Here are 5 shade-tolerant perennial food plants for your food forest

5 Shade-Tolerant Perennial Food Plants for Your Food Forest

Food forests are an incredibly abundant way to grow food for your family and community. But shifting from a sunny garden to a food forest with trees can be a challenge. Luckily, there are a number of food plants that can grow well in the shade. Here are 5 shade-tolerant perennial food plants for your food forest.

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When you think of growing food, you likely think about a classic kitchen garden or farm field. Open and sunny, where plants can soak up the sun all day long.

But that isn’t the case with a food forest, a perennial food system with fruit trees, nut trees, berries and vegetables all growing together.

And this is one of the big challenges for people starting their own food forest. The trees and even shrubs all make sense, but what about the vegetables?

Don’t they need a lot of sun?

And many of our traditional garden vegetables do need sun—though leafy greens, and some other traditional veggies like lettuce, can often be grown in semi-shade.

But a food forest is a perennial food system. And while you can include traditional annual vegetables in a food forest, a better route is to include more perennial vegetables along with your fruits, berries and nuts.

And many of these are shade tolerant—especially when you start including native vegetables.

Food Forest Series

Want to learn more about food forests? Check out this series to learn more about food forests and how to plant your own.

While you’re likely used to growing vegetables and other food plants in full sun, there are actually a lot of shade-tolerant perennial food plants for your food forest.

Here are 5 that you can get started with.

  1. Waterleafs
  2. Miner’s Lettuce
  3. Good-King-Henry
  4. Trailing Pacific Blackberry
  5. Salmonberry

Several of these are native here in western Washington. And there are many more options than just these 5—for example, gooseberries can produce well in semi-shade.

But these 5 will help you get started in your own shady areas.

And all of them are fantastic perennial foods. If you want to learn more about how to grow perennial foods, then make sure to grab our free guide to growing perennial foods.

1. Growing Waterleafs – Pacific, Virginia and Western

Grow Pacific waterleaf in your shady spots

As my food forests and hedgerows have grown, I’ve been planting Pacific waterleaf in the shady areas. Such a nice spring green for salads and cooking.

There are at least 3 types of waterleafs that are found across much of North America.

Here in western Washington, Pacific waterleaf (Hydrophyllum tenuipes) is fairly common in our forests, but in other areas you can find Virginia waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum) and western waterleaf (Hydrophyllum occidentale).

All 3 are generally found in moist forests under the shade of tall, established trees. Which makes them a perfect shade-tolerant perennial food plant for your food forest.

In the right conditions, waterleafs will spread to form a nice edible groundcover.

The young leaves of waterleafs are great in salads and can also be used as a cooked green. They can be a bit fuzzy in texture, but they’re still great tasting. They are very mild, with no strong flavor to get used to.

You can also eat the roots, which can be sautéed, and have a flavor that is similar to Chinese beansprouts. (Of course, harvesting all the roots will kill the plant, so don’t take too many roots if you want to continue to use it as a perennial. Best to harvest roots from the edges of a patch.)

Info on Pacific Waterleaf – Hydrophyllum tenuipes:

2. Adding Miner’s Lettuce to Your Food Forest

Miners lettuce

I’ve got a goal—plant miner’s lettuce everywhere so it becomes a weed. A fantastic native, edible weed. Sounds good to me. If it becomes too common in one area it can easily be transplanted to new areas.

I think miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliate) is my favorite perennial food on this list. It’s native across much of western North America—with several subspecies, depending on the specific area.

But it’s also a fairly common vegetable and you can often find miner’s lettuce seeds being sold by seed companies.

In areas with hot summers, like southern California, miner’s lettuce will die in the summer. But in cooler areas like here in western Washington, it tends to just die back, and then come back again in the fall.

But even in areas where it doesn’t grow as a perennial, it will easily self-seed.

In its native forest habitats, miner’s lettuce can often be found growing as a thick groundcover under deciduous trees like red alders.

This makes it a great shade tolerant perennial food plant for your food forest.

Miner’s lettuce has a very nice flavor, and it’s a fantastic salad green. We often add it to our salads, and it serves a very similar role as lettuce, though I find miner’s lettuce to be better tasting.

And in the spring, it gets covered in nice little white flowers.

