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The All-Native Ethnobotanical Rainwater-Harvesting Food Forest

One of the basic ideas of permaculture is that its principles remain the same though they are reflected uniquely in every site. Recently I’ve done plantings at two different food forestry courses that demonstrate this quite nicely.

The first course was at Woodbine Ecology Center in Sedalia Colorado. Their site is high and dry, at 7000’+ elevation (2100m), with 15″ (38cm) of precipitation, mostly coming as winter snow. Soils are poor and rocky, and the slope we were working on is steep and south-facing. Summers are hot and winters are very cold, going as low as -30F(-34C). I’m amazed anything grows there at all!

The second workshop was at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center in Occidental, California. Their site is much lower, under 1000′ (304m) elevation, with a remarkable 90″ (238cm) of rainfall in three months and the rest of the year dry. The climate is mild and Mediterranean, warm enough for some citrus but never terribly hot or cold.

Planting at OAEC as part of food forest workshop.
OAEC swale after planting. The depth of the swale and intensity of the rainy season allow for a gradient of moist- to dry-tolerant plants, increasing diversity. Note that many dormant or seed-planted species are not yet visible.

Both organizations have similar goals including permaculture demonstration and eco-cultural restoration, meaning the re-establishment of indigenous management techniques. Both sites have active eco-cultural restoration projects and indigenous groups visiting the site for educational and cultural events.

In this case we were stringing together several design patterns to make a sentence that reads “all-native useful plants + rainwater harvesting contour earthworks.” This can also be expressed mathematically as “((all-native)+(useful) x plants) * (rainwater harvesting +contour + earthworks))”, if you are a super-geek.

What is interesting to me is that this same pattern is expressed so differently on the two sites. There is not a single species overlapping, as the elevation, climates and soils are very different and there is maybe 1000 miles (1600km) between them. The swales at OAEC are much deeper and wider, reflecting a more gentle slope, higher rainwater volumes, and access to an excavator.

I’ve been enjoying planting all-native polycultures lately for several reasons. First, I think lots of us permies tend to jump to planting cool exotic stuff before we get to know the often remarkable potential of what’s beneath our feet. Second, the limitations of native species can also become apparent, making a good case for growing non-natives. Third, these sites can serve as demonstrations of indigenous management practices, which at least in the US tend to be ignored and made invisible, though they are among the best and longest-lived examples of permaculture on the planet. Fourth, these plantings can serve as germplasm banks for active eco-cultural restoration and other productive native and mixed plantings. Finally, it just plain makes for an interesting design challenge.

I’ve provided fairly complete species listings below. The OAEC planting reflects Brock Dolman’s knowledge of the importance of medicinal and fiber plants to indigenous communities, while the Woodbine planting perhaps shows my one-track mind as far as food plants, though the need for nitrogen fixation in their poor soils should also be apparent. OAEC has a number of vines, though there were really none to choose from at this dry microclimate of the Woodbine site. In contrast Woodbine has many cacti and succulents which are absent at OAEC.

Someday I hope to be part of assembling a pattern language of permaculture practices for the world’s climates, slopes, and soils, at different intensities of management. In the meantime this article is a contribution to that future endeavor, demonstrating a cluster of patterns (all-native ethnobotanical + rainwater harvesting contour earthworks) and how every species may be different but the underlying logic is the same in two very different locations.

Planting the swale at Woodbine. Note steep slope.


Woodbine swale after planting, with director Pavlos Stavropoulos.






Myrica californica California wax myrtle Nitrogen fixation



Calycanthus occidentalis Spicebush Medicinal, basketry
Cercis occidentalis Redbud Flowers, basketry
Cornus stolonifera Redtwig dogwood Medicinal, basketry Nectary, erosion control
Corylus cornuta californica Hazelnut Nuts, basketry
Garrya eliptica Silk tassel Medicinal
Hoita macrostachya Leatherwood Fiber
Oemleris cerasiformis Oso berry Fruit, medicinal
Rhus ovata Sugar bush Fruit, medicinal, basketry Erosion control
Rubus parviflorus Thimbleberry Fruit, medicinal
Salix exigua Grey willow Medicinal, basketry Erosion control
Sambucus mexicana Blue elderberry Fruit, flowers, medicinal Nectary



Clematis lasiantha Pipestems Medicinal
Physocarpus capitatus Ninebark Medicinal
Vitis californica Wild grape Fruit, basketry



