Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Food Forest?

In the comments of my last post about windbreaks, there were a few comments by both Ed and Ron about planting trees which reminded me of something else I've been thinking about.  

Last spring and summer I started paying attention to an area in between two wheat fields that's about 10-15 acres in size that seems to be covered with all sorts of "food" trees.  I've noticed pecans, walnuts, blackberries, sand plum bushes, plum trees, and honey locust trees all in that small area.  For all I know, there could be even more edibles plants that I just don't recognize as being possible food plants. There are also willows which can be used for both medicinal and weaving purposes.  

At first, I thought that it was just coincidence that all those trees would be in that relatively small area, but when I started looking around other parts of the farm I didn't notice the same variety of trees growing all together.

This area is a little unusual because it has multiple springs coming out of the rocks along the creek and it has a large spring that trickles out a little bit of water even during the worst droughts (water does help keep trees alive).  But it's also unique because it's close to the part of the wheat field where Grandpa and his brothers used to find arrowheads as kids back in the '30's.  I've never found anything like arrowheads, although I have found what I think are a few interesting things. 

All those separate facts put together make me wonder if those types of trees have always been in this area and have attracted people (explaining the arrowheads, etc.), or did people help propagate those trees by bringing whatever they had gathered to camp near the spring (it's easy to grow a plum or pecan tree from the dropped seeds during processing).   

Regardless of how those trees got there, I wonder how much food I could gather in that relatively small area if I put my mind to it?

And, I wonder if it would be easier to plant the same sort of "food forest" as a windbreak instead of messing around with less useful trees like cedars?
Looking down the creek towards the pond

Pecan and honey locust trees

Native plum tree


  1. Replies
    1. I took those photos in late-August last summer and it's surprising how green and overgrown everything was even when during one of the hottest parts of the year.

      As cold and grey as everything is right now, it's almost hard to imagine all that green coming back in a few months.

  2. Interesting thoughts. I'm not sure what side of the coin I would land on. It seems plausible that native Americans harvested foods and either intentionally or unintentionally left those trees behind. I would suspect that they've been cleared several times since then but that doesn't mean these couldn't be second or third generation of the original trees. However the other side of me probably thinks they are left behind by birds who ate the seeds and flew to the water source that was always there and nature did the rest.

    1. As rough as that area of the pasture is, I seriously doubt it's ever been cleared except by either tornado or wildfire. And, I don't notice any more wildlife activity around these sorts of springs than anywhere else. Wildlife can usually meet its water needs from small seeps or puddles, so they would have scattered seeds randomly, but humans need much bigger water sources like springs so their seed scattering would have been more localized.

      Most of the old homestead sites around here are surrounded by flowers in the spring, rose bushes, occasional fruit trees, etc. that I know came from human intervention. A lot of those homesteads were abandoned about 100 years ago, and have been pounded with mowing, grazing, herbicides, and bulldozers, but the plants still pop up.

      If those homesteaders were here for just a few short decades and their plants still keep coming back, it's perfectly plausible that people that were here hundreds or thousands of years ago would still have their plants and activities still showing up.

      Of course, I also believe that humans have shaped the world to suit humans since humans have existed with fire, planting, building, and management.

      If you were camped on that site next to the spring thousand years ago, wouldn't you have scattered a few plum pits around so you'd eventually have a tree? People weren't stupid just because they didn't have iPhones back then.

      All I know is that if I wanted to go into the wild food gathering business, I'd bet that I'd find more food around the bigger spring sites around here, and if I wanted to look for ancient artifacts, I'd look in the same types of areas.

  3. All that green looks heavenly right about now!

    I really like the idea of having a bunch of food trees/shrubs around, especially ones that do not require any spraying or coddling to thrive.

    The mulberry trees I planted just a few years ago are growing like crazy... some are at least 10' tall already. The wild plums are thriving too... I relocated those with the backhoe this winter to replace the pawpaws that were not doing well and consolidate things. A number of the persimmons are doing well, and the honey locust are growing fast.

