Posts Tagged: native plants
As the sustainability of agriculture continues to be threatened by changes in climate, pests and loss of biodiversity, the ancient practice of planting hedgerows with edible and medicinal species such as elderberry can help growers generate additional revenue while fostering beneficial insects and improving soil health.
Most modern-day farmland is occupied by simple “monocrop” systems that often require frequent, energy-intensive inputs like synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to sustain their yields. These practices can be harmful to water quality, biodiversity and soil health.
But farmers who incorporate perennials into their farm landscapes can better harness living things—crop plants, pollinators, beneficial microbes and natural enemies of pests—to provide services rather than adding synthetic products, to the ultimate benefit of the farm and the environment.
Restoring field edges by planting hedgerows is a common way to add perennials to farm fields without taking land out of production. These managed rows of trees, shrubs, grasses and wildflowers were an ancient feature of agricultural landscapes throughout the world.
As farmland industrialized in Europe and North America in the 1900s, many old hedgerows were removed. But hedgerows have seen a resurgence in recent years as their significant environmental benefits—including natural pest control and pollination services, improved soil health and carbon sequestration—are increasingly recognized.
With hedgerows, “the whole farm can be a site of both conservation and profitability,” says Sonja Brodt, deputy director of the University of California Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program (UC SAREP).
Hedgerows can be costly to establish, and this is often the reason farmers choose not to use them. But incorporating a harvestable crop into a hedgerow can be profitable.
Brodt is leading a collaborative effort with California farmers and UC researchers to develop native western elderberry as a hedgerow cash crop. Blue elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea) is a native subspecies of elderberry that is well-adapted to Mediterranean climates and grows prolifically across California. It is thought to be more heat- and drought-tolerant than the more commercialized North American and European subspecies of elderberry.
“Elderberries have this great potential as a ‘win-win' crop. Farmers harvesting and selling elderberries from their hedgerows can receive a direct income from a farm practice that benefits the local ecosystem,” says Brodt.
Consumer demand for elderberry-based products has skyrocketed in recent years. Blue elderberry has similar antioxidant levels to blueberries and can be processed into products such as jams, syrups, tea mixtures and herbal supplements.
“We found that two-thirds of surveyed herbal and specialty foods processors and retailers were strongly interested in sourcing California-grown elderberries and couldn't find enough supply to meet their needs” says Gwenaël Engelskirchen of UC SAREP. Farmers who grow blue elderberry can tap into this growing market.
The research team recently completed a field trial in the southern Sacramento Valley to assess the profitability of blue elderberry. They found that elderberry yields from a 1,000-foot, multispecies hedgerow could provide $2,700 to $4,800 in revenue, after harvest and de-stemming costs, in only the second year after hedgerow planting. This revenue helps offset typical hedgerow establishment costs of $3,000 to $4,000, and elderberry revenue is expected to grow over time as the plant yields continue to increase. Value-added processing and specialty products made on-farm could also increase overall profitability.
While native elderberry hedgerows is a new area of research for the University of California, North America's indigenous people have been harvesting and tending blue elderberry in California for hundreds of years. Many Native persons across the state continue to gather, cultivate and use elderberry.
Sage LaPena, Nomtipom and Tunai Wintu ethnobotanist and certified medical herbalist, stresses that “elderberry is one of our most important traditional medicines and we've never stopped using it.” Cultivating elderberry for harvest could be one path towards increased food sovereignty for California's Native American tribes.
“There's an important lesson with this work,” said Brodt. “While new technologies are valuable for making agriculture more sustainable, we shouldn't lose sight of ancient practices that have benefited humanity and our landscapes over thousands of years. Hedgerows and other biological solutions are an essential piece of the sustainability puzzle. In addition, we have much to learn about the value of our native species from Native peoples and their traditional practices.”
To learn more about this research and to find educational resources for cultivating, processing, and marketing elderberry, visit https://ucanr.edu/sites/Elderberry.
