know, right-
Jared: … because they often eat sugar water. And those plants with those long red tubular corollas that the hummingbird bill fits into perfectly tend to have sugar at the base of them. So people can decide what they feel safe trying. But we also nibble on columbine flowers and even the coral honeysuckle flowers, which I’ve never really read as being edible anywhere else, but my son, who’s 11, will go out and just chomp on those because they’re sweet.
Margaret: Yeah. And then quick, just the groundnut, because that’s one that I don’t think people try. Yeah, the Apios [below, the flowers].
Jared: Yeah. Groundnut has these tubers underground, and they’re kind of like a mix between potatoes and, let’s say, chickpeas because they’re a legume. And what I’ll do is I’ll fry them up in a skillet, and the outside skin actually gets super-crispy. I liken them to a gourmet Tater Tot [laughter] because they have a starchy inside, but the outside gets super crispy and flaky. And they are one of those really good staple foods that were widely transported and tended by indigenous people that were probably found with a lot more frequency in the landscape, and that if we’re considering like, “What’s going to be our ‘meat and potatoes’ on a native plant diet? What’s really going to last us through the day?” that’s a great fundamental and really tasty. So, that’s Apios americana, the groundnut.
Margaret: Yeah. Well, “Wild Plant Culture” is the book, and we’ve been talking with Jared Rosenbaum, the author of it and co-owner of the Wild Ridge Plants mail-order nursery in New Jersey, and lots more stuff, including great YouTube videos. So I’m so glad you made the time today, and I hope we’ll talk again soon, Jared. Thank you.
(All photos by Jared Rosenbaum except as noted.)
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 13th year in March 2022. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Nov. 9, 2022 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).