By Alison Mitchell
In stories of the first Thanksgiving more than 400 years ago, Native Americans are often portrayed as skilled hunter-gatherers who also grew crops like corn and squash.
Native plant expert Jared Rosenbaum believes this view does not recognize the sophistication of indigenous people’s land management.
Recent archaeological studies, he said, suggest that prior to the arrival of Europeans, Native Americans manipulated and shaped entire ecosystems to maximize food yield and diversity.
In his new book, “Wild Plant Culture,” the Pohatcong Township, Warren County, resident says that when the first Europeans arrived in the New World, they immediately noticed the great abundance of the land, but they had no idea these food-rich landscapes were the result of deliberate efforts.
“Early accounts describe extensive parklike woods brimming with nut and fruit trees, and an explosion of wild fish and game,” Rosenbaum wrote in the just-released book.
Using evidence from paleoecology and anthropology, “this suggests that, throughout the Americas, indigenous peoples managed a vast food network via fire, plant introductions and other ecological management techniques.”
Today, Jared said, these techniques might be called permaculture, agroforestry, orcharding and game management, but the subtle shaping of the landscape by Native Americans was invisible to European colonists, partly because the diversity of wild native plants was maintained.
“Biodiversity equals food diversity,” Jared noted. “Indigenous people were tending the landscape in a way that didn’t cut any species out.”
European settlers, on the other hand, had “an adversarial relationship” with nature, converting the land to agricultural fields where a few select crops would be grown to the exclusion of all else.
Native plants were considered weeds to be eradicated – even those that provided tasty and nutritious foods.
Another important reason Native American land management techniques went unnoticed, Jared said, is diseases like smallpox that were introduced by Europeans.
By the time European immigration became widespread in the 1600s, as much as 90% of indigenous people had been wiped out, reducing the imprint of thousands of years’ worth of land management practices.
November was Native American Heritage Month and Jared is hoping the release of “Wild Plant Culture” will help spark native plant restoration efforts in New Jersey and beyond. The book’s subtitle is “A Guide to Restoring Edible and Medicinal Native Plant Communities.”
A biologist and co-owner of a native plant nursery, Jared hopes people will deepen their relationship with the natural world by learning about edible and medicinal native plants and taking an active part in bringing them back.
“There are so many great unknown wild edible plants,” he said. “A lot of these wild foods are so rich in flavor and nutritionally dense.”
“Wild Plant Culture” is not a guide to foraging. Currently, Jared said, there simply are not enough natural habitats in New Jersey and many other places for large groups of people to go out and pick native plants as food.
But he has a vision for a future in which we take a lesson from Native Americans and restore native plants in forests, yards and urban parks so people can again experience their flavors and healing properties.
“We are pretty good at gardening with native plants for butterflies, birds and other animals,” he says. “But we are leaving out a very important animal – ourselves. We can deepen our relationship with native plants by cherishing them as food and medicine and offering our stewardship of nature in return.”
What are some of Jared’s favorite edible native plants?
One is Solomon’s seal, a native perennial whose early spring shoots he compares to asparagus.
“They are delicious, tender and sweet,” he said.
Another is common milkweed, which has shoots like asparagus, unopened flower buds like broccoli and seed pods like okra.
Another favorite is ground nuts, which Jared describes as tubers that, when fried in a pan, taste like potatoes crossed with chickpeas.
“They are like these forgotten foods,” he said. “If you could be transported back to native people, there would be plots that were planted and tended.”
Other favorites include wild blueberries and huckleberries, persimmons, black cap raspberries, wild strawberries and elderberries.
Jared’s vision is all about “falling in love with these plants and being reciprocal, giving back.”
“There are so many places that are ready for these plants, but they need some help,” he says.
“Wild Plant Culture” includes profiles of more than 200 native plant species with stories and descriptions of their cultural uses and habitat requirements. It offers a guide to restoring habitats to support plant diversity and can help readers, no matter where they live, understand the potential of every landscape to host a diverse wild plant community that welcomes people as both harvesters and stewards.
To learn more about the book, go to https://wildridgeplants.com/
Jared also stars in a web documentary series called “Rooted,” whose episodes tell the story of various New Jersey native plants, including wild ginger, bee balm and black cohosh.
To view the series, go to https://www.youtube.com/c/RootedPlantVideos
Alison Mitchell is a co-executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills.