Native Berries for the Maine Garden
[Blog post originally published in 2016 and archived here.]
I’ve been happy to witness the native plants movement grow in recent years. Word is spreading about the importance of incorporating native species in our yards and gardens. The UMaine cooperative extension, for instance, has published a bulletin on the topic; the state has also created a portal with links to online resources; and (most excitingly) the Wild Seed Project, a local nonprofit, now sells native seeds in Maine.
We really need these resources. As pioneers like Douglas Tallamy have demonstrated, establishing native trees and plants in our yards improves our local ecosystems. That’s because native plants sustain more wildlife by serving as food for beneficial insects. What’s more, natives are also hardy because they’ve evolved for our regional climates. They also needn’t be replanted every year, unlike the majority of the food crops that we grow, which require annual reseeding. Although I’m not about to stop sowing basil or broccoli in the garden, I do hope to add in as many native plants as possible. Not only does this benefit the local ecosystem, but it also could mean less work for me as a gardener and farmer.
One of my first goals is to try out some native berries over the next few years. While some native berries provide food for animals (such as the Winterberry holly pictured above), others produce fruit that people can eat, too. In Maine, the most famous native edible is the blueberry. Both high-bush (Vaccinium corymbosum) and low-bush (Vaccinium angustifolium) varieties thrive in acidic soil and produce rich red Fall foliage.1 But I’m interested in the underdogs of the native berry world, provided they can be responsibly sourced as seed or seedlings. Below is a working list of some of the more tantalizing options currently under consideration for our homestead.
Caution! Always research the edibility of plants and fruit before trying them! Some berries must be cooked, others can be eaten raw. And some of the common names below cover multiple species, not all of which might be equally edible. I am not a botanist and this short article is not a foraging guide.
Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa, A. arbutifolia)
Roberta Bailey’s article on Aronia in the Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener brought these unique native berries to my attention.2 So apparently the fruits aren’t stellar: she describes them as “bland and slightly mealy, although not offensive.” Their redeeming quality, however, is their medicinal properties. According to Bailey, chokeberries are “high in polyphenols and in the category of antioxidants called anthocyanins. They have greater antioxidant levels than blueberries, strawberries, pomegranate, goji, cherry or mangosteen.” Chokeberries also contain a number of antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-diabetic agents, not to mention “cancer- and tumor-fighting compounds.” See Chris Kilham’s article at medicinehunter.com for another take. I think we can forgive a little blandness, given all these benefits!
Elderberry (Sambucus nigra)
If the abundance of elderberry wines and tonics in my local co-op is any indication, this native species complex needs no introduction. The varieties you’ll most frequently encounter in nurseries are Sambucus canadensis, or common elderberry (native to North America) and Sambucus nigra, or the black elderberry. (The taxonomy gets confusing, because S. canadensis is sometimes classified as a subspecies of S. nigra. — i.e. Sambucus nigra var. canadensis.) Both produce edible fruit. An additional species with varieties on multiple continents, S. racemosa, produces red berries. The berries of all species are considered toxic when consumed raw.3 Charlie Nardozzi at Garden.org produced an excellent write-up on elderberry varieties and the healthful properties of these native berries. The Wild Seed Project offers Sambucus nigra seeds. If you can raise plants from seed I recommend it: you’ll get much more genetic diversity than you would from a horticultural cultivar (though a cultivar guarantees certain characteristics and thus might be preferable if you’re raising berries for food or medicine). The seeds need to go through a cooling period before they sprout, so planting them outdoors in the fall is a good way to get starts in the spring.
Serviceberry or Juneberry (Amelanchier arborea, A. laevis, A. canadensis)
I planted my first serviceberry back when I lived in Virginia. Every year waxwings stripped the branches bare before I could try the fruit. To this day I still haven’t eaten a serviceberry. According to an article in Mother Earth News, the berries can be eaten raw, though the texture’s somewhat gritty. They can be baked, dehydrated, blended in jams or ice cream, and more. 4 Barbara Bowling offers a more temperate perspective in The Berry Grower’s Companion, claiming that the berries are, “quite honestly, a little nondescript in flavor, but apparently there is a lot of variation among species.”5 Though their taste might leave something to desire, serviceberries boast a similar nutritional profile to blueberries. They’re rich in vitamins such as C and B-6 and also contain iron and calcium. The fruit is cultivated widely in Canada, but hasn’t found much commercial footing in the United States.6
Various species of the tree are native to regions throughout North America. All are relatively compact and could potentially be trained into hedges. In general these native berries prefer sun and tolerate a variety of soil types, though they’re susceptible to powdery mildew in humid climates. Not all varieties are as productive as others. According to Jim Ochterski, “varieties used for commercial juneberry production [such as Amelanchier alnifolia] have been selected for consistent vigorous production.”7 These commercial varieties might also produce less bland fruit, though I haven’t compared them, myself. The Allegheny serviceberry, Amelanchier laevis, and the eastern serviceberry, Amelanchier canadensis, grow throughout eastern North America. Read more about edible species at Eat the Weeds.
Thimbleberry (Rubus odoratus)
Joseph Tychonievich’s 2015 Fine Gardening piece on aromatic plants recommends thimbleberry to both native-plant and edible-gardening enthusiasts.8 Tychonievich enthuses that this native berry, a member of the rose family, “is a raspberry with thornless stems; stunning, huge, maple-leaf-shaped leaves; and large, rose-scented bright pink flowers that (are you ready for this?) rebloom all summer long. In shade” (39). The plant, native to the eastern US, prefers partial shade and well-drained soil. And apparently it’s quite the sprawler, growing up to six feet in all directions and spreading via suckers. The Wild Seed Project currently sells Rubus odoratus seed under the name “Flowering Raspberry.” The fruits are edible and resemble conventional raspberries, formed from aggregated drupelets, like most bramble fruits. Both Illinois and Indiana list thimbleberry as either threatened or endangered.
Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana)
Widely considered the sweetest variety of wild strawberry, this native berry is parent to modern cultivated strawberry hybrids. Like domesticated varieties, Fragaria virginiana grows low to the ground and produces summer fruit.
I’ve raised F. virginiana seed under grow lights and transplanted the seedlings out with some success. Buy seed at the Wild Seed Project.
A good source on these and other native Maine plants is Maureen Heffernan's Native Plants for Your Maine Garden. Rockport: Down East, 2010.
Roberta Bailey. "Aronia -- The New, Easy-to-Grow Super Food." Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener. Dec. 2014 - Feb. 2015: 25. Print.
See the brief discussion on p. 92 in Maureen Heffernan's Native Plants for Your Maine Garden. Rockport: Down East, 2010. Print. See also the Wikipedia stub.
Nan K. Chase "The Amazing Serviceberry." Mother Earth News. Ogden Publications, Inc, 31 May 2012. Web. 15 December 2015.
The Berry Grower's Companion. Portland: Timber Press, 2005: 246-47. Print.
Jim Ochterski. "Juneberries - They Go Where Blueberries Can't." Cornell Small Farms Program. Cornell University, 3 October 2011. Web. 15 December 2015.
Ochterski. Comment dated 5 August 2014 in the previously cited article. See previous note.
"Heavenly Scents." Fine Gardening June 2015 (issue 163): 36-40. Print.