Gardeners are faced with many choices almost daily. If your garden revolves around medicinal foods, at least one parameter is clear: the nutrient density of the plants you choose.
Today’s example of nutrient-dense planting focuses on fruit. All traditional people ate fruit when it was available. Fruits are wonderful sources of water-soluble vitamins like C and fibers, as well as our familiar disease-fighting phytochemicals. But, fruits also can be a source of excessive fructose, a sugar implicated in the etiology of many modern diseases. As with vegetables, modern fruit breeding has focused on raising the sugar content of commonly eaten fruits, along with their ability to be transported, stored and ripen off the tree. For me, very few commercially available fruits are still worth eating.
Rather than discard most fruits from our diet, however, we can grow nutrient-dense fruits ourselves. This spring in the Napa garden, we chose to grow aronia berries, sea berries (also called sea buckthorn), pomegranates, currants, gooseberries, mulberries and goji berries. Each of these are compact bushes, all are able to easily withstand all but the most intense freezing temperatures, all are pest-free and easy to cultivate, and all produce low-sugar, phytochemical-rich fruits.
Mulberry bushes, as an example, produce delicious jet-black fruit that contain more than 20 percent protein by weight. Like all black-colored foods, they are rich in anthocyanins, so important in disease prevention. The sea berry bush is a nitrogen-fixing bush, meaning, it collects nitrogen from the air and makes it soluble in the soil. It is self-fertilizing and even helps feed the surrounding plants. Sea berry fruits are sour, loaded with vitamin C and, when ground into a pulp, make a delicious drink in the wintertime. They also contain valuable omega 3 oils in their seeds, which is why they are so often used in cosmetics.
Finally, goji berries are renowned in Chinese medicine for their health-promoting effects. A member of the Solanaceae (tomato) family, they produce beautiful orange, sweet berries that are a joy to eat. Unlike most Solanaceae plants, the goji berry has learned how to withstand freezing temperatures so it can be grown as a perennial in all but the harshest climates.
Here at Dr. Cowan’s Garden, we are just starting to talk about how to bring valuable fruits like these to our customers. Many logistical challenges present themselves, such as finding sources of these fruits that are grown to our standards. The next challenge would be how to best preserve the fruits in a form that would be easy to use and would retain all the nutritional benefits. In the meantime, if you can, get planting your own medicinal food garden, as the fall is a wonderful time to put in overwintering plants.
Tom Cowan, M.D.