Info on Miner's Lettuce - Claytonia perfoliata

  • First Harvest: 1st year
  • USDA Climate Zone: 6-9
  • Sunlight Requirement: partial shade to shade
  • Plant Size at Maturity: 8 inches high and wide
  • Purchase: seeds
  • Note: Great in a shade garden - old leaves can turn bitter especially in full sun. Miner's lettuce will self-seed as an annual in colder climates or very hot climates. Learn more about Miner's lettuce.

3. Good-King-Henry – An Old but Forgotten Vegetable

Good-King-Henry is a great shade-tolerant perennial food plant for your food forest

This patch of Good-King-Henry is growing in our front food forest between a fig and gooseberry.

Now it’s time for an old vegetable that has been mostly forgotten—Good-King-Henry (Blitum bonus-henricus). This perennial vegetable used to be commonly grown in vegetable gardens in Europe for at least several hundred years, and some sites even say up to 5,000 years.

But today it’s fairly uncommon, though seeds are available online and it still grows naturally in areas around Europe.

Shade-tolerant with edible spring shoots, young leaves, flower buds and seeds, it’s a great shade tolerant perennial food plant for your food forests.

Good-King-Henry can be a bit bitter, especially as the leaves get older in summer. Though young leaves are quite tasty and work well as a spinach substitute in both cooked and raw dishes.

But just like spinach, Good-King-Henry does have a fair amount of oxalic acid, which can cause issues for some people. It may also have saponins which can cause problems for some people.

Both oxalic acid and saponins are mostly broken down through cooking, so if you’re worried about oxalic acid and saponins, cooking Good-King-Henry may be a good idea.

But if you mix Good-King-Henry with other vegetables as part of a healthy diet, most people won’t have issues eating this plant.

It’s a great shade-tolerant plant that can provide a wide range of harvests with shoots in early spring (like asparagus), leaves in the spring through early summer, and flower buds followed by seeds in the summer.

All can be used, making this a great shade-tolerant perennial food plant for your food forests.

Info on Good-King-Henry - Blitum bonus-henricus:

  • First Harvest: 1st year (leaves and flowers), 3rd year (shoots)
  • USDA Climate Zone: 4-8
  • Sunlight Requirement: Full sun - Partial shade
  • Plant Size at Maturity: 1 foot (0.3 meters) tall/wide
  • Purchase: Seeds 
  • Note: Seeds can be hard to get to germinate. Sowing in the winter may provide the best results but germination will likely not happen until spring. Learn more about Good-King-Henry.

4. Trailing Pacific Blackberries – A Vigorous Groundcover

Trailing Pacific blackberries are a great shade-tolerant perennial food plant for your food forest

These Pacific trailing blackberries came along with some native sword ferns I had salvaged. Now we get berries, too.

Here in western Washington, blackberries are often looked at as an invasive problem due to the dense thickets formed by non-native Himalayan blackberry.

But we also have our own native blackberry—the trailing Pacific blackberry (Rubus ursinus). And unlike the non-native types, this one is very shade-tolerant and is often found growing under the canopy of conifers.

Though it tends to produce more berries in a semi-shade or open forest (recovering forest) environment, which is often what is found in a food forest.

This makes trailing Pacific blackberry a great shade-tolerant perennial food plant for your food forest.

And the berries are very tasty.

But you do have to watch out for how vigorous they can be. Unlike the non-native types, our native blackberry tends to grow as a ground cover and doesn’t form dense thickets. But sometimes you will still find it growing up and through the branches of nearby shrubs.

And you will likely need to cut it back fairly often—I like to use the cuttings as a chop-and-drop mulch or as an addition to my compost bins.

Just make sure to wear gloves, since their vines are thorny! (Though the thorns are much smaller than the non-native types.)

And unlike the non-native blackberries, each plant is either male or female. So you will need to have a few plants to make sure you get berries.

But despite these issues I still love having them in my food forest. Their berries are just so tasty, and they make a great groundcover for shady areas. Often, here in western Washington, they’re found growing with miner’s lettuce along the forest floor.

Info on Trailing Pacific Blackberries - Rubus ursinus:

5. Salmonberries – One of the Earliest Berries

Salmonberries are a great shade-tolerant perennial food plant for your food forest

When I’m out hiking in spring, I often look for salmonberries. They’re one of the first berries to ripen in our area making them a nice treat when other berries are just flowering.

Salmonberries (Rubus spectabilis) are another native plant found growing here in western Washington, as well as up and down the west coast of North America and inland as far as Idaho.

Salmonberries like to grow in semi-shady areas that stay nice and moist.

