Edible Forests

Edible Forests

September 23 2020

As early as the 1600’s escaped slaves in the Americas formed maroon communities (from the Spanish word cimarron or runaway). In Brazil these communities came to be called quilombos from a word for settlement in an Angolan language. Over the centuries, using African and Native American techniques they created landscapes that fed them yet were as lush as the original forests. They selected food producing trees, shrubs, and vines like lime, coconut and acai, and planted them near their settlements. Thus, the “recent” ideas of food forests and sustainable agriculture are very old.

Though it is much more feasible to create a sustainable food base where plants grow prolifically and there are relatively few people; and it’s not well below freezing for half of the year, we can still use some of the ideas to make it work for us. Most of the places where I’ve lived there are not natural forests-yes, I know, there are in the mountains and along river bottoms, but not in my yard.

I’m a believer in the old adage “man cannot live by bread alone” so devoting my landscape to food alone is never going to happen, but it still gives me a lot of pleasure to know that my gardens can feed me and even provide medicine.

I’ve always been interested in growing small fruits-currants, elderberries, raspberries, and haskaps and these seem to lend themselves to the food forest idea. So I planted several of each in the spaces between the apple, pear, cherry and apricot trees of my tiny new orchard. The small fruits grew more quickly than the trees and so far (3 years) are not competing for sun though I suspect they will someday. Wouldn’t that be the nature of a forest?

My favorite small fruit to grow is elderberries, maybe because you can easily make your own cough syrup. It’s better and less expensive than store bought. I dry my elderberry crop and make fresh syrup as needed. We have two native elderberries in Montana-black and blue, sold in some nurseries, or you can buy other varieties of black elderberries. Apparently we shouldn’t eat the red elderberries as they are poisonous; that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, but I’ll just listen to the experts rather than experiment!

Elderberries are easy to grow, you probably should plant at least two, you will get more berries per plant. Give them lots of room, they can get very large (8’ or more tall and wide). They are not only productive but beautiful shrubs. Until mine are fully producing, you can find me in late summer parked along a mountain road picking elderberries. A good day indeed.

Elderberry, Sambucus cerula, blue. Sambucus nigra, black. Montana natives.