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Strength in Numbers: The Edible Forest Revisited

March 16, 2023

It is not a surprise that people have strong opinions about how plants grow and what plant belongs where. Everyone wants to rule the plant world. Plants are giving and flexible. It is good to be a ruler of your plant kingdom however you individually define it. Gardening is such a joy to do. You can create such wonderful scenarios far from the reality of the existing world around you. But what if you were to relinquish that control on a larger scale similar to what happens in abandoned urban settings.  What would happen? That was something I was dying to try at my farm. I would still be a gardener. I would continue to plant my so called seedling selections. But now I will wait and see what happens. This was more than not mowing my yard for a month. Could I use the world’s flora to make a unique type of utopia plant park free of human intervention that would regulate itself, self-propagate and regenerate on a plant community level? I purposedly told none of my larger plans to anyone. One reason was too many opinions ruin a good time. Like the plants I too wanted no interruptions. To be honest, I had a hard time explaining it. That was one reason. So today, I thought I would try.

The short answer was clear and concise. Yes I could do that. It was not that hard. Much like Christmas trees you have to give it some time to see the effect. Given a chance the plants expressed a story of their own evolutionary background. Without interruption you are given a how-to manual on how to develop and enhance these natural tendencies from pruning to planting as well as spacing. Let me be clear. This was not an orchard of grafted ‘improved’ plants, and it was not a ‘native’ planting. I decided to concentrate on food plants the same way someone would go shopping in a super market for groceries. My food would be mostly the wild counterparts to today’s modern cultivars of species and their hybrid relatives. It would also be mixed with timber species from around the world that are also not native. It would contain many indigenous North American plants but many are not native to Michigan too. I was essentially weaving between and through all these categories of plants we have put them in.

Colonies Of Plants -The Chickasaw Plum Speaks Out

This was a good example. It came as a surprise to me that many of the common stolon heavy plants if let go will not go to infinity consuming all space as we know it. It only seems like that. But after 20 years or so you will soon begin to see a pattern develop and limits will be set based on the shade of the surrounding vegetation as well as soil. The density of the sprouts is also different in different soils. Plum thickets can do it all.  There must be some sort of feedback loop to the colony itself. Stop growing there but go over there. This was the Chickasaw plum. I kept ruining them by removing the nearby suckers, not realizing that the main trunks of the trees begin to fade after 15-20 years of heavy production. Without the suckers, there is no future fruit orchard. From a landscape perspective, colony plants are not relished by many gardeners and nurseries to say the least. Running bamboo and black locust are an example of this propensity. Like it or not the application of this type of plant as an unobstructed force of nature should be used to our benefit. It truly is a perennial resource that increases in strength with age. Unfortunately in our modern day breeding programs this is reduced or eliminated on many common ornamental plants. Some are even sterile now. If people want it, they will breed it.

The late Jonathan Alyward and me enjoying the Chickasaw plum patch. I think of him every time I go to this spot in my planting. Jonathan helped me understand the value of these fruits in public settings. He would probably wince at his picture here because I kept telling him I wanted to see his image front and center on his publications.” Put the ‘supporters’ of your mission on the back page..” I told him. “You have a good face.” He smiled and looked at me oddly when I said that. 

Pruning can be done on this type of colony to encourage fruiting while maintaining a heavy canopy which in turn lowers the groundcover density. Pruning can prevent limb breakage by removing narrow crotch angles and make the plants reach sunlight faster in the canopy of nearby suckers. As old trunks begin to fail, the root system is totally intact and is now feeding other nearby individuals that are part of the same colony.  Nothing is lost. It is a kind of perpetual fruiting machine that never requires replanting. There is a huge production of this plum at my farm planted in a frost pocket now spreading under many of the over story trees I planted including the hickories and oaks that I planted nearby.

Combining the flavors of cornelian cherry, autumn olive and Asian pear into a sauce was a healthy and delicious idea.

Cornelian cherry was planted as a hedge here all grown from seedlings with dark fruit and the seed source Redstone which has less of an ascorbic acid effect and a smoother flavor profile when fully ripe. The goal with those was to develop a jam type seedling selection high in vitamins and nutrients similar to Acerola.  Paulownia species selections are slowly thriving on one side while I winnow out the weakest winter hardy and slow growing individuals. These will provide a solid canopy in the area soon. The goal with those was to develop a lumber tree that can be harvested in less than twenty years. The seed from these came from wild populations in Japan. The deer have reduced these many times to broken twigs but now they have calloused and are mostly in good shape. There is very little grass in most of this area at this point. The dense vining dewberry has decreased tremendously. Whew! This plant made it almost impossible to walk through without tripping. The quack grass is reduced or gone completely. Bald and pond cypress were planted in this area. They have not flourished here but are making some headway. For a while the bucks really hammered these. The edible viburnum Northern Raisin fruits well here despite the shade and their close spacing. I like the flavor but they have super small fruit.  The yields though are super high on this viburnum. The pecan selections I used were ultra northern seed sources including Minnesota and northern Iowa.  The hicans and shellbarks were selected as seedlings from larger nursery populations based on leaf structure and vigor. The hickories are fruiting very heavy in this frost pocket location.

It takes patience to see these effects. If I could say there is one thing missing in conservation I would say patience. Today we have a type of instant  i-phone- snap-shot ecology and forestry where judgements are made based on a polaroid of the flora as well as good versus bad in a teeny moment of evolutionary history.  There is no resource capture type of thing where you could harvest and use a plant like black locust for lumber or develop high energy drinks with autumn olive cultivation. The money is search and destroy type of twisted ecology. With change inevitable, it is beneficial for us to think about what we can we add to make an environment reflect the culture that we are now and how we can harness and harvest those delicious morsels of wood and fruit.


The Plants Speak: A Few Responses from the Plant World

·Invasive         You do not see the power and the glory. My light will awaken you.

·Weed               Choose wisely. We will be back. My light will awaken you.

·Unstable Genetics           Unstable geneticists. My light will stabilize you.

·Chemical Warfare  Replacements to follow. Fix the damage. Heal you. My light.

·Plants That Play Well with Each Other         Universally integrated on all levels. We are not your unruly children on the playground of life. My light will awaken you from within.

·High Ecological Service Plant        All are the highest. There are no low. WE all provide the highest of all services at all levels of life. My light will wake you up.

· Exotic     Temporary state of your mind. Conversion. We will be native soon. My light will awaken you giving you perfect health.

·Plants Say: We respond to all inquiries. It can happen. All problems are solved before there are problems. Our lights combined will make for a perfect world. You don’t have to believe, understand or even know. There are no prerequisites.

By Kenneth Asmus

Featured Image: David Adams Drawing by Oikos Tree Crops used for catalog production. Copyright.

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