    So... real soon now, I'll have a whole lot of fruit to ferment, eat, feed to something, and attract wildlife. I think that's pretty nifty.

    1. It's so green in those photos that it almost hurts my eyes, I can't wait for spring to come.

      Persimmons are supposed to be native to this area, but I'm not sure if I've ever actually seen one unless I'm looking at them and not seeing them. From some of the stuff I've been reading about planting trees to attract deer and how much they like persimmons, there might be persimmons scattered around the farm and the deer are eating all the fruit before I get the chance to see it.

      I know that one year I tried to gather some honey locust pods to see if the stories about how you could eat the sap (is it called sap?) and grind the seeds into a meal was true, but most of the pods were cleaned up before I could get to them. I might have to go on a meat diet of raccoon, deer, possum, and whatever else is eating everything if I wanted to have a true food forest.

      What do persimmons and wild plums taste like?

    2. It's hard to describe the way a persimmon tastes. There are a few trees by the lake near us. After their leaves fall, you can see the fruits. They are VERY bitter if they are not completely ripe. I think opossums like to eat them. I did not realize that deer liked them too. The trees I've seen were pretty small, although I've read that they can get sorta big.

      I've eaten wild plums before, but it was many years ago. Hopefully this next year ours will start bearing. All I remember is that they tasted good.

      I've never had honey locust either... the pods I've seen were too dry to be any good. I guess the seeds can be eaten too, and taste somewhat like lima beans (that's what I've read anyway).

    3. I'd take that "deer like persimmons idea" with a grain of salt because that was written by the people selling the persimmon trees as a good tree to plant for deer. As much as they wanted for their trees, it would have to really attract the deer like gangbusters before I'd buy any. But, if I could find some existing native trees, it would be a matter of gathering seeds and playing Johnny Persimmon-seed.

      I thought that honey locust seeds were supposed to be a substitute for corn, as either cornmeal for making bread, or grain to feed livestock. I was able to gather a handful of the pods, but they were dried out, so there was no sap to test the sweetness. I was able to get a handful of seeds, but instead of grinding them into a cornmeal substitute, I scattered them in a low spot in the pasture since I thought a few trees sometime in the future would be worth more than a few tablespoons of honey locust-cornmeal.

    4. I haven't looked recently, but for many years all maps that showed areas where persimmons were native included a tiny dot in southeast Iowa. That dot was just up the road from our family farm growing in a grove in a fence lines along the highway. When they were ripe, we would often stop on our way back from town to pick a few and eat on the way to the farm. But like Ron said, if you got them too early they were very unpleasant.

      I never have seen a deer eating one but I can say that there were always lots of dead deer near that grove on the highway when they were ripe.

      When I read your original post, I pondered why a honey locust is a food tree. I was thinking that perhaps they produced berries or some such. I didn't know that all those pods could be a food source. We have groves of those things in places around the farms and with all the dry pods littering the ground, it makes it hard to walk quietly in the woods! If only I knew I had been trampling potential food!

    5. I should mention that the grove of persimmon trees no longer grows there. About 15 or 20 years ago, the neighbor that farmed that land 'cleaned' his fence row out with a bulldozer. I'm sure he didn't know that he had the only stand of wild persimmon growing in the state of Iowa right there or he probably would have spared them. But all these years later, I still don't drive by that section of fence and not think of those sweet wild persimmons.

    6. Cattle will browse the leaves of honey locust trees from early spring until fall. It's supposed to be a high protein forage and whenever I put cattle into a pasture that has a lot of honey locust trees, they always go after the trees and their coats seem to "slick up" (highly technical term there). The cows that I've raised seem to like the honey locust more than the cows I've bought, so it might be a learned behavior.

