Great Native NC Plants...the Yummy Kind!

July 16, 2016

It’s summertime in North Carolina, and you know what that means...humidity, humidity, humidity. Oh, and gardens!

We’re pretty much a cornucopia around here. Sandy NC soil is great for growing everything from thyme to tomatoes. If you garden at all, you’re probably familiar with both of those crowd-pleasers.

But do you know where they came from?

It turns out that neither thyme nor tomatoes, nor many other common NC veggies and foods, are actually native to NC! If you want to cultivate some state pride in your garden this year (see what we did there?), here’s a run-down of what native foods you can plant.

A Few Veggies

Greasy Beans

When we say “Greasy beans,” we don’t mean the kind made with fatback. (Even if they’re better made with fatback, which of course they are...but that’s not the point.) “Greasy” is the actual name of a category of NC pole bean (read: green bean). Grady Bailey Greasy, Greasy Back, Headrick Greasy, Large Late Greasy: all of these are heirloom (read: native) beans you can easily buy online and grow anywhere in NC. And they’re delicious!

Sweet Corn

Corn is an American treasure. While it’s hard to pinpoint where corn started because of its widespread cultivation by Native American tribes, we do know that the Iroquois grew it, and their territory extended into northwestern North Carolina as late as the 1600s. Corn spread like wildfire through Europe and even Asia when Christopher Columbus brought it back from the New World, and its popularity has never waned. It’s definitely a staple of North Carolina’s agriculture.

You don’t need acres to plant corn. A few rows in a backyard garden will do. Just be sure you’ve got a cleared space. It likes sun!

A Fruit

Paw Paws

You’ll rarely find this succulent fruit in the grocery store, and we’re not really sure why, because it’s delicious. Paw paws are native to the entire eastern seaboard, from the Gulf Coast all the way to the Great Lakes. They’re green on the outside, custardy on the inside, and taste sort of like a cross between mangoes and bananas. Ish.

It’s said that both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson loved paw paws. Legend has it that Jefferson even had a paw paw orchard at Monticello. So we’re pretty sure you will enjoy them, too. Get familiar with the things and grab one next time you’re hiking or kayaking in August or September, especially in the Piedmont or down east. And if you have room for an orchard in your garden, plant a tree, but be patient — it probably won’t bear fruit for five years or so.

And A Tree, for Good Measure!

American Chestnuts

The American Chestnut — once considered the mightiest chestnut in the entire world — was all but wiped out by a fungal blight in the first part of the 1900s. It was native to western NC (one of every four trees there was a chestnut!) but has all but disappeared from that part of our state.

Planting this one’s not for the faint of heart or the fair-weather gardener. But if you’re a renegade without long-term commitment issues, consider being a part of the great American Chestnut restoration project undertaken by the American Chestnut Foundation. It will take a while to yield anything edible and you’ll have to record some data (it’s for science, yo), but what a worthy project!

You’re a bit late to grow any of these plants this year — most of them do best when planted in the spring — but that doesn’t mean you can’t make plans. Do a little research, buy some seeds, and add a little native flair to your garden in 2017. It’s good for your health!

Please comment if you have ever grown any native North Carolina plants!

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