In this article’s first installment, which appeared in the January 2021 issue of American Survival Guide, I identified many of the “best” food plants for one’s yard or garden. Obviously, there are many variables in these choices, but I asked various gardeners to share with readers what they determined to be the “best plants” based on the following criteria:
Which plants are the most nutritious?
Which plants are the most productive with the least work?
Which plants are easiest to grow (in your area), almost taking care of themselves?
Which plants offer more than food, providing multiple uses (such as fiber, medicine, soap and even fragrance)?
In this issue of ASG, I asked another group of gardeners and self-reliance experts to share what they regarded as the best plants in the following areas:
Three best vegetables
One or two top choices of useful plants
Each of the advisors I consulted for this article was asked to select just one plant from each category that they consider the “best.” Obviously, this is somewhat subjective, but it’s also objectively based on each person’s experiences in their particular ecosystem. So, although it would be foolish to ever say that any one plant is the “best” under all circumstances, you can get some good ideas about what you might plant in your own yard or farm by considering these advisors’ answers.
Dana Benner of New Hampshire (also a contributor to American Survival Guide), is a gardener with a bias toward native plants.
“Wildman” Steve Brill from New Rochelle, New York, is a famous wild food forager.
Environmentalist Joe A. Hall of Alhambra, California, is a life-long gardener and ecologist.
Jay Hartman of Brier, Washington, is a home gardener and plant experimenter.
Malcolm McNeil is a naturalist at Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Virginia.
Christopher Nyerges—yours truly!
Actor Carel Struycken of Altadena, California, is an expert in permaculture.
Helen Sweany is a naturalist and gardener from Santa Clarita, California.
Benner: Any of the fruit-producing cherries. There are many varieties out there. They produce fruit for people and wildlife. A close runner-up would be fruit-producing crabapples. Their fruit is tart, but it makes great jam and it attracts wildlife.
Hall: Oak tree (food from acorns). Although it takes a few years to produce acorns, it will sustainably produce nuts for centuries.
Hartman: Olive tree (Olea europaea). This tree produces olives and olive oil. Olive oil is known to be a healthful, nutritious cooking and baking ingredient. Olive trees are extremely long-lived and are drought and heat tolerant, but they won’t thrive in cold, wet areas. In warm, arid locations, olive trees have been known to live and produce olives for more than 1,000 years!
McNeil: Figs are very nutritious and have lots of calories for their size. The fruit comes out in small batches over a month or so, providing a continuous harvest rather than a single crop. Fig leaves are edible and are also good for wrapping up other food such as meat or rice.
Nyerges: Olives—any of the high oil-content varieties. (Apples are a very close second.)
Struycken: Avocado. Avocados taste good and are incredibly nutritious. They contain the so-called “good fats”—both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Consumption of avocados has been linked to lower levels of bad (LDL) cholesterol. High-fiber diets have been lauded for lowering blood sugar, cutting cholesterol and potentially preventing some kinds of cancer (colon cancer, for instance). Avocado contains about 1 gram of fiber per tablespoon, with around 10 grams in an entire fruit. Avocados are also good sources of folate, magnesium, potassium, vitamins B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B6 (pyridoxine), C, E and K.
Sweany: Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria). Yaupon is native from the U.S. East Coast to about Texas but has a wide growth range well beyond Texas. Yaupon is the only native plant to North America that has caffeine. To make a coffee substitute, the leaves are lightly toasted in a 300 degree (F) oven. Boil 2 cups of water and add 1 tablespoon of yaupon. Steep for about five minutes. Toasted yaupon was the beverage-of-choice in the United States for hundreds of years. It has a unique, pleasant taste that’s sort of a blend of Argentina’s national beverage, yerba mate, and a coffee/tea.
Benner: Wild blackberries and raspberries. If they grow in your yard, encourage them. I don’t like the cultivated varieties. They’re like growing roses: They need a lot of care. In addition, blueberries are always a good bet. Every part of this plant can be used for both food and medicinal purposes. Any variety is good.
