An Edible Native Plant Guild for the Pacific Northwest - Permacultured Life (2022)

Hi Growers!

Landscaping with native plants has many benefits, but sometimes a girl just wants her fruit trees and berry bushes. This edible native guild for the Pacific Northwest is the answer for getting the best of both worlds.

I designed this guild for my backyard in western Idaho, which is drier than much of the Pacific Northwest region, so I selected plants with lower water requirements. If you live around here, you might like to plant one of your own. So take a look at my example guild with plenty of edible plants native to the Pacific Northwest to include in your own garden.

I’ll also cover the process of designing your own native guild, no matter where you live in the world. So If you live around here, or elsewhere, read on to learn about putting together your own edible native plant guild.

Disclaimer

I am not a native plant expert. If you plan on consuming any parts of the plants I’ve mentioned in this article, please verify edibility prior to consuming. Additionally, be sure to get positive identifications prior to consuming as some of these species have toxic look-a-likes. Read my full disclaimer here.

When sourcing plants for your guild it may be tempting to search for them in the wild. If you plan to do this, please be aware of and minimize your impact on the land. Cuttings or seed collection are more responsible methods of propagation from the wild than transplanting. Please adhere to any laws regarding the collection of plant material.

What is a Plant Guild?

A guild is a group of plants growing together that support each other. In nature, this is called a plant community. In gardens or landscaped areas, we call them guilds. For more information, you can read my article on designing fruit tree guilds, The Ultimate Fruit Tree Guild Design Guide: 7 Steps to a Bountiful Guild.

Native Species vs. Cultivated and Exotic Species

From a functional perspective, substituting a non-native species usually doesn’t have many drawbacks. It’s not the exact plant that matters, but the function it fills. As long as you select species that are suited to your climate, it shouldn’t matter a great deal if the plant is native to a different part of the world. So it is perfectly fine to choose non-native species to grow in your permaculture garden.

Of course, there’s a risk of exotics becoming invasive and disrupting the native ecosystem, so it’s important to be mindful of any non-natives you introduce to your garden.

Why Including Native Species Is Important

So if exotics are fine to plant, then why worry about including any native species in your permaculture garden?

There’s a big debate over whether native species are always better and if exotic species should even be plated at all. I see value in having both natives and exotics. In a permaculture garden, one of the main goals is to grow food, and native plants aren’t always the best option for a reliable and useful crop. Sometimes native species fill a need perfectly, but often, a cultivated variety (whether originally native or not) is simply going to provide a better yield.

I’m sure there are many reasons to include natives, but here are a few:

Besides producing food, another tenant of permaculture is valuing and regenerating natural resources. Planting native species helps regenerate disturbed sites, including urban residential lots. It’s not just plants that make up a guild, but animals, insects, fungi, microorganisms, nematodes, and so on. Plants and animals (including insects, microorganisms, etc.) that co-evolved together are uniquely suited to co-exist together. So Native plant species are particularly attractive to local animal life and fill ecosystem niches that we landscapers can’t begin to recreate with exotics.

By including lots of natives, your yard will smell delicious to the critters you need to build biodiversity for a healthy, thriving guild.

How to Design an Edible Native Plant Guild

I cover fruit tree guild design in more detail in my article, The Ultimate Fruit Tree Guild Design Guide: 7 Steps to a Bountiful Guild, but here are some basic steps specific to designing native guilds.

1. Research Native Plant Communities in Your Area

Get familiar with not only what plants are native to your area, but what plants grow near each other in native plant communities in the specific local bioregions near you. University extension offices are a great resource for native plant research. Other resources include local nurseries, botanical gardens, and native plant societies.

Explore these resources and find a list or lists of native plant species. Often plant community lists will be organized by type of plant (tree, shrub, groundcover, etc), and specific regions they occur in are noted with symbols and a key (for example, forest, woodland, grassland, and prairie). Here is a resource for Boise area native plants

2. Observe Nature

If you can, spend some time in nature and observe for yourself what is growing and where it grows. Go out on some hiking trails or on a camping trip and take notes. Take pictures or make sketches in a notebook. It’s helpful to bring a native plant guidebook for identifying the plants you see. Add your observations to your list from step one.