      I've never seen any cattle actually eating the honey locust pods, but I've seen where they've eaten all the sand plums in a sand plum thicket. But, something is cleaning up all the pods that manage to hit the ground because whenever I remember to go and look for some to make a loaf a bread, they're usually all gone.

      I wonder if those persimmons were a naturalized grove of trees that grew up where an old homestead used to be? The way plants spread, it's possible there might be some survivors downstream or across the fence from the original grove.

      It looks like I could buy persimmon seedlings form the OK Forestry Department and from the description they would work as a windbreak. It might make more sense to plant a windbreak out of something like persimmons than trying to transplant some cedars. Forty years from now, I'd rather have people oohinfg and aahing about my persimmon grove instead of cussing me because I planted a bunch of cedars.

  4. I've been pondering this, and your thesis is interesting, but it stands against the commonly accepted theories by anthropologist on such matters. That doesn't make it wrong, of course.

    I can see how such a thing could happen by design, or even by accident. Indeed, often missed in the story of seed migration is that humans have a role in it. It'd be pretty easy for an area favored by humans to start picking up a lot of introduced vegetation purely by accident. Indeed, it still occurs, as humans do introduce pest plants through agriculture. I can see where tribesmen who had carried some food with them, as they probably routinely did, might just leave the seeds as a byproduct of that and the vegetation would result. Indeed, I've noticed here that Peking Cherries that we've planted can, over the years (and decades) spread far beyond their original limited planting, if left to do that.

    By the way, Wyoming's most well known anthropologist was a rancher who entered that field when well into his adult years, as back injuries forced him out of ranching. His interest in it started off as a boy, observing things he was seeing on the ranch.

    1. When I first got interested in terra preta (there are posts about that back in the beginnings of the blog), some of the original explanations for the presence of terra preta by conventional anthropologists were along the lines that ancient people weren't capable of building a man-made soil because they weren't sophisticated enough. Therefore, terra preta had to be a natural soil or just an accidental occurrence because all those unsophisticated primitive people happened to be living on the terra preta sites.

      After a little experimenting trying to make my own bio-char, it made perfect sense to me that people could have built terra preta soils thousands of years ago, so it made me wonder about how smart those anthropologists actually were or if they had enough practical experience in the world to back up their claims.

      Planting and managing desirable trees seems like a pretty straight forward task, especially if someone had to work to find enough food to keep their family alive, so it makes sense to me that that's what might have happened.

      Of course, I've always like the story The Man Who Planted Trees ( about a man that replanted an entire forest seed by seed, which might have planted the bias in my mind that humans could easily plant a bunch of trees.

  5. Tried to post a reply on establishing soils as an ancient soils, but I think it may have become lost. Anyhow, I think establishing soils by ancient peoples is, or should be, well established. In Ireland there was a practice of hauling seaweed up to fields to build soil, and I've supposed that to be a fairly ancient practice.

    On my blog, I posted in semi jest a post with "laws of history", with the first one being that everything occurred further back than we suppose. That definitely seems to be the case, and when we figure that some ancient people couldn't have known something, that says more about us, than them.

    1. Back when I was reading anything and everything I could find online about terra preta soils, I came across a lot that was written about man-made soils and ecosystems around the world that I'd never heard about before.

      Everything from soils scattered around the world that were similar to terra preta with its high charcoal content to "islands of trees" in the plains of Africa (I think it was located in areas that had seasonal floods if I'm remembering it correctly).

      It's even possible that the Great Plains were a result of massive periodic burning by man (which I think might be the only way possible to create the oceans of grass that used to exist).

      It's possible that the undergrowth of areas like the "food forest" I've been wondering about might have been burned once in a while to control the underbrush, kill off any insects or disease, and make it easier to harvest whatever was growing.

      If I had a few million acres to play with, I'd be using fire to create open grasslands for the buffalo, and burning woodlands to open them up for food gathering and to create better deer habitat.

      I wonder if they knew how good they had it a thousand years ago?