“We can and must respond creatively to the triple crisis and simultaneously overcome dehumanization, economic inequality, and, ecological catastrophe.”
― Vandana Shiva
While gardening or growing your own food is certainly a hobby or art that can be done for health reasons, to save on grocery costs, or just for fun. Creating a garden, large or small also reduces the demand for industrially grown food. This is important because the largest agricultural companies grow food in ways that are bad for the environment, society, and rely on the use of unethical labor practices. While a home garden might seem like trying to catch the wind with a net, everyday people have revolutionized food production with home gardens before. During World War II, home gardens (also known as Victory Gardens) – accounted for nearly fifty percent of the nation’s food supply. Moreover, growing heirloom varieties of vegetables aids in ensuring plant diversity and the ability to save seed, which is a surprisingly political act.
You can learn more about the importance of plant and food diversity here and find heirloom seed and vegetables from Seed Savers: a non-profit that specializes in protecting sustainable agriculture here. A variety of materials that explain the basics of gardening here, a website that explores free and low cost resources for gardeners here, a listing of Texas natives plants here and here, excellent articles about Texas Foraging here, Texas heirloom vegetables here and here, and forum on Texas gardening here.
Ten Texan Native and Heirloom Plants for Sustainability and Homesteading
The Chiltepin is the only wild chili native to the United States and was named the “official native pepper of Texas” in 1997. The Chiltepin or bird pepper is referred to as the “mother of all peppers,” as it is believed to be the oldest ancestor of which many peppers we use today have descended. This hearty plant is a perennial in throughout large parts of Texas and formerly inhabited an area that ranged from Southeast Mexico through the Southwestern parts of the United States and throughout all of Texas. The Chiltepin was saved from extinction by cultural stewards, sustainable gardening groups, and seed savers and are now only protected in three national parks. Despite the vast amount of progress made, there are only 15 known localities in the U.S. that serve as natural habitats for these plants today. One reason many gardeners fail when growing these peppers is that they can take up to two weeks to germinate and in my personal experience need to “stay wet” during this period. Despite this, you can grow your Chiltepines with minimal effort although it may act as an annual in the northernmost parts of the state.
2. Passion Flower Vine
The Purple Passion flower (Passiflora incarnata L.) is a flower that depending on the species produces edible fruit and is widely distributed in the Southeast parts of the United States especially from Florida to the Eastern and Central area in Texas. The Yellow Passion Flower (P. lutea) is another Texas native with a small yellow-flower, whose natural range extends from southeastern Pennsylvania to West Texas but can grow well across the state. The purple Passion flower fruits are ideal for human consumption while the yellow passion flowers feed pollinators.
Sunflowers are incredibly easy to grow as long as you have an area that gets full sun. These hard working plants attract pollinators that will increase yields across your garden and also provide food for wildlife and human consumption. In addition to this, the sturdy stalk is useful for the Three Sisters gardening method. This approach calls for sunflowers or corn grown next to beans which travel up the stems. The ground cover plants like pumpkin or squash cover the ground below creating a kind of living mulch that controls for weeds. In addition to this, Sunflower oil is also a useful and healthy substitute for traditional cooking oils and can be cut and used for floral arrangements.
The Dewberry or wild Black Berry is one of my favorite native plants from Texas because of its usefulness as well as its low cost. In fact, all of the Dewberry plants I have growing in my garden are just cuttings from plants I found in the wild or parks. Moreover, while expensive hybrid blackberry bushes I had invested in failed to thrive, The Dewberries flourished. The Dewberry is sweeter than Blackberries you find at the grocery store and can be eaten off the vine, in deserts, or jellies. The Southern Dewberry grows naturally across the state and consists of many similar species that have been hybridized naturally which makes identification somewhat difficult. Luckily, they are all edible and maintain their sweetness and usefulness across the species.