3. Select the Central Species for Your Guild

Beginning with trees, scan through the list of native plants looking for fruit, nut, and nitrogen-fixing trees. Pick some and research them (yes, more research) to determine if they would be useful and appropriate in your specific situation. Here are some things to consider:

Mature Tree Size

If you only have a small space for your guild, avoid very large trees that take up too much space for your site. Even if you have enough space for larger trees, it may not be practical to harvest fruits or nuts from high up in the branches.

Depending on the native landscape and species in your area, and the space available to you, you may want to choose a large or medium shrub for the top layer of your guild rather than a tree.

Is it Allelopathic?

Some plants produce substances called allelochemicals that can inhibit other plants’ growth. The purpose of these chemicals is to reduce competition. Sometimes the effect on other species is positive, for example by inhibiting weeds if the other, wanted species are resistant to the allelopathic species but the weeds are not.

Black Walnut is a well-known and strongly allelopathic species. Other species may have allelopathic properties to varying degrees. For example, elderberry may have some allelopathic potential, specifically inhibiting Douglas fir and other plants in controlled environments, but the effect isn’t apparent in the field.

If you already have an allelopathic tree on your property and don’t want to take it out, don’t worry. You will be somewhat limited in what to grow under and around it, but there are resistant species you can choose. These species may even benefit from growing near the allelopathic plant.

Type of Yield

How useful is the yield to you? Do you like the kind of fruit or nut? Is the harvesting and preparation process something you are willing to take on or are able to delegate? If your focus is on native plants, the tree canopy layer may not necessarily provide a yield for human consumption. Learn what ecosystem function the tree provides in nature and think about how it would apply to your site.

Native nitrogen-fixing trees may not produce an edible yield, but consider using one as the central species anyway as a support tree for the other plants in your guild.

If you find no useful (to you) native trees to be the centerpiece of your guild, there is nothing wrong with substituting a non-native species, particularly if you are short on space.

4. Choose Support Species

Read a little about the tree or large shrub you’ve selected to find out if it has any specific requirements or preferences. These features will help you select other species to support it. In our example, serviceberry is one of the earliest flowering shrubs. Knowing this, I’ve made sure that my guild includes other spring-flowering plants (currant) to attract more pollinators early in the season. I’ve also included summer flowering plants (buffaloberry, yarrow, and lupine) to round out the guild.

Look at the next layer of the plant community, the shrub layer, and repeat Step 3. Remember you’ll need many more smaller plants than larger plants to fill out your guild. A good rule of thumb is to have about ten smaller shrubs per single tree. (To clarify, I mean individual plants, not different species.) This means you will have a wider variety of small shrubs and herbaceous plants and not all of them must produce food for you. This is where you can really get into the native species that fill other functions, such as pollinator attractors, pest deterrents, and nutrient accumulators.

Continue the plant selection process for each remaining layer of your guild, herbaceous, groundcover, root, and vine. You may not fill each layer. For example, I haven’t included a vine in this guild, because native plant communities in my region don’t include many vines. I may add root crops to the guild at a later date (such as wild ginger and shortstyle onion) but to avoid overwhelm I’m keeping it smaller to start.

Stacking functions

Stacking functions in permaculture guilds means multiple plants perform each function and each plant performs multiple functions. As you select species, try to choose plants that fill multiple purposes and include at least one plant (preferably more) to fill each ecologic function.

At this point, more research may be necessary to find native species that provide the functions you are looking to fill in your guild.

The primary functions in a plant guild:

  • Attract polinators
  • Attract preditor insects
  • Repel pests
  • Detere (or distract) pests
  • Accumulate nurtients (deep taproot)
  • Living mulch to protect the soil
  • Fix nitrogen
  • Suppress grass and weeds

Don’t get caught up in too many details. Pick some species to start with and get them in the ground. You will be adding plants over time anyway, so if you have holes they can always be filled in later. Some plants may die, and that’s okay. Others will thrive, and your guild will fill out and evolve over time.

