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.
- Miner’s Lettuce
- Trailing Pacific Blackberry
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
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
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
3. Good-King-Henry – An Old but Forgotten Vegetable
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:
4. Trailing Pacific Blackberries – A Vigorous Groundcover
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 (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:
Finding More Shade Tolerant Perennial Food Plants for Your Food Forest
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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