17 Nitrogen Fixers For Your Permaculture Food Forest

17 Nitrogen Fixers For Your Permaculture Food Forest

OK, folks, I think I’m on a food forest kick lately. Must be the fact that “WINTER IS COMING!”

I just posted an article about how to pick plants for your food forest. It’s good reading, and will help you find what plants to put where.

You should also be able to find new plants you’ve never heard of.

So I got a question from a lovely reader, I thought I would write a post on it.

The question was about finding nitrogen-fixing trees.

On that note, here’s some nitrogen-fixing shrubs and trees to consider for your food forest.

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The Search

Most of this information is from the USDA Plant Search website, though some comes from the almighty G–gle.

This data was then edited and appended with notes by me.

Oh and a warning: I really love to do research like this, and for me, the more information the better.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the amount of data, just limit your searches to growth habit, nitrogen fixation, and minimum temperature. You can always add more info later.

One reason permaculture designers want a nitrogen-fixing tree is as a pioneer to stabilize and improve soil conditions. They also can act as a “nurse” plant to help other plants grow better and faster.

Stefan Sobkowiak of The Permaculture Orchard does this with his pick-your-own orchard by putting a nitrogen-fixer next to a fruit tree.

They can also be used in a chop-and-drop scenario to feed plant-available nitrogen to the soil.

The non-leguminous plants do this by way of a partnership with bacteria and micorrhizae fungi on their roots. Make sure to inoculate the roots before planting.

My search parameters were a tree or shrub with moderate or rapid growth, fixes nitrogen at a medium or high rate, and can withstand at least -18°F. This is close to the lowest temp for me in the last 10 years.

WARNING: These plants fix their own nitrogen and some easily reproduce and spread. You wouldn’t think that was bad from a site restoration standpoint.

But some states consider these plants to be invasive or “noxious weeds”, whether or not they are beneficial to the soil. This is mainly because they can out-compete so-called “native” species and change the ecosystems and available food for wildlife.

And so (as governments like to do), they make it illegal to plant these “introduced” species. So there’s a legal status for each plant in each state (and it sometimes varies by county). And of course they’re not the same in all areas. 

Please check to make sure they aren’t illegal in your area, before getting in trouble. Government doesn’t like it when you ask forgiveness instead of permission. You’ve been warned.

Also, consider the consequences for your local environment when planting these trees.

If you really like one particular plant but it’s illegal, there may be another species open to you. For example, if you like the qualities of Russian olive but it’s illegal to plant, consider the Silver Buffaloberry (Shepherdia argentea) instead. It also has edible fruit but isn’t illegal. Yet.

Last, some people just simply hate some plants. If you tell them what you’re planting they may get irrationally angry with you. YMMV.

I will also link to the plant guide pdf on the first mention of the common name.

Relevant terms from the site here:

Lifespan: What is the expected lifespan (in years) of a perennial plant relative to other species with the same growth habit? For the Tree growth habit: Short: < 100; Moderate: 100 – 250; Long: >250. Life spans for other growth habits are not quantified.

Precipitation, Minimum: Minimum tolerable rainfall (in inches), expressed as the average annual minimum precipitation that occurs 20% of the time (i.e., the probability of it being this dry in any given year is 20%) at the driest climate station within the known geographical range of the plant. For cultivars, the geographical range is defined as the area to which the cultivar is well adapted rather than marginally adapted.

Height at Base Age, Maximum: Maximum height (in feet) of a tree, shrub or sub-shrub, under ideal conditions, at a base age. The base age is 20 years for trees in temperate areas (>30 degrees north latitude), 10 years for trees in tropical areas (≤30 degrees north latitude), and 10 years for all shrubs and sub-shrubs. Ideal conditions are defined as soil pH = 5.0-7.8; soil salinity  4 mmhos/cm; soil depth  40 inches; effective average annual precipitation  30 inches; soil texture class = medium; no ponding; rare or no annual flooding; and high water table depth  1 foot during plant active growth period. Plants other than trees, shrubs, and sub-shrubs are left blank here.