Can plants typically grown for hedgerows also be a source of income? That's the question guiding a new UC study on the potential for farmers to grow elderberries as a commercial crop.
Blue elderberry, a California native plant with clusters of small bluish-black berries and a sweet-tart flavor, have long been eaten by Native Americans in the western states and are used today in jam, syrups, wines and liqueurs. And while elderberry orchards are popping up in parts of the Midwest, California's elderberries are usually just grown on field edges, and elderberry products sold retail rely mostly on foraged crops or imports.
Farmers at The Cloverleaf Farm near Davis are already selling elderberry products from plants grown on their farm, alongside their blackberries and stone fruits. And they find that customers love them. The farmers want to understand the viability of growing elderberries for market beyond their nascent effort, bringing some of the out-of-state production home.
The UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SAREP) launched a project in collaboration with the Cloverleaf Farm, the UC Agriculture Issues Center, UC Davis Department of Food Science and Technology, and four Central Valley farmers to assess the farm management practices, nutritional content, and market potential for elderberry and elderberry products in California.
“I think a lot about the long-term systems sustainability of our food system,” said Katie Fyhrie, one of the farmers at the Cloverleaf. “I keep thinking about how much we focus on production of blackberries and blueberries, when the elderberry also achieves that dark berry color and flavor people like with much fewer resources.”
Elderberries are typically grown on farms as hedgerows for their ability to attract beneficial insects, act as a windbreak, and sequester carbon, benefiting the overall health of the farm, but not providing direct benefit to a farmer's bottom line. Despite long-running federal cost-share programs for planting hedgerows, the number planted in California is still quite small relative to the large expanses of farmland in the state. Adding a financial incentive to planting elderberries may help increase the popularity of hedgerows amongst farmers.
As climate change impacts California with heat and unpredictable water availability, some studies suggest farmers may need to consider diversifying the crops they grow to adapt to changing local climates.
Elderberries, which grow in arid California regions along the coast and into the mountains, have the potential to grow in a range of climates and adapt to changing California ecosystems in the future.
It is unlikely that farmers would plant entire orchards of elderberries, in part because of restrictions on pruning elderberries that may be home to the Valley elderberry longhorn beetle, a federally threatened species. But for small- and medium-scale growers looking to diversify their income sources, elderberries may provide a boost.
The two-year elderberry project now underway will conclude with a growers' production guide, cost of production study, an assessment of market demand and nutritional contents, and workshops to help link growers with buyers interested in elderberry products. The project will also address issues related to the Valley elderberry longhorn beetle and generating income from hedgerows.
“Elderberry juice is already in so many products,” Fyrhie said, “so building a market for locally grown elderberries seems like a no-lose situation.”
For farmers interested in learning more about incorporating perennials into annual crop farms and similar agroforestry practices, view a webinar on the topic recently hosted by UC SAREP here.
There are six native plants that Sanchez thinks are especially worth checking out.
- Miner's lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata). It's easy to grow and found throughout much of California. Its leaves can be used in salad, soup, or pesto. (It can also be a weed in certain situations, according to UC IPM).
- Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii). A beautiful, drought tolerant ornamental, it can also be used in pesto, beer, ice cream and baked goods.
- One-leaf onion (Allium unifolium). All parts of this native onion are edible.
- Honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa var. torreyana). Dried pods can be ground to make a gluten-free flour.
- Roger's California grape (Vitis ‘Roger's Red'). This plant, which was recently determined to be a hybrid between a native California grape and a cultivated grape, produces small, sweet fruit with seeds that can be eaten fresh, or used for juice or jelly.
- Golden currant (Ribes aureum). Fruit can be eaten fresh or made into jelly.
Adventurous cooks, gardeners, foragers, and anyone else who want to learn about edible native plants can attend the upcoming California Native Food Symposium, which will be held on November 14and 15 at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden.