What are native vegetables? Here's how to get started.

Getting Started with Native Vegetables

Do you know any edible native plants growing in your area? Perhaps a berry or 2? Often that’s the extent of most people’s knowledge. Some might know about nettles and a few others. But it turns out there are tons of native vegetables growing out there. Often we just don’t know about them. Let’s change that.

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In this episode, I’m going to try to inspire you to give native vegetables a try on your property and in your garden. And I’m going to give you some tips on how to get started with them and share which ones I’m growing on our property.

Show Notes:

You're reading the show notes for an episode of the Growing with Nature podcast. You can listen to this episode by using the player at the bottom of this section right before the resources list. If you enjoy the episode don't forget to subscribe so you never miss out on future episodes.

And if you’re wondering what I mean when I say native vegetable I’m talking about any native plant that can be used like you would use a traditional veggie from a kitchen garden or the grocery store.

In the last episode, I talked about perennial vegetables and all the reasons why you should grow them. Native vegetables are a natural extension of this topic.

I don’t believe that a salad prepared in western Washington, Colorado, New England, and England should all be the same. The salads should be similar in each place but different—this would be because native vegetables would be used in each of them.

Our salads always contain a wide range of native vegetables grown in our backyard.

But it goes beyond just getting fantastic harvests that connect you to your local region—native vegetables provide tons of other benefits.

  • Mostly perennial so they provide the same benefits as other perennial vegetables
  • Support wildlife—including picky insects

If you’re wondering what I mean by picky insects I’m talking about insects that have co-evolved with native plants found where they live. These insects can only eat a small number of these native plants—without those native plants you don’t get these insects.

And many of them are butterflies and moths—the monarch being the classic well-known example.

But 90% of all plant-eating insects are picky—so let’s support them so they can in turn support birds and other wildlife that feed on them. No native plants, no picky insects, and far fewer birds and other wildlife.

In the rest of this episode, we’re going to take a look at native vegetables and I’m going to share with you what I’m growing, what worked well for me, and give some tips to help you get started.

Let’s dive into native vegetables but before we do if you like what you hear today, then please leave a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever else you listen. Your review will help more people find us. People like you, who want to bring these skills home, to enjoy wildlife, grow more food, and help heal our living world.

And don’t forget to check out the links in the resources section for more information.

Okay, let’s get started.



Episode Resources:

Further Reading: Growing with Nature episodes and blog posts with more information about the topics covered in this episode.

Books and Other Resources

Plant List: More information about some of the plants covered in this episode.

What are Native Vegetables—Introducing Checkermallows

Grow native vegetables around the shrubs in your shrub layer

Checkermallows are one of my favorite native vegetables.

There’s a native vegetable here in western Washington called checkermallow. There are roughly a couple dozen species of checkermallows but the 2 that we’re growing are rose and Henderson checkermallows.

These are beautiful plants often found in prairies with Henderson liking a bit more moisture than rose checkermallow.

Their leaves are deep green and look kind of like a maple leaf. And they get lovely pink flowers on tall stalks that look a lot like hollyhocks.

Our native pollinators just love them and so do we.

They’re super easy to grow but not very common out in the wild—and becoming rare in parts of their range.

I just love what they add to our property but they’re also great-tasting and provide massive amounts of green leaves for eating.

They’re very mild in flavor and great in salads or as a cooked green in soups, scrambles, and other meals. Anything you would use spinach or chard in.

Rose checkermallow leaves are a bit fuzzy so we’ve learned to use them more in cooked meals since the hairs go away during cooking. Henderson checkermallow has bigger leaves and doesn’t have hairs so it’s great for salads, wraps, and sandwiches though you can still cook with it.

But rose checkermallow provides the best winter harvests—it never dies back while Henderson checkermallow tends to die back a bit.

Despite these being super easy to grow and great tasting along with being beautiful I rarely see anyone else growing them and they’re not readily available unless you shop at native plant nurseries.

And even when I’ve talked to local native plant experts they were surprised to find out that these checkermallows were edible.

And it turns out that there are at least 2 dozen different species of checkermallows growing up and down western North America. And from what I can tell it looks like they’re all edible. Though I would make sure to research each one before eating them to make sure.

But checkermallows are just one example—there are tons of native vegetables out there for you to learn about. And many of these plants were and are used by native peoples. Unfortunately, when settlers forced native peoples from their land they also ignored their traditional knowledge including which native plants provided great harvests.

