Nibbling on Natives Post-Webinar Q&A

Expert forager and author Russ Cohen Answers Real Questions About Edible Native Plants
beach plum Pamela Hargest

In a recent webinar from UNH Extension and UMaine Cooperative Extension, expert forager and author Russ Cohen delved into landscaping with edible native plants. 

We didn't get to all the questions viewers had for us, so we are sharing them here as a written Q&A. Enjoy!

If we plant these native species, then select seeds to propagate in successive generations, will they still be beneficial for native critters?

Yes. Wild Seed Project explains why and how to propagate and plant native species from seed.

Are there any wild strawberries where the whole plant is poisonous? I was told that the wild strawberries plant was poisonous.

If you are talking about a true Wild Strawberry [we have two species native to New England: Fragaria virginiana and Fragaria vesca], there is nothing poisonous about either species, with one very minor exception: wilted Wild Strawberry leaves are slightly toxic.  So if you make tea from Wild Strawberry leaves, it is best to use fresh or thoroughly-dried leaves for this purpose. While there are several species that bear a superficial resemblance to Wild Strawberry, [e.g., Appalachian barren-strawberry (Geum fragariodies), I am not aware of any that are poisonous.

I bought some ramp seeds. A friend from Wild Seed Project says they should be moist to work — any tips on trying to plant ramp seeds?

Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) has a great explainer on this topic. UNH Extension also blogs about growing ramps in the garden.

Can you replant the ramp roots that you find in the store?

Yes. Wild leeks/ramps’ natural habitat is “rich woods”, a preference they share with other forest floor herbaceous species like Maidenhair Fern, Wild Ginger, Black and Blue Cohosh, and Dutchman’s Breeches. “Rich woods” soil is typically relatively high in fertility, neutral (not acidic) and mesic (not excessively moist or dry).  So if you have a place to plant them that meets those conditions, they should do well; if not, you can try to amend the soil so that it would be more to the wild leeks/ramps’ liking. 

During the last 2 years some chanterelles have appeared in my lily of the valley/violet patch, not far from oak trees. Any suggestions on nurturing the chanterelles?

Chanterelle mushrooms (Cantharellus spp. – see, e.g., mushroom expert David Spahr’s web page, are truly “wild” in the respect that (as far as I know) they tend to show up where they want to grow, not necessarily where we want them to grow.  The good news is that Chanterelles tend to be loyal to the places where they are found, i.e., if you see them in one spot one year, they are likely to re-appear in that very same spot in subsequent years. To quote from David’s page, “Chanterelles are mycorrhizal meaning they associate with trees and possibly some other bushes or plants. I think they sometimes associate with mosses too but trees will still be around. No trees, not a chanterelle. A lot of moss is a good indicator some may be around although they may not grow in the moss but nearby.” So my guess is that your chanterelles’ mycelia are connected to the oak trees. As for what to do to nurture your patch, my advice would be to leave things largely the way they are, certainly below the ground.  

Does it matter what flower color the violets are? I have lots of white violets running rampant in the yard.

Good question, and yes, it matters, to some degree.  I singled out the Dooryard Violet (Viola sororia) in my talk for several reasons: it is a common, native Viola species, with edible leaves and flowers. Viola sororia has dark-green, heart-shaped leaves and (usually) purple flowers (sometimes they are more whitish). I recommend sticking to this species, as some other Viola species are rare and protected, and/or might have a laxative effect (e.g., the yellow-flowered species). 

Is Bergamot only the purple color Bee Balm?

As far as I know, Wild Bergamot is the only purple-flowered Monarda species native to New England.  As you (may) know, there is a red-flowered Bee Balm (Monarda didyma), which, although not considered native to New England, is occasionally encountered growing here in non-cultivated patches. Getting back to Wild Bergamot: I have never understood that common name, as (as I mentioned in the online session) the aroma/flavor of Monarda fistulosa leaves and flowers strongly resembles oregano (a cultivated cousin). It is (to my nose and taste buds) nothing like the bergamot flavoring in Earl Grey Tea, which is actually derived from an oil of a plant in the Citrus Family.

