Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Native Edibles and Urban Agriculture

What food plants did California offer before we seeded acres upon acres of tomatoes, artichokes, oranges and almonds across the land? Do we still consider those plants food? Could they be re-introduced as part of a sustainable food culture? 

Alrie Middlebrook, a landscape designer and native plant expert (co-author of Designing California Native Gardens), has been researching this question at the Environmental Laboratory for Sustainability and Ecological Education (ELSEE), her brainchild in San Jose. The ELSEE Garden is located on a former parking lot, transformed over the past decade into a mosaic of major plant communities of the state. Interspersed in the beds are edible plants, both familiar - kale, tomatoes, summer squash- and unexpected - huckleberry, quail bush, nettles and wild grape. Alrie has identified over one thousand native edible plants, and of these she focuses on a smaller list of plants that thrive in gardens, have high nutritional value and hold the best chances of being accepted by the modern palate.

[Summer squash intermixed with native poppies and festuca]
[Clockwise from top right: Mixed native flower bed; view from the office; installation in the chaparral garden]

Spending the day with Alrie was a whirlwind of information on native edibles, and highly inspirational. One of the most interesting things I learned was about food diversity - the native California diet consisted of 1000 foods, of which 60-70% were plant based. By contrast the modern American diet typically includes only 40 plants. 

[View of the gardens, and the experimental edible tower]

[Clockwise from top left: the outdoor kitchen; the wild grape arbor: the native plant nursery; an edible native shrub]

The ELSEE Garden is also an active outdoor classroom, hosting groups of students from local elementary and middle schools, teaching them gardening, native plants, hydrology and sustainable systems. One current project for the classroom is building an aquaponics pond, to demonstrate closed loop systems for the students, and develop a replicable system that can be installed in edible schoolyards. 

[An tank filled with water hyacinth, at the garden of an aquaponics consultant we visited for ELSEE]  

Beautiful, useful and experimental, the ELSEE Garden was an enlightening field trip. Visit the California Native Garden Foundation website for recipes using native edibles (elderberry flower fritters, anyone?) and the blog My Back 40 which has a well organized recap of a talk Alrie gave on native edibles. Do you grow or design with native edibles, in California or elsewhere? Leave a comment, I'd love to hear from you!