By Nina Jurko, RORG Student Team Member
The Red Oak Rain Garden hosts a variety of plants and shrubs. Over 50 species, most of which are native to Illinois, can be found in the garden. These beautiful plants are not just functional and pleasing to look at, but many of them are also edible. From the leaves of a plant, the roots, the flower heads, or even the products of the plant or tree such as berries or acorns, the greenery within the garden can be used to its fullest.
If you have ever visited the garden, you have most likely noticed the garden’s staple feature – the eye-catching Red Oak (Quercus rubra). You may have also noticed the multitudes of acorns littered across the garden and the sidewalks, courtesy of that same red oak tree. These acorns are not only food for our campus’ massive squirrel population, they also can be eaten by people! A popular method of making acorns edible is converting them into acorn flour and using it for baked goods. Last year, Pastry Chef at Berries & Flour Bakery Heidi Leuszler, created marvelous cupcakes by using ingredients from the garden, such as acorns. Check out the recipe and step-by-step instructions in Heidi’s guest blog.
Plants such as Nodding Onion (Allium cernuum) and Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) are especially edible in both their raw and cooked forms. Nodding Onion bulbs can be eaten raw or cooked and are mainly used for flavoring purposes, while its leaves and flowers are used mainly to garnish salads and other dishes. On the other hand, Wild Ginger’s main edible part is its root, which when combined with sugar and a few other ingredients, can be turned into a delicious Wild Ginger syrup. This syrup can be used to enhance the taste of ice creams and sorbets, or it can be even used for savory purposes such as for a marinade for chicken or fish. Wild Ginger can also be candied by boiling cut pieces of ginger with sugar and letting them dry. After a few days, you will have some very tasty ginger candies that are perfect for a quick and tasty snack!
Another interesting edible product that can be created from a shrub in the rain garden is juice! This juice is created from Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) and, contradictory to its name, this plant’s berries are entirely safe and edible. Aronia Berries from the Red Chokeberry shrub have been described to have a similar taste as blueberries, but the taste can also be highly variable, from bitter to sweet. Cold pressing these berries produces a juice which is slightly tart, but still one hundred percent tasteful and bursting with flavor. Of course, sugar can be added, if desired.
The leaves and flowers from Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum), Grey Headed Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum), and New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus) can also be dried and used to create herbal teas.
While all of these possibilities are exciting, a gentle reminder not to harvest plants from the Red Oak Rain Garden. You are encouraged to grow your own species and leave the garden’s plants to their main jobs: soaking up water and supporting pollinators and wildlife. Thank you!
From the RORG Team:
As with the UIUC campus, the Red Oak Rain Garden exists on the lands of many Native Nations. Early European settlers adopted practices from these Native Nations, such as the edible qualities of certain native plants. Therefore, it is imperative to acknowledge those who first utilized these historic practices.
As a land-grant institution, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has a responsibility to acknowledge the historical context in which it exists. In order to remind ourselves and our community, we will begin this event with the following statement. We are currently on the lands of the Peoria, Kaskaskia, Piankashaw, Wea, Miami, Mascoutin, Odawa, Sauk, Mesquaki, Kickapoo, Potawatomi, Ojibwe, and Chickasaw Nations. It is necessary for us to acknowledge these Native Nations and for us to work with them as we move forward as an institution. Over the next 150 years, we will be a vibrant community inclusive of all our differences, with Native peoples at the core of our efforts.