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Gardening & More: Get ideas for eating native plants, during cook-off

GOING ORGANIC — Black chokeberries are high in antioxidants. This is a native plant that you can grow in your own yard; fall is a great time to plant. Get more ideas for cooking with native plants, when teams compete in the indigenous food challenge, during the Fall Festival in Irving, sponsored by the Seneca Nation of Indians. Photo courtesy of Ken Parker.
HAMBURG — There are many indigenous or native plants that you can grow for food, but how do you cook with them?

Get inspiration, when four teams of amateur chefs, cooking on grills, compete in an indigenous food challenge scheduled for 11 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 15, the last day of the three-day Fall Festival, sponsored by the Seneca Nation of Indians. The indigenous food challenge will be held in the parking lot of the Saylor Building, located at 12861 Route 438 in Irving.

The food challenge is loosely based on the TV show “Chopped,” according to Ken Parker, CNLP, project manager of Food is Our Medicine. Each team will be given a mystery basket of three – five indigenous North American ingredients, such as bison, white corn, squash or beans, that must be used in the dish.

“The goal is to teach people to make healthy food choices,” Parker said.

Professional chefs will score the dishes, based on creativity, presentation, taste, healthiness and use of the basket items.

The challenge is run by the Food is Our Medicine project, sponsored by the Seneca Diabetes Foundation, with support from the Seneca Nation of Indians. The stated objective of Food is Our Medicine is to establish a Native American horticultural program that will promote, educate and encourage Native American community members to re-introduce traditional foods back to the family table.

Sunday’s activities also include healthy-food vendors, featuring bison sliders and menu items with traditional white corn; the Seneca Nation Farmers Market; a 5K race and blues by the Willie Haddath Band.

Here is a quick introduction to using a few native plants in cooking:

Never eat a wild plant or a plant from your garden if you are not positive what it is. Poison hemlock, as you can guess from the name, is toxic, but it looks a lot like wild carrot, an edible plant.

Do not assume that, if an animal is eating a plant, that the growth is safe for humans to eat.

Understand which parts of a plant are edible and what time of year you should harvest them.

Black chokeberry
Black chokeberry, or Aronia melanocarpa, is a good landscape plant that stays short, getting about 4 or 5 feet tall. The cultivar ‘Viking’ is noted for its higher yields of berries and ‘Iroquois beauty’ is a dwarf cultivar that stays less than 4 feet tall.

The berries are high in antioxidants. Chokeberries are dry and tart, not sweet. Parker suggested adding them to an apple cobbler. The fruit should be fully ripe before being eaten and is best after one or two frosts.

The berries make a good jelly, when sugar is added. They are rich in pectin, which helps jams thicken, and can be added to fruits low in pectin, when making jams. Chokeberries can also be used for making pemmican, a concentrated mixture of fat and protein that is like beef jerky.

Fragrant sumac or Rhus aromatica is beautiful this time of year, with its large, cone-shaped flowers. Sumac “suckers,” or new plants, grow from the roots of the plant. You may have new growths popping up all over your yard.

Fragrant sumac is widely used in Mediterranean cooking. The dried, ground berries have a citrus-like flavor. Staghorn sumac, Rhus typhina, is also edible and used in the same way.

Wild bergamot
Wild bergamot or Monarda fistulosa is a perennial that gets pretty purple flowers. It’s a member of the mint family and can be used in the spring, to make tea.

In the summer, the leaves, stems and flowers can be used fresh or dried as an oregano substitute. Parker suggested trying it in a marinade for barbecues. In the late summer and fall, the leaves and stems get more of a hot flavor; use them for salsa or add them to canned tomatoes.

Sassafras or Sassafras albidum is a tree that can get up to 45 feet tall. The leaves, which have a mild aromatic flavor, can be eaten raw or cooked.

The young sassafras leaves can be added to salads. Both old and young leaves can be used as a flavoring and as a thickening agent in soups.

The dried root bark can be boiled with sugar and water, until it forms a thick paste, which is used as a condiment. The root and the berries can also be used as flavorings.

A tea, which is considered to be a tonic, can be made from the root bark. The tea can also be made by brewing the root in maple syrup and this can be concentrated into a jelly. In the spring, tea can be made from the leaves, roots and flowers.

Many native plants can be found at Lockwood’s Greenhouses, located at 4484 Clark St. in Hamburg. Fall is a great time to plant.

Consider choosing native plants for your garden that are edible, as well as ornamental.

Connie Oswald Stofko is the publisher of, the online gardening magazine for Western New York. Email

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