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Native plants and trees in food forests

Updated: Mar 28

If you want to know the backbone to any society, look to its elders.

  • steeped in knowledge

  • resourceful

  • connected

  • reliable

  • predictable

Native plants and trees have many of the same characteristics.

They have been the backbone of agriculture, plant medicine, and farming for hundreds of years. They have walked the path before us, carved out our ecosystems, provided shelter, food, and medicine and worked in unison with the animals, fungi kingdom and soil microorganisms. With this foundation, we can begin to understand the What, When, Where, Why and How as we dive into this fascinating concept.

What is considered a native plant?

A native species can be understood as a plant or tree that has evolved naturally in a particular location without direct human interaction or interference and that the native species has shown that it is an integral and essential part of that system. Some may also consider it important to point out that in order for a species to be considered native, that it occurred prior to European settlement to the region. This can include, grasses, vines, ferns, perennial and annual wildflowers, trees, and shrubs. There are some discrepancies to this definition as we know that Indigenous settlements did have some influence over the landscapes depending on the need and area settled.

When did native species evolve?

Native species have been in existence long before the introduction from European settlers of different species, or prior to Indigenous practices of influencing the landscapes. Many can refer to their existence as plants that have been uniquely adapted to the environment for as long as humans have been on the earth. Others believe that it is through the human experience that native species has evolved over the last 100 years. Despite the difference of opinion, one thing is for certain and that is that the evolution of plants and trees is complex. Land plants and trees are noted to have evolved from freshwater algae reported as long ago as 850 million years ago, but that algae-like plants may have been around as early as 1 Billion years ago. Most records report somewhere around 480 million years ago with fossil records showing moss from about 280 million years ago.

Given this, we can see that the adaptation ability of plants and trees is beyond measure. They have perfected to abstract conditions, landscapes and human input. If we consider this then we can objectively utilize the given strengths as a tool for our properties, communities and the earth as a whole.

Where can you find native species where you live?

Go outside into the forests and walk along the water ways, your rivers, streams, lakes and oceans. Go to the mountains, visit public land or crown land (Canada), untouched public land or state land. Go to the places that others do not frequent. In these places, you will see native species interacting with each other and can observe the plants at work.

You will find native species throughout any landscape all over the world. However, the introduction of other species of plants, infrastructure and population has diminished finding most in urban communities. Although some are unfortunately extinct, there are many that have been saved and brought back through the use of heritage and heirloom seeds.

You can also visit the local native nurseries in your area, or reach out to the native plant society in your region for support.

Heirloom seeds are mostly considered pre war (some say 50 yrs old or more).

Heritage seeds are considered lineage seeds-passed down from generations and can be over 50 years old or more.

Why are native species important in landscape and why should we choose them over hybrid species?

~Create biodiversity~ Our wildlife, pollinators, butterflies, birds and microorganisms evolved with our native plants. Due to this, many can only survive and thrive utilizing these specific plants. (those they shared co-evolution with). This is a very important aspect to understanding the importance of native plants. With co-evolution we consider things such as; adaptation, unique symbiotic relationships, reliability, and stability and strength of the plants, wildlife, pollinators etc. Together these support both species and plants in becoming resilient.

Biodiversity is the number and variety of living species within a specific region. This can include plants, animals, fungi or bacteria.

~They are not invasive~ Although many will state that there are lots of native species that are invasive, I challenge that narrative and encourage you to do the same. What if we zoom out and look at the whole picture, is it really invasive or is it more aggressive than others in the same area. If it is more aggressive than others in the same area, then I would ask why? With a different perspective we can look at aggressive species as attempting to correct an imbalance in the system. When the system is balanced properly we rarely see this. Instead we see the overcorrection of nature providing what it needs to pivot to a particular challenge it is facing.

~Easy to grow and adapted~ Native plants are known to require little intervention by us, they are extremely resilient as they have evolved throughout time with nature. You can also witness differences when observing them visually. In some cases, the deep root systems as a symbol of how they impact the system and the trickle down effects that this can have. As previously mentioned, due to the symbiotic relationship between native plants and the species they interact with, native plants and trees are extremely successful in thriving in their environment.

~Fit into any system with ease~ From marshlands to mountain hillsides, native plants and trees can be found thriving when and where others are not. Establishing this solid foundation on your property or in your community will allow for other less adaptable plants to succeed once established.

~Plants with deep evolution hold medicine~ When we utilize these plants throughout our ecosystems we are gifted the value of them through medicine. Plants and trees hold deep intuitive medicine that we are able to access. By choosing and researching the plants and trees on your own property, you will begin to understand them on a deeper synergistic manner. You will begin to understand connection to your internal world and how it is intimately connected to our physical world. Utilize this opportunity to make teas, vinegars, tinctures, balms and salves.

How can we preserve what we believe to be native species?

It is also important to consider the difference between native species and nativar species

(This can also be referred to as a native cultivar). A nativar is considered cultivated variety of a native plant that has been cross-bred or hybridized for desirable traits. This is a bit of a debate within the community regarding this topic. From the research that I have reviewed, it appears that there are some neutral results (meaning that were not better or worse) in comparison to native species, and there are some results that show that nativars are not as successful at attracting pollinators, providing adaptable traits and being beneficial to wildlife. From my position, I tend to lean towards native plants and trees for a number of different reasons, but overall, the reliability, predictability and lineage of the plant are some of the most important features that I choose native plants and seeds. I will dive into this topic in-depth in the native plants course I will be offering and in future courses that I will be offering with collaborative partners.

Some ways that you can preserve native species are by using and supporting heritage and heirloom seeds. Do this by connecting to your local generational farms. These are the farms that have been utilizing sustainable practices for multi generations and often times will have saved and perfected many different species over this time. You can also contact your native plant councils in your community or region, and Nationally there are many native plant councils. The native councils in your area, often will have reclamation sites that they are allowed to visit with permission to retrieve and save native plants that would otherwise be destroyed due to building or construction. Lastly, you can also reach out to local indigenous groups or community members that belong to gardening groups or societies. They often are more then willing to share some seeds and along with them deep words of wisdom.

If you are interested in learning more about native plants and trees and the importance in our landscape, please reach out with your email and contact information or keep a watch for up and coming course offerings.

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