Brill: Autumn olives
Hall: Mesquite. This is a sustainable shrub for the desert Southwest, producing edible and highly palatable pods every year.
Hartman: The blueberry (Vaccinium cyanococcus). The common blueberry bush/shrub produces generous quantities of delicious fruit that’s good fresh or baked and can be stored easily for several months by freezing. Blueberries require slightly acid soil, some irrigation (depending on location), and each bush can produce for many years if it’s well-kept.
McNeil: Blueberry or raspberry. Both berries grow similarly and are quite tasty. Both can be mixed up with fruit or vegetables in salads or squeezed for their juice. They usually produce fruit for long periods of time.
Nyerges: Prickly pear cactus (I’m pretty sure we can call this a “shrub”). This plant produces year-round food in the form of the young pads, inside the older pads and the fruit.
Sweany: Redbud (Cercis occidentalis). The flowers and buds have more vitamin C than do citrus fruits. As a cooked side dish, they start out tasting like green beans and then give a pleasant, sour aftertaste. They’re in the same family as peas and beans, and you get a lot of food for a small area. Redbud’s beautiful color makes a knockout sorbet. A close runner-up is pineapple guava (Feijoa sellowiana), another awesome shrub to plant. It provides edible petals and fruits.
Benner: This has to be the grape; specifically, fox grape. The fox grape is the wild variety of the Concord grape (famous for jelly and grape juice). The true fox grape is small, whereas the Concord grape is larger. Both are great for the homeowner.
Brill: Greenbriar (although it’s technically a climbing shrub).
Hall: Snap peas—a good source of protein—can be eaten raw or dried. Beans, in general, are close seconds.
Hartman:Blackberries and related brambles (Rubus species). The humble blackberry produces delicious berries that freeze well and are tasty raw or in baking. Blackberries are the “survivors” of the garden world once they’re established. And, with the proper amount of moisture, blackberries grow vigorously. When cared for, they’re heavy producers. In addition to their food qualities and durability, blackberries can be fermented into wine.
McNeil: Wild grape vine. A good wild grape vine has many long-term benefits: The grapes are tasty eaten or squeezed for juice, and the young leaves are also delicious when mixed into a salad. The vine, itself, is quite tough and can be used as a natural rope for tying things together or hanging objects in the air. The plants are quite hardy and survive well through the winter.
Nyerges: Roger’s red grape. This is a cross between the Concord grape and the native California wild grape. The fruits are smaller, and the plant is less prone to grape diseases.
Sweany: Nasturtiums. Most people won’t see this as “food”—which is good for an inconspicuous garden.
THREE TOP VEGETABLES
Pumpkins: Both the flesh and the seeds can be eaten. They can be stored for long periods of time.
Beans: There are many different varieties. They can be eaten right off the plant, frozen for later use, and the seeds can be dried. They’re a great source of protein.
Greens: Lettuce, chard, spinach, kale. They’re all good—and easy to grow.
Pumpkins and other field squash (Cucurbita pepo). The winter squashes are a nutritious staple of many cultures and perform well with modest care. In addition to providing a tasty, nutritious vegetable and edible, long-storing seeds, many winter squash varieties are known for staying fresh for several months without refrigeration when they’re stored under cool, protected conditions.
Dry beans (Phaseolus vulgaris). Beans are “light feeders,” with lower nutrient requirements for good production than many other vegetable crops. Beans have been a mainstay of many cultures over millennia—for good reason: They’re nutritious, high in fiber and an excellent source of vegetable protein.
Tomatoes (Lycopersicon esculentum). Tomatoes are frost intolerant, but varieties have been bred to be widely adaptable to areas from arid deserts to cool regions and in a vast assortment of colors, shapes and sizes. Tomatoes are easy to grow, making them one of the most popular of garden vegetables because, even with modest care, they tend to produce well.
