3 Benefits of Maintaining an Urban Native Plant Food and Medicine Forest

Photography by Paul Galant.
The eggplant colored berries grow side by side on an elongated stem, up to perhaps a dozen in a row. You know they’re ripe not only when they’re plump, but when they begin to resemble blueberry flowers in shape–more so than round berries. The berry gains this appearance because the fruit is surrounded by a protective, fleshy sepal, which looks like a flower. If you gently pinch the skin, you can pull it back to show the fruit inside.

During my journey along the coast of Oregon this summer, I foraged for these salal berries every day. I fondly recalled the baby salal plant growing in the garden, which I’d been watering all spring and summer–and now, the salal was taking care of me.

As I tasted the sweetly mellow, ocean-salty berries, I also picked the evergreen huckleberries growing at times fully intertwined in the salal. These two love to grow together. The blue or black pinhead-sized huckleberries were tartly-sweet and popped in my mouth. All along my journey, I was able to find berries to forage, simply because I knew what to look for.

As I learn more about the endemic and native species I can forage here in the Pacific Northwest of North America, I wonder how these can fit into a native plant and medicine forest. Of course, there are non-native species I grow as well. But why maintain a native plant food and medicine forest? Here are three reasons why. You can…

1) Provide Habitat for Wildlife and Encourage Biodiversity

Native and endemic plants provide habitat for other native species which may be endangered. The expression “build it and they will come” applies here. In this way, permaculturists can play the role of restoration conservationist while building a community around food sovereignty and reskilling.

Many species need a specific habitat in which to nest or harvest food. There could be species that are native to your area which pollinate crops in my area, and if they don’t have anywhere to live, my part of the world would suffer.

Biodiversity is a critical aspect of the discussions surrounding food security, environmental conservation, and the health of our planet in the years to come. Permaculture is on the cutting edge of agriculture in that it considers biodiversity in planning systems. As Bill Mollison classically puts it, “you don’t have a slug problem, you have a duck deficiency.”

Well, maybe we also have a native and endemic species deficiency. The more components we can integrate into the system, the more symbiotic relationships we can cultivate and hold space for, the better the end result.

That end result: A dynamic, resilient, productive, thriving system that has the power to provide for the people and restore the health of the planet.

2) Use Biodiversity and Sequestration to Restore the Planetary Equilibrium

With droughts, wildfires, and temperatures on the rise, precious forests are disappearing at a mind boggling rate. We know permaculture is a solution to this, as far as water catchment, soil building, and shade-creation are concerned.

There is something to be said for restoring the plants which originated in your place of residence–because as we lose those forests, we lose the animals too, which exacerbates the problem. Since native forests are environmental balancers and regulators, we might as well give them some leverage. Native plants are well suited for the area you live in, and will require less babying and human input as a result.

Imagine if permaculturists could play a major part in bringing the planet back into harmony and balance, environmentally speaking. This way, the native plant food and medicine forests can sequester carbon, produce rain, and lower temperatures, and the planet finds its equilibrium.

The end result: neighborhoods with yards full of native and endemic species, with the cultural knowledge of their uses revitalized.

3) Educate and Re-skill Beyond Language and Cultural Barriers

Throughout the summer, I’ve gone foraging with friends. Foraging has been a source of food and medicine that I may otherwise have had to purchase or simply gone without. More than once during my trip when I had literally just uttered the words “I’m hungry,” I spotted something tasty to forage. This, in itself, has been empowering.

Imagine if people could forage in urban environments because permaculturists planted native plant food and medicine forests.

Of course, there’s still the option of developing a non-native garden within the same property. My motto is, the more bio-diversity, the better.

In the past month, I’ve been introduced to and learned the uses of more than a dozen medicinal and edible native plants. When planning an endemic and native plant food and medicine forest, there’s no better way to learn than getting out into the woods, observing, and harvesting.

Seeing the plants growing in their chosen habitats (whether in untouched, restored, or disturbed areas) gives me an understanding of their needs within the garden. Observing them in the forests, mountains, beaches, or even along road sides, lets me know their preferences for soil type, sun, shade, water, elevation, and the other species they like to grow alongside.

Planting, observing, and harvesting plants is an activity people of all ages, ability levels, and beliefs can enjoy together. It has the power to bring people together, cross-culturally, beyond the language barrier. It can unite people beyond the invisible walls that differences in income, religion, identity, and so on.

What better way to gain a sense of place, belonging, and community than to come to know the original inhabitants?

Continuing the Discussion

I’d like to propose a few questions to invite discussion. Do you incorporate native and endemic species into your permaculture system? Would you consider adding native species to your system after reading this article? Has permaculture been a canvas for reskilling community members, and bringing them together in a way they may not have before? Leave a comment below!



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