Some properties of these plants are of note to us in permaculture.

  • Growth form – if the plant grows into a thicket, it can be used as a shelter for wind or redirecting unwanted animals
  • Height – Knowing the height at maturity helps us to plan for what will happen in the food forest, and whether some plants will be shaded out eventually
  • Lifespan: All things die, and we need to plan for that. Design replacement trees into the system so they are ready when needed
  • Resprout ability – can tell us if the tree is a candidate for pollarding or coppicing
  • Minimum Precipitation – if your climate doesn’t meet this, you will have to irrigate or provide water somehow to keep the plants alive


The List

Note: this article is quite long, so you can click the plant links below to jump to it.

Happy planting!

Alder var.
Amorpha: Leadplant & false indigo bush
freckled milkvetch
Siberian pea shrub
redosier dogwood
Elaeagnus: Russian olive, silverberry, autumn olive
Northern bayberry

Alder leavesCommon name: Alder species – European black aldergray alderthinleaf alderred alder & smooth/hazel alder

Scientific name: Alnus glutinosa (European black alder), Alnus incana (gray alder), Alnus incana ssp. tenuifolia (thinleaf alder), Alnus rubra (red alder), Alnus serrulata (smooth/hazel alder)

Growth habit: all can grow as a tree. Gray, thinleaf and hazel can also grow as a large shrub

Growth form: European & hazel – multiple stem, gray & thinleaf – thicket forming, red – single stem

Growth rate: all have rapid growth

Height at base age (20 years): European 40ft, gray 15 ft, thinleaf 20ft, red 50ft, hazel 12ft

Height at maturity: European 45-70ft, gray 25 ft, thinleaf 20ft, red 90ft, hazel 30ft

Lifespan: European, thinleaf & hazel have a moderate lifespan, while gray & red have a short lifespan

Nitrogen fixation: European and red fix nitrogen at a high rate, while gray and thinleaf (a subspecies of gray) do so at a medium rate

Resprout ability: European, thinleaf & red – yes, gray & hazel – no

Soil adaptation: Generally adapted to all soils, though thinleaf not adapted to fine soils.

Minimum Precipitation: European 20″, gray 32″, thinleaf 10″, red 24″, hazel 32″

Minimum temp: European -18°F, gray -33°F, thinleaf -62°F, red -22°F


  • European – replanting highly disturbed acidic sites like coal strip-mines to improve soil, and as an orchard windbreak
  • Gray & thinleaf – Native Americans made a red dye from the powdered wood. Used by cabinetmakers and wood workers. Many different wildlife eat parts of it or use it for nests and homes.
  • Red – Native Americans used many parts of the trees for many different uses, including dyes, waterproofing, board-bending, treating headaches and diarrhea, and basket weaving.
  • Smooth/hazel – streambank stabilization and wetland restoration

Notes: Though these are all alders, they are very different in terms of zone hardiness, heights, growth forms, lifespans, and minimum precipitation.

The thinleaf can withstand much colder temperatures and drier conditions than any of the others. The red is the tallest of the bunch by a wide margin, can be used for lumber, and is the only one to grow as a single stem.

The smooth/hazel and thinleaf (and possibly European) will continue to increase in height after the base age, up to triple that height. Considering these trees have normal lifespans of more than 100 years, their eventual height must be designed for.

As a group they  will tolerate almost any soil conditions, except thinleaf doesn’t like a lot of clay.

The European, thinleaf and red have the potential to be used for coppice or pollard trees. This can be use in a rocket mass heater for almost free heat, or fed to browsing animals (except thinleaf).

As well, they can all be used for firewood, though thinleaf is poor for this.

