As renowned garden author Doug Tallamy likes to say, plants turn sunlight into food.
All life benefits from this process, especially you and me. Attending the St. Louis Zoo’s Pollinator Dinner in June is an eye-opening reminder of the importance of sunlight, pollinators and native plants.
The food is creatively prepared and delicious. Dishes at the 2022 Pollinator Dinner included sumac and cornmeal-crusted catfish, charred wild garlic and sorrel maple brined turkey, bison hand pies, roasted squash with a pumpkin seed pesto, roasted burdock, wild grape dumplings, grape syrup, and chestnut crumble, to name a few.
Each dish is the happy result of pollination of the ingredients of the dishes, by bees or other insects. For example, squash is pollinated by squash bees. Chestnuts are pollinated by common bumblebees and the wind.
In recent years, I’ve come to appreciate a new native plant for its ability to transform sunlight into golden drops of beer.
Find hops in the wild
Wild hops is native in Missouri along railroads and roadsides. I first noticed it in Pacific, Mo., growing along an abandoned railroad at the edge of town. I’ve since seen it growing wild in hedgerows and woodland edges more widely. It even grows at Shaw Nature Reserve at an undisclosed location.
It's “undisclosed” because brewers are collecting wild hops in other parts of the country, but collecting on private property in Missouri is prohibited.
Wild, fresh-harvested hops are a sought-after ingredient that makes really great beer. Four years ago, we collected wild hop seed, grew seedlings, planted a 50-foot-long hopyard and harvested 4 bushels of fresh hops last summer.
What to do with so many hops? We gave them to Six Mile Bridge Brewery owners Ryan and Lindsay Sherring of Maryland Heights, who produced a delicious citrusy saison. This experimental batch was the first of what we hope will grow into many more tasty beers concocted with Shaw Nature Reserve native hops.
Tips for growing hops
Although they are easy to grow, native hops need a frequent thinning to produce a decent quantity of fruit. Vines need to be trained on a trellis that is at least 8 to 10 feet tall, or even higher.
The other thing to keep in mind is that plants are dioecious. That means that male and female plants are separate. Only female plants produce hops, so it is to your advantage to have more female plants and fewer (or no) male plants.
There are more and more home and craft brewers using specialty hops, and quite a few of them are growing their own. There are also a handful of foragers, looking for hops growing in the wild. While it is legal to collect seed along roadsides in Missouri, it would be challenging to find enough wild hops for anything but a small home-brew operation.
I recommend growing them at home on a trellis. If you are interested in acquiring seed of wild hops for your home-brew operation, Shaw Nature Reserve can supply you with starter seed packets. I can’t think of a better way to spend time than to turn the sun’s rays into a golden pint of beer. Happy brewing, y’all!
Woodbury was the horticulturist at Shaw Nature Reserve for 30 years and continues native landscaping education, alongside his business, Cacalia: Native Garden Design and Wilding.