On our property, we’ve been slowly expanding the number of native vegetables we’re growing. Currently, we’re growing: 

  1. Miner’s lettuce
  2. Woodland sorrel
  3. Pacific waterleaf
  4. Henderson and rose checkermallows
  5. Hooker’s and nodding onions
  6. Early blue violet
  7. Wapato
  8. Deltoid balsamroot
  9. Several native lilies

And we got more that we want to try including: 

  1. Springbank clovers
  2. Pacific silverweed
  3. Stinging nettles
  4. Spring gold
  5. Pacific silverweed
  6. Pestle parsnip
  7. Cattails

There are so many native vegetables and I’m always adding to the list of ones I want to try.

Today we need to start to embrace native vegetables but it takes effort to learn about them. This leads us to our first tip.

Tip 1 – Start Researching Native Vegetables

Miners lettuce

Start exploring native vegetables for your area. Miners lettuce is a great option here in western Washington.

It can be really hard to find a good list of native vegetables. These plants are unfortunately often ignored in most gardening books. Even those covering perennial vegetables.

A great way to get started is to try asking a local foraging group if you can join them to learn about what plants are growing wild in your area.

Some of these wild vegetables aren’t native plants but many will be and you can look them up online or in a guidebook to find out.

And a great site to look up plants is the Plants for a Future site. They won’t have every native plant but they have a lot of them and they give them an edibility score along with some information and references about what parts are edible, how to use them, and the taste.

And try googling—you may be surprised what you find. This is how I found a great little nursery down in western Oregon called the Native Foods Nursery. Most of what they sell is edible and native to at least part of the west coast of North America.

I first learned about checkermallows from them.

You never know what new site you will discover that turns into a goldmine of information about native vegetables.

Every year I’m learning about new ones as I continue to explore this topic.

Keep a list of native vegetables you want to try and as you try them keep track of which ones do well on your property and which you and your family enjoy harvesting and eating.

Tip 2 – Find Sources and Start Small

You can fit a lot of salvaged plants in your car

I've salvaged lots of native plants including native vegetables. Sometimes enough to fill up our car!

Once you got your list of native vegetables your next challenge will be finding them.

Start doing google searches with the name of the plant and words like “for sale” or “seeds” or “bareroot” or “plugs”. Also, try looking for native plant nurseries in your area.

I’ve got some resources in the show notes to help you get started with finding native plant nurseries. But often googling your area and native plant nursery will bring up some options.

And your local conservation district can likely help you out too.

After you’ve got some sources of native plants now it’s time to see which native vegetables they sell. Find 1 or 2 you want to try and start there.

Just like with perennial vegetables start small. See which do well on your property and which you like harvesting and eating.

Then add some new ones the next year and plant more of the ones you like.

After a few years of this, you could have quite the collection of native vegetables.

Tip 3 – Where to Plant Them

Grow Pacific waterleaf in your shady spots

I love adding native vegetables to all my growing areas. Like these Pacific waterleaf growing in a hedgerow. 

You don’t have to start in the garden.

Your garden is a great option but native vegetables are mostly perennial plants so make sure they can stay where you put them.

The ends of your garden beds are a great option.

But you can also plant native plants around your trees and shrubs.

Even in your front yard—try mixing them in like you would flowers.

Or make a dedicated bed for them—this can be a good way to get started while you’re still learning about them.

I started by planting native vegetables around our trees and shrubs in our food forests and hedgerows and at the ends of our garden beds.

But now I’m exploring ways to mix them into our kitchen garden to serve as a living mulch.

And you can plant them like you would flowers—in between your veggies. But keep in mind that native vegetables are going to be there year after year and some will get large. But others are small—be careful which you choose.

Time to Start Growing Native Vegetables

Woodland sorrels are a great native perennial vegetable

Every year I try to add more native vegetables. Here are a bunch of wood sorrels ready for planting.

So are you excited to try growing native vegetables? They’ve quickly become some of our most abundant harvests.

And they taste great—though it has taken some trial and error to figure out which ones do the best and where they like to grow.

And how to cook them.

That is why I recommend starting small—just pick a few native vegetables to try out.

And researching and exploring these plants is a big part of this. The knowledge of which native plants make the best vegetables isn’t that widespread.

But it’s well worth the effort to learn and rediscover these plants for yourself.

Because when more of your food is coming from native vegetables you will be building a connection to food that is truly local.

Your salads will be different than salads from other areas. And so will your other meals.

And you will also be supporting a vast diversity of wildlife—many of which will depend on those specific native vegetables.

And if you pick native vegetables that are adapted to our growing conditions you won’t need to water or fertilize them.

With just some basic maintenance such as chop and drop, you will get abundant harvests all while building a local food culture and you will be supporting your local wildlife.

You will be cultivating abundance for people, plants, and wildlife.

And stay tuned for our next episode where we will explore how to deal with compacted soil without digging. With some simple steps, you can transform a hard compacted area into a lush abundant growing area filled with life.

Let’s work together to heal our living world.


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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.

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