5. Prickly Pear Cactus
The prickly pear cactus the official state plant of Texas and consists of hundreds of varieties of cactuses that span across the western half of the United States. The two most common edible species in the Lone Star State are – the Texas Prickly pear, whose range spans Louisiana to Oklahoma and the Cowtongue Prickly Pear, which is native only to Texas. The deep red fruit that adorns the prickly pear is referred to as tuna. Like the pads of the cactus, the tuna is edible although it is important first to burn off barbed spines that cover the plant. These plants grow in both humid and arid environments and are easily grown from cuttings and somewhat difficult to propagate from seed.
6. Tomatoes and Tomatillos
Modern day Tomatoes, as well as their native ancestor’s Tomatillos which are still grown and cultivated in South America, are both excellent additions to any garden in Texas. Both of these vegetable plants are prolific producers and have thousands of native, heirloom, and improved varieties to choose from depending on what your needs are. Both of these plants and their history and the thousands of varieties you can grow have been covered at length by Texas gardeners who are known both for bountiful harvests and unusual, new, and old varieties of Tomatoes and Tomatillos.
7. Okra – Hill Country Red
Hill Country Red okra is a burgundy-tinged variety of Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus). Okra is botanically related to cotton, and hibiscus and frequently have beautiful flowers that add aesthetic value to the vegetable garden. This heirloom variety is named for the “Hill Country” of southern Texas although gardeners have had luck with this variety of Okra across the state. When harvested young, the small, pudgy Hill Country Red okra can be eaten raw or pickled or can be cooked a variety of ways. Like most varieties of Okra, this plant is easy to grow and tolerates a broad range of conditions as long as it has full sun.
8. Wild Onions
Wild onions and garlic grow throughout Texas and is composed of a diverse selection of species especially in the eastern and central regions of the state. All parts of the plant are edible and can be used as you would any cultivated onion or garlic. Wild bulbs or bulbils can be stored fresh for several days to weeks in the refrigerator, but they do not store as well as cultivated onions. However, they do keep well underground so remember when you see them in the wild or where you planted them if you’re growing them at home – as you can still dig up wild onion bulbs long after the visible or green part of the plant has died back.
9. Heritage Grains
Cereal grains have been the principal component of the human diet for thousands of years. Today more than 50% of world’s daily caloric intake is derived directly from grain consumption. In Texas gardeners and farmers have had had a great deal of luck with varieties of wheat such as turkey red and triticale as well as with several varieties of white, yellow and red corn. Despite this, these crops are often labor intensive or require a great deal of space. Amaranth, however, can be grown in gardens large and in many climates and conditions. A variety of amaranth species can be found across the nation and especially in Texas. A single Amaranth plant can produce as many as 100,000 seeds. They can be eaten raw, cooked and ground into flour, or used to make gluten-free beer.
10. Persimmon Trees
There are both native and improved species of Persimmons that are important to gardeners in Texas. The improved varieties of Texas Persimmon are chosen for larger yields, size, or for their sweetness which is displayed before the berries have fully ripened. The native Texas Persimmon (Diospyros texana) are hearty trees found from northern Mexico to Central Texas. They produce inch-long black fruit filled with seeds which are only sweet when ripe and are otherwise inedible but useful for its medicinal and astringent properties. For many gardeners who grow this variety, the berries simply add value to a drought tolerant ornamental. In East Texas the Common persimmon (D. virginiana) works best and makes a slightly larger, orange-colored fruit. It is important to remember their the fruit appears only on female trees and oftentimes require a male and female tree to produce successful harvests.
Bonus- The Pecan Tree
The Pecan tree is ancient native species that spans across the United States and Texas. The Pecan tree is particularly well suited for Texas and was adopted as the Texas state tree in 1919 after Governor James Hogg requested that a tree is buried at his grave. Today, there are about one million acres of native pecans along the numerous bodies of water as well as extensive orchards of improved pecan trees across the state. Pecans do not come true from seed due to a significant amount of hybridization and cross pollination that occurs naturally between pecan trees every native or seedling pecan tree is distinctly different from the seed parent. Because of this, more than 1,000 pecan seedlings have been grafted as named varieties. Pecans can be used in a variety of ways and can be preserved for years. However, they are Bi annuals so homesteads may need 3 or 4 trees for a yearly harvest.