We are looking for a vining plant to grow on a pergola in a sunny spot. Any suggestions?

If you are looking for a native edible vine, one of our native Grape species comes immediately to mind. Of the two I am most familiar with, Fox Grape (Vitis labrusca) has the largest and tastiest grapes, whereas the young leaves of Riverside Grape (Vitis riparia) are considered by some to be the best of our native species for stuffing. 

We planted hazelnuts a long time ago and have never gotten a single nut. The bush is larg and produces some catkins but that’s it. Any suggestions about what we should do to get some nuts?

For a non producing plant like that, give up and start over. Six years is the usual time it takes to have a plant like this produce nuts. Some cultivars are out there that produce large nuts.

Are any of these plants suitable for container gardening?

A lot of edible native plants can grow in containers. Many herbaceous plants, like husk cherries or ground cherries, can be grown in containers. Containers will limit the spread of more aggressive growing plants like mints and alliums.

How many of these plants have look alikes that may not be eaten?

Benefit from accumulated knowledge - don’t experiment. Fruit first: the berries that taste good are generally safe to eat. If it doesn’t taste good it probably will not be good to eat. Send photos for ID to your state Extension service.

Best way to expand a small violet patch?

They are easy to transplant and they will fill in. Spring is a good time.

Can you talk about fireweed?

Fireweed shoots are edible but they are a little hard to recognize. The pink flowers are edible and can be made into tea or jelly. Native Americans discovered that the stem of the plant has white pith that is sweet to munch on.

Do you have any tips for planting natives in/amongst an existing treeline? ( roots/ stumps etc) I am looking to add to a treeline hedge between houses. Thanks!

Invasive species tend to invade edge habitat. Pop out that invasive plant and put a good plant in its place. This will usually open up the area enough for a plant to take root. If you have Norway Maples then this might not work due to their dense roots. In that situation, plant on top of the soil by building a raised bed.

My neighborhood small grocery says it only buys ramps from “licensed foragers”. Can you talk about this?

Licensed Foragers is not a standardized term. It is best to just pick the leaves and leave the bulbs.

Good native shade shrubs?

Spicebush is number one. If the shade is from hardwood trees and a little on the wet side that will make the Spicebush happy. Hazelnut will grow in shade but does better in sun. Most plants that survive in shade do better in sun.

What is the best and most sustainable way to transplant a native?

There is not a big difference in protocol. Plant either in Spring (Mid-April to Mid-May) or Fall (Mid-Oct to Mid-Nov) for New England gardens. Make sure the soil is prepped and a soil test for the pickier plants is always a good idea. Learn more about properly planting trees and shrubs from this UNH Extension resource.

Will Juneberries ripen after you pick, or do you have to only pick ripe one?

They do not ripen after they are picked. They are best used right away.

Can you talk about harvesting Tilia flowers and leaves? We have a ton of linden trees around our yard & I always miss out. Also, it doesn’t seem to have flowers down low every year.

Flowers from all linden (Tilia) species are edible. Some of the native trees (Tilia americana) get very tall and may not be reachable.

Best native plants for full sun, no shade at all.

We recommend using this Native Plant Finder from the Native Plant Trust. There are many options.


Learn more about foraging in this previously recorded conversation with field specialist Emma Erler.


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Russ Cohen is a guest author for UNH Extension and is a retired Rivers Advocate for the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game’s Division of Ecological Restoration. Russ leads foraging walks and talks throughout the Northeast and maintains a native plant nursery, working with land trusts, cities and towns, schools and colleges, tribal groups, state and federal agencies, and others. Posts by guest authors are reviewed by Extension staff specialists who confirm content is in line with current research and best practices.

Got questions? The Ask UNH Extension Infoline offers practical help finding answers for your home, yard, and garden questions. Call toll free at 1-877-398-4769, Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., or e-mail us at answers@unh.edu.