An Edible Native Fruit Tree Guild Example (Inland Northwestern US and Canada)

Here’s a native plant guild I’ve developed for my own property in Boise, ID, based on my research and prior knowledge of native plants. As I read over plant lists I felt overwhelmed with options. As a result, there are many more plants I’d like to include but haven’t yet. To avoid overwhelm for you and me, I’ve kept the guild to just six plants, but I’ve included a list of additional species to consider as well. In full disclosure, I haven’t yet planted this guild out, but plan to this spring and fall.

My Native Guild Species List

  • Serviceberry (Amelanchier alnafolia)
  • Buffaloberry (Shepherdia canadensis)
  • Black Currant (Ribes hudsonianum Richardson)
  • Common Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
  • Bigleaf lupine (Lupinus polyphyllus)
  • Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana)

Tree layer: Serviceberry (Amelanchier alnafolia)

I chose serviceberry as the centerpiece of this guild because of its extremely healthful and delicious berries. I’m not going to go into all of the health benefits of serviceberry, but you can read more at the previous link if you’re interested.

The most well-known serviceberry variety native to the Northwest US is saskatoon (Amalanchier alnafolia). Native Americans ate the fruit fresh and dried it into hard cakes or used it to make pemmican (dried meat pounded and mixed with fat and berries for a high-calorie food resistant to spoilage). The bark was used medicinally to treat several ailments. The hardwood was also used for tools, arrows, baskets, combs, and other items.

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Other Serviceberry varieties are native to the Eastern US and Eastern Canada (Amelanchier arborea – downy serviceberry and Amelanchier canadensis – Canadian Serviceberry). Still, other varieties have been domesticated to produce excellent quality fruit. Depending on your location and goals for your guild, you might choose to substitute a different serviceberry variety. I purchased the cultivar Autumn Brilliance at an end-of-season sale at my local nursery last autumn, I’d love to find a saskatoon, too.

Functions of serviceberry:

  • Edible Fruit – summer fruiting
  • Poultry forage
  • Bird habitat – fruit and nesting
  • Insectary

An alternate centerpiece for a native guild is alder (Alnus species), which is a nitrogen-fixing tree.

Shrub Layer: Buffaloberry (Shepherdia canadensis)

I chose buffaloberry because it is a nitrogen-fixing shrub that’s generally smaller than serviceberry and also produces an edible berry. The berry, however, is apparently somewhat bitter or tasteless.

Native Americans used buffaloberry to make a unique dessert known as “Indian ice cream” which was bitter but sweetened with other plant ingredients. Buffaloberry is also one of the berries used for making pemmican. And it was used medicinally for a variety of ailments.

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Functions of buffaloberry:

  • Edible Berry – fall fruiting
  • Poultry forage
  • Nitrogen-fixer

An alternative native nitrogen fixing shrub to consider is mountain mahogany.

Shrub Layer: Northern Black Currant

I love currants. I have fond memories of foraging in my childhood backyard for them. I’ve chosen Northern black currant (Ribes hudsonianum Richardson) but there are many other currant varieties native to various parts of the US and around the world.

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Functions of currant:

  • Edible berry
  • Wildlife value
  • Poultry forage
  • Pollinator attractor

For additional edible native fruiting shrubs consider chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) and elderberry (Sambucus canadensis).

Herbaceous Layer: Common Yarrow

I chose yarrow as a primary herbaceous layer plant because it fills many functions, and I just love the look and smell of it, and the feel of its fern-like foliage underfoot. Wild yarrow is white but other varieties come in a wide array of colors. Flower stalks grow about two to three feet tall and the leaves form a thick cover. Yarrow is drought resistant and thrives in poor soil. It’s a dynamic nutrient accumulator with a deep taproot that mines nutrients from deep in the soil. All of these features make it an excellent pioneer species that provides cover and builds soil to benefit other plants.