Angelica hendersonii, A. tomentosa Angelica Medicinal Nectary
Artemisia douglasiana Mugwort Medicinal
Camassia quamash Camass Bulbs
Iris douglasii Pacific iris Medicinal
Lomatium californicum Celery weed Tubers, greens Nectary
Mimulus cardinalis Cardinal monkey flower Shoots, medicinal
Perideridia gairdneri Yampah Tubers, greens, medicinal Nectary
Petasites frigidus Coltsfoot Greens, medicinal Nectary

Grasses and Allies


Carex barbarae Basket sedge Basketry
Eleocharis spp. Spike rush Basketry, fiber
Elymus glaucus Blue wild rye Seeds
Hordeum brachyantherum Meadow barley Seeds
Juncus patens Common rush Basketry
Muhlenbergia rigens Deer grass Seeds, basketry, fiber



Achillea millefolium Yarrow Tea, medicinal Nectary, groundcover
Anemopsis californica Yerba mansa Medicinal
Aquilegia formosa Columbine Medicinal
Asarum caudatum Wild ginger Medicinal Groundcover
Calochortus luteus Mariposa lily Bulb
Dicentra formosa Bleeding heart Medicinal
Fragaria vesca Woodland strawberry Fruit, medicinal Groundcover
Ranunculus californicus California buttercup Seeds
Satureja douglasii Yerba Buena Culinary, medicinal, tea Groundcover
California wax myrtle, a nitrogen-fixing tree.
Brock Dolman with blue elderberry, a multipurpose food and medicine shrub.
Camass is an important indigenous bulb staple of Western North America. Adapted to seasonal flooding, it is ideal for the OACE swale bottom.
Brock with large stand of yampah, another important indigenous root crop. This patch is tended by OAEC and has greatly increased in size under their management.
Deergrass is an important basketry, fiber, and grain plant for native Californians. Photo courtesy Stan Shebs at wikimedia commons.





Celtis reticulata Netleaf hackberry Fruit
Pinus edulis Pinyon pine Nuts, medicinal
Quercus gambellii x Q. macrocarpa Burgambel oak Acorns



Amelanchier utahensis Utah serviceberry Fruit, basketry
Amorpha fruticosa False indigo Nitrogen fixation
Artemisia tridentata Sagebrush Medicinal
Cercocarpus montanus Mountain mahogany Medicinal Nitrogen fixation
Fallugia paradoxa Apache plume Medicinal Nitrogen fixation
Prunus pumila besseyi Sand cherry Fruit Erosion control
Rhus trilobata Skunkbush sumac Fruit, tea, medicinal, basketry Erosion control
Ribes aureum Golden currant Fruit, medicinal
Rubus deliciosus Boulder raspberry Fruit
Shepherdia argentea Silver buffalo berry Fruit Nitrogen fixation, erosion control



Cylindropuntia imbricata Cholla cactus Flowerbuds
Echinocereus fendleri, E. coccineus Strawberry cactus Fruit
Opuntia basilaris Beavertail cactus Fruit, pads
Yucca baccata Banana Yucca Fruit, fiber



Berlandiera lyrata Chocolate flower Culinary, medicinal Nectary
Cleome serrulata Rocky Mountain bee plant Greens, seeds, medicinal Nectary
Helianthus maximilliani Maximilian sunflower Shoots, seeds, roots Nectary
Ipomoea leptophylla Manroot morning glory Giant tubers, medicinal
Ratibidia columnifera Prairie coneflower Medicinal Nectary
Stanleya pinnata Prince’s plume Leaves, seeds, medicinal

Grasses & Sedges


Oryzopsis hymenoides Indian ricegrass Seeds Erosion control



Callirhoe involucrata Purple prairie mallow Leaves, roots Groundcover
Cucurbita foetidissima Buffalo gourd Seeds, tuber starch, medicinal Groundcover, erosion control
Dalea purpurea Purple prairie clover Tea, medicinal Nitrogen fixer, groundcover, erosion control
Melampodium leucanthum Blackfoot daisy Nectary, groundcover
Zinnia grandiflora Prairie zinnia Medicinal Nectary, groundcover


Pinyon pine and Utah serviceberry as a natural polyculture, Utah.


Sand cherry is a very drought-tolerant and deer-resistant shrub cherry.

Polyculture of nitrogen-fixing mountian mahogany and edible buffalo gourd and Rocky Mountain bee plant, Denver Botanical Garden.

Indian ricegrass, an important wild staple perennial grain for much of Western North America.

Strawberry cactus has edible fruit and lovely flowers.