Native Shrubs: For You And For The Birds

by Cindy Gilberg

Some of my fondest childhood memories are those of warm summer days spent picking wild blackberries and other native fruits. We ate half of the berries while questioning how we would ever get the juice stains off our fingers. Of course our hands came clean and the fruit was either eaten fresh or processed into jellies and jams. The wonder of it all was that here was a bounty in our own back yard, ready for harvest.

Foraging can be quite satisfying but growing the native edible plants on your property eliminates the driving and hiking, in addition to the question of whether the plant is properly identified. Many of these plants can be purchased from Grow Native member garden centers and nurseries, both in St. Louis and around Missouri (see www.grownative.org for member listings). Fall is a great time for planting these native edibles, some of which are described below.

Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) is a fast-growing, six foot tall shrub that is a member of the Rose family. In May, clusters of small white flowers appear that are followed by ripening berries in August. Chokeberries should be fully ripe, shiny and black when harvested. They are not tasty when eaten fresh but are best used by processing them into jelly or syrup. This shrub can be planted as a hedge. A similar common name, chokecherry, refers to wild plum (Prunus virginica) which can be grown as a multi-trunk shrub or small tree. It grows to twelve feet tall with white flowers in early spring followed by dark fruit in mid-late summer. Typical use of wild plums is to dry them or process them into jam/jelly or syrup. Wild plum is one of the top native plants for healthy habitat gardens.

Among the sweetest of wild berries is nannyberry (Viburnum lentago) though I have heard that other native Viburnum are also tasty. They can be eaten fresh or made into fruit leather, butter or jelly. Viburnum is a great native addition not only for its beauty as a shrub but also for its habitat value. They are good planted as a specimen plant or can be used as a hedge. Some gardeners prune lower branches to make it into a small ‘tree’ form. Height ranges from eight to fifteen feet and large, white clusters of flowers appear in late spring. The clusters of dark blue-black berries ripen in fall and fall foliar color ranges from yellow to orange-red.

My favorite has always been the native blackberry (Rubus spp.) and the closely related black raspberry. Yes, the fruit is smaller but it is also much sweeter than commercial blackberry hybrids and yes, the native species are available from a couple of Missouri native plant growers. It is worth the trouble of battling the thorny branches to get at the fruit. Some gardeners have made their harvest easier by training and pruning their blackberries on a simple wire trellis. Whether eaten fresh off the branches or on pancakes in the morning, these berries pack a lot of flavor in every bite.

Many shade gardeners feel left out when it comes to growing food. Missouri’s very own three foot tall gooseberry (Ribes missouriense) is just the plant for them. Its natural habitat is in woodlands as a low-growing shrub armed with small thorns to discourage berry pickers. The fruit is typically harvested green, prior to being ripe, and then it is made into a sweet concoction such as pie or jelly. When ripe, the fruit is dark blue-black and sweet—however beating the birds to it is a challenge.

Having a native edible landscape helps create a connection with our seasons as well as to the natural history of region. Do remember to share with wildlife—they depend on these plants for their survival. Being able to experience and observe nature up close, in your own backyard, is as health-giving as the fresh fruit you eat.

Cindy Gilberg is a Missouri native and horticulturist whose work includes design and consulting, teaching and writing. Much of her work focuses on native plants, habitat gardens and rain gardens. Cindy’s projects include work at Shaw Nature Reserve and its Native Plant School, the Shaw Profes-sional Landscape Series and the Deer Creek Watershed Alliance. You can ontact Cindy at 314-630-1004 or cindy.gilberg@gmail.com.