Yarrow flowers attract predatory insects including ladybugs and wasps that eat aphids and other pests. It has been used medicinally in a poultice to stop bleeding and drunk as a tea to aid digestion.

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Functions of yarrow:

  • Pioneer plant
  • Dynamic nutrient accumulator
  • Predatory insect attractor
  • Cover, soil protection
  • Medicinal

USDA Yarrow Plant Guide

Herbaceous Layer: Bigleaf Lupine

Bigleaf lupine (Lupinus polyphyllus) is a legume and wildflower native to a wide range of the western United States and Canada. It easily hybridizes and many subspecies exist. Some Lupine varieties have been used as cattle fodder and even as food for humans. However, the beans contain toxic alkaloids but some varieties are edible with proper preparation. Processing includes soaking lupine beans for multiple days and cooking to remove the alkaloids. Still, I don’t plan on eating the lupines I grow, but even without the edibility benefit, there are multiple reasons to include lupine in your native guild.

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Functions of lupine:

  • Nitrogen fixer
  • Dynamic accumulator
  • Cover, soil protection
  • Chop and drop mulcher
  • Native bee habitat in dried cut stems
  • Attracts bees, hummingbirds and other pollinators

Additional herbaceous layer options include western prairie clover (Dalea ornata) and sweet cicely (Osmorhiza chilensis – not to be confused with the non-native Myrrhis odorata, also known as sweet cicely).

Groundcover Layer: Wild Strawberry

Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) occurs throughout North America. Other names for it include Mountain Strawberry and Virginia Strawberry. Its tiny berries are sweeter than the larger garden variety strawberry which it is a parent of. They spread by seed and runners and can quickly grow into a full groundcover. Although they can grow in partial shade strawberry plants produce more fruit in sun, so its helpful to keep any surrounding shrubs pruned to allow light through.

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Functions of wild strawberry:

  • Edible fruit
  • Ground cover, protects soil
  • Pollinator attractor
  • Wildlife food

Some additional groundcovers to add or substitute include twinflower (Linnaea borealis), kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), Canada violet (Viola canadensis), and wild ginger (Asarum canadense) which is also a root layer plant.

Additional Native Plant Options for This Guild

Throughout the description, I’ve mentioned some additional species that could work instead of or in addition to the original six. Here they are all together.

  • Alder (Alnus species) – nitrogen fixing trees
  • Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) – edible berries and bird and pollinator attractor
  • Mountain mahagany (Cercocarpus ledifolius) – Nitrogen-fixing shrub
  • Western prairie clover (Dalea ornata) – Herbaceous, nitrogen-fixing, polinator attractor
  • Mountain sweet cicely (Osmorhiza berteroi or Osmorhiza chilensis) – not to be confused with Myrrhis odorata, also called sweet cicely.
  • Kinnikinnik (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) – evergreen , drought tollerant groundcover, berries edible but unpalatable fresh
  • Shortstyle onion (Allium brevistylum) – Edible, pest deterant
  • Wild ginger (Asarum caudatum) – edible,

Plant Guilds Over Time

I hope this native plant guild example for the Pacific Northwest gave you some ideas for your own guild.

This is just the beginning of a full native guild. Your guild doesn’t have to be complete from the get-go. In fact, it’s difficult to impossible to start with a complete guild. Plants need time to mature and get into their groove with their neighbors. It’s inevitable that some of the plants you choose won’t do well, but others will thrive. Over time you’ll notice holes, and you can fill them as you go. Taking time to build out your guild also gives you time to learn more about the species native to your area and become familiar with the ones you have in your garden.

References

United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service PLANT Database

Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, 2nd Edition by Toby Hemenway

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Cory

Cory is a permaculture designer with a passion to help eco-conscious homeowners design thriving backyard systems, like food forests, that create local abundance and promote Earth-healing by using not just sustainable, but regenerative methods.

Read about Cory’s path to permaculture, subscribe to the Permacultured Life Newsletter, and feel free to contact her with any questions or comments. She’d love to hear from you!

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