Butternut squash (mildew-resistant variety). Squash is a very nutritious vegetable. It can be roasted or mixed in with soups to great effect. Squash are quite hardy, because their thick skin protects them from animals and elements alike. One downside: Unless you get the correct variety, the vines and leaves are vulnerable to mildew.
Cherry tomatoes. A good cherry tomato plant can provide food for an entire season. These tomatoes can also be dried and saved, as well as pickled. In my experience, you only need to plant one cherry tomato plant, because it creates “volunteer” plants very easily—sometimes to the point of being almost weed-like.
Green beans. Green beans are very nutritious and easy to grow. They produce a continuous crop once they mature. Green beans can be prepared in a variety of ways and are delicious raw right off the plant, prepared in a stir fry with other veggies or roasted in an oven.
Purple tree collard
Tomatoes. Also consider the closely related tomatillos (“husk tomatoes”), which are perennials.
My favorite vegetables are mostly Asian brassicas. However, nobody sells Tyfon seeds (also called “Holland greens”) anymore. That was my favorite, because it would grow almost year-round, except for the hottest part of the year, and it can be “cut and come again.”
My all-time favorite stir-fry vegetable is Chinese broccoli (“Gai lan”), but I’ve never had much luck growing it in sufficient quantities.
The only edible tomatoes these days are home-grown varieties. If I remember correctly, the “heirloom” varieties produce more steadily through the season (they don’t ripen all at once). I am a lazy gardener and always try to pick the least labor-intensive edibles!
Purslane (Portulaca oleraceae) added to a sandwich provides crunch, tastes much better than lettuce and is rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
Lambs quarter (Chenopodium album) is a nutrient-rich spinach substitute.
Stinging nettle is another spinach substitute that helps arthritis and other health issues.
Willow: Willows have multiple uses that range from fire-starting (dried seed pods) to medicinal (inner bark).
Rhododendron: Rhododendron makes a great barrier on the north side of your house (that’s important here, in the Northeast). It provides nesting areas for many songbirds, and its flowers attract pollinators.
Brill: Dogbane is good for making twine and rope.
Hall: Yucca (Hesperoyucca whipplei) is used for its fiber, particularly for sandals and rope.
The pine tree (various species). In addition to their lumber, construction- and furniture-making value, pine trees are fast-growing and adaptable. Less-well-known uses for pine products include pine needle tea (high in vitamin C), pine needles for baskets and other handicrafts, and pine pitch as a natural adhesive and fire accelerant.
Aloe vera is used to treat a variety of skin irritations (such as windburn, sunburn, chafing and poison oak rash). Aloe is also applied to minor skin injuries and to existing injuries, because it reduces scarring.
Pine trees. Pine resin can serve as a mildly effective natural glue to stick light objects together. The resin can also serve as pitch to make a torch. Pine tree needles are usually thick and soft enough to serve as excellent ground cover for overnighting outside. The boughs of the tree also make excellent coverage for shelter-building.
Cattails. There are multiple edible parts of the cattail, and they also have great utility. The reed leaves can be woven into mats for floor or roof coverings. The shafts of the cattail can be used for creating arrow shafts. The mature cattail seed fluff can be used as an insulating stuffer for shoes or jackets. It’s also an excellent fire-starter, catching quickly and burning hot.
Nyerges: Yucca and bronze flax. Both are excellent fiber plants.
‘BEST’ FOR YOUR AREA
Everyone has a different idea of what “best” means, based on their personal needs and desires and what’s right for their environment. Still, it’s interesting to note the plants that appear more than once on the lists. That probably means that plant should rate the highest consideration.
Keep in mind that most of the trees, shrubs, vines and vegetables listed here have many horticultural varieties. Local garden clubs and garden guides can educate you regarding the varieties that are best for your part of the country.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the April, 2021 print issue of American Survival Guide.
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