June 2006 Los Feliz Ledger Column, "Nibbling Natives"
Sambucus mexicana (blue elderberry) photo by Carmen Wolf
If you’ve never snacked on freshly plucked golden currants, you’re missing one of the joys of growing California native plants at home.
The edible landscaping craze is gaining popularity but, for some reason, Ribes aureum (golden currant), a 3-6’ high and wide shrub native to our area and other fruiting plants that have grown here naturally for eons aren’t often included in the palette of these enticing gardens.
Long before the arrival of Europeans, Native Americans lived off the bounty of California flora in a balanced way, maintaining the land that provided long-term sustenance. “Edible landscapes” were everywhere. Though that is no longer the case, each of us can create something similar at home by starting with the following food-rich native plants.
Come summertime, abundant bunches of berry clusters cascade along branches of Sambucus mexicana (blue elderberry), a large shrub (10-30’h X 8-20’w) that grows in full sun or part shade and can take garden water or drought (after it’s established). Birds will compete for the fruit, which is delicious in muffins, pies, jam or wine.
If you enjoy mint but dread its invasive behavior, try the dainty native herb, Satureja douglasii (yerba buena – San Francisco’s first name). Delicate leaves on this 6” tall, filtered-shade-loving groundcover are so coolly aromatic that you’ll long for it in lemonade, iced tea or steeping in a pot of hot water on a nippy night. It spreads to about 3’ wide via soft, rooting stems that produce sweet little white flowers in spring and summer and it can take regular water or some drought once established.
For a yard with lots of space to fill, consider Rubus ursinus (California blackberry) – a sprawling, deciduous and thorny 6’ high X 20’ shrubby vine that makes a good barrier along a property’s perimeter. White flowers in February to June are followed by red fruit that ripens to black from July to August. Berries are highly edible raw or in baked goods.
Oenophiles and grape lovers alike will delight in discovering garden-friendly California native grape vines with gorgeous globes of juicy goodness, especially the ‘Roger’s red’ cultivar of Vitis californica. It is a robust rambler, reaching about 40 feet in width. Train it over an arbor and fence or use as a groundcover. Fruit of late summer is quite tasty and fall color is fiery crimson. After the brilliant hues, foliage drops for the winter leaving behind rustic gnarled branches. It grows well in sun, part sun or filtered shade and needs intermittent irrigation once established.
Rounding out the gastronomic group is Fragaria vesca ssp. californica (woodland strawberry). Excellent as a groundcover (good on slopes too), it does best in part sun with occasional water after becoming established. Cheery yellow-centered white flowers precede small, flavorful red berries in July.
If you’re inspired by this list, I recommend further research before beginning an edible garden: always know the plants and be sure they are safe to eat. With that certainty comes not just the satisfaction of spontaneously snipping a strawberry out of your own yard but also of bringing back a little bit of what used to be here.