And beyond being a very early shade-tolerant berry, they also bloom very early, starting in March or April depending on the local site conditions.

This makes them a great early source of pollen for native bees and other pollinators.

And with a nice bright pink flower, they can be grown as an ornamental plant.

While not as sweet-tasting as cultivated raspberries, they still taste good fresh, and you can use them to make jams, jellies or fruit leathers on their own or mixed with other berries.

I’ve always enjoyed eating these berries fresh off the plant. (Though I’ve found that some are better-tasting than others.) This likely depends on the local site conditions, with moist sites that get some sun producing the best-tasting berries.

Salmonberries tend to grow just like raspberries, which means when happy, they will often spread by shoots. Birds also love the berries and will spread their seeds far and wide for you.

But as an early-blooming and fruiting berry, they can be a great shade-tolerant perennial food plant for your food forest.

Just be prepared to chop-and-drop them if they get out of control—just like you would do with raspberry shoots.

Info on Salmonberries - Rubus spectabilis:

  • First Harvest: 2nd to 3rd year
  • USDA Climate Zone: 4-8
  • Sunlight Requirement: Full sun - Partial shade
  • Plant Size at Maturity: 6-feet (1.8 meters) [spreads readily]
  • Purchase: Potted Plants 
  • Note: Spreads fairly easily once established. Likes moist conditions so keep well mulched. Learn more about salmonberries.

Finding More Shade Tolerant Perennial Food Plants for Your Food Forest

Gooseberries are a great-shade tolerant perennial food plant for your food forest

Gooseberries are another great option for your food forests.

These 5 plants are just a start—there are many other excellent shade-tolerant perennial food plants for your food forest.

And you may have noticed that most of these are native here in western Washington. A big reason for this is that many of our native plants grow naturally in forests.

Since they’re found in forests, they’re really easy to add to a food forest.

There are also several native huckleberries, along with other native vegetables. You could plant an entire food forest just using native plants here in western Washington.

And if the area you live in is also naturally forested, then there are likely lots of edible native plants that you could grow in your food forest.

In many areas, edible forest understory plants have been cultivated by indigenous peoples from time immemorial using traditional land use practices. And this is a big reason why many of these plants are as prevalent as they are today.

So how do you find good shade-tolerant options for your area?

Talk to local foragers to find out what they like to harvest, and then see if you can find those plants for sale from local nurseries. Or potentially, you could consider salvaging them from development sites.

Here are 2 blog posts that can help you find native plants.

But native plants aren’t the only option. As mentioned earlier, gooseberries can grow great in a food forest, and so can many leafy greens, along with some other vegetables.

And you don’t have to make your food forest so dense that no sunlight reaches the ground. If you spread out your fruit trees a bit more, that will give you more space for shrubs and vegetables.

In temperate climates, having a closed canopy isn’t the best option if you want to get the most food out of your food forest.

So try spacing your trees out, mix in some shrubs, and then plant your perennial (and traditional) vegetables on the sunny sides of these plants. Then mix in the shade-tolerant plants, like the 5 covered in this post, in the shade of those sun-loving plants.

When you do this, your food forest will be filled with abundance for people, plants and wildlife.

What shade-tolerant perennial food plants are you growing in your food forest? Please leave a comment to let us know!


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Daron

Daron is a restoration ecologist, lifelong gardener, and founder of Growing with Nature. He created this site to help people enjoy wildlife, grow food, and help heal our living world. He has managed the restoration program for a local non-profit, and he’s applying principles of restoration and permaculture to transform his property in western Washington to forests, wetlands, hedgerows, food forests, and permaculture gardens. He holds a Masters in Environmental Studies and an Associate of Applied Science degree in Water Resources. He loves sharing the joy of growing food with his two beautiful children.

  • Wendy says:

    We call the native blackberries “tripping vine” and they tend to reach for any open path in my food forest. I love the berries but not their growth habit. I also have trouble getting them to grow in shade. They reach for the sun and any open space (my paths) they can find. Is there any way to trellis them? In my experience they will grow up and over a pile of branches. Perhaps I just need to combine my wildlife habitat with blackberries.

    • Daron says:

      lol, yeah they can trip you up. I’ve found while they do grow in deep shade I like them in semi-shady areas the best. But I do still chop-and-drop them several times through the year and I do add them to my compost piles too. But I love the berries and my opinion is that they’re the best tasting blackberries 🙂

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