Top17 Nitrogen Fixers For Your Permaculture Food Forest

Common name: Amorpha species – Leadplant & false indigo bush (AKA desert false indigo)

Scientific name: Amorpha canescens (leadplant), Amorpha fruticosa (desert false indigo)

Growth habitShrub, leadplant can also be small shrub

Growth form: Multiple stems

Growth rate: Moderate

Height at base age (10 years): Leadplant 4ft, false indigo 6ft

Height at maturity: Leadplant 4ft, false indigo 15ft

Lifespan: Leadplant – long, false indigo – moderate

Nitrogen fixation: Medium

Resprout ability: Leadplant – no, false indigo – yes

Soil adaptation: Adapted to coarse and medium soils, but not fine soils

Minimum Precipitation: Leadplant 20″, false indigo 10″

Minimum temp: -38°F

Uses: Native Americans used leadplant to treat open wounds, rheumatism, intestinal worms, eczema, and as a tea.

American West pioneers used false indigo to make blue dye.

Both can be used for soil restoration projects.


Leadplant has showy flowers (good for landscaping) and is drought and shade tolerant, as well as preventing soil erosion.

It’s a good insectary plant, especially for feeding solitary bees. Leadplant is also highly palatable by browsers like cattle, sheep, and horses, as well as by deer and elk.

It doesn’t do well with heavy repeated grazing and defoliation, so only graze it occasionally.

Leadplant also doesn’t compete well with warm-season grasses, so keep it well mulched to limit grass incursion.

False indigo contains an insecticide that is also an insect repellant. Blue (indigo-like) dye can also be made from it.

Often planted as an ornamental, false indigo has an extensive root system so it prevents soil erosion like leadplant.

In addition, false indigo makes a good windbreak, and unlike more delicate plants, it will grow in dry soil and full sun.

Since they have lower water requirement, do well in sandy soil, and are cold hardy, both of these can be good choices for cold drylands.

Common name: Freckled milkvetch (No nice USDA plant guide, but check here and here) AKA spotted locoweed

Scientific name: Astragalus lentiginosus (many different varieties)

Growth habit: Shrub, small shrub or forb/herb

Growth form: Single crown

Growth rate: Moderate

Height at base age(10 years for shrub): Varies

Height at maturity: 1.4ft

Lifespan: Moderate

Nitrogen fixation: Medium

Resprout ability: No

Soil adaptation: All soils

Minimum Precipitation: 10″

Minimum temp: -28°F

Uses: The Zuni people of the American southwest have eaten the pods of the Astragalus lentiginosus diphysus variety fresh, boiled, or salted, as well as dried for long-term storage.

Notes: Has a medium tolerance for calcium carbonate, which is present in many desert soils. It has a high drought tolerance, as well as a medium tolerance for fire and salinity.

Freckled milkvetch doesn’t tolerate shade though, so it can easily be controlled by growing shade or fruit trees near it.

It doesn’t propagate well by any method but seeds, and they aren’t easily available. You best best is to sustainably gather seeds in the summer.

Since it can be slightly toxic (hence the alternate locoweed name), don’t plant it where it will be eaten be animals.

Overall it’s a very hardy little drylands/desert plant that will fix nitrogen, then quietly go away when your site is more fertile.

Common nameSiberian peashrub

Scientific name: Caragana arborescens

Growth habit: Tree or shrub

Growth form: Multiple stem

Growth rate: Rapid

Height at base age: 14ft

Height at maturity: 14ft

Lifespan: Moderate

Nitrogen fixation: Medium

Resprout ability: Yes

Soil adaptation: Adapted to most soils except coarse

Minimum Precipitation: 10″

Minimum temp: -38°F

Uses: Treatment of gynecological cancers, chicken feed, upland game cover.

Some people groups ate the young pods, used the bark for fiber, and made a blue dye from the leaves.

Notes: This is recommended as a fast-growing nitrogen-fixing windbreak and groundcover plant that can slow soil erosion.

The branches have small spines, and so it may survive browsing by wildlife more easily.

I’ve planted many of these, and have only been able to kill a few of them due to my inexperience.

So I guess it has the brown thumb stamp of approval!

It does fine in poor soils, cold, and drought conditions, as well as alkaline soil and salt.

Siberian pea shrub is also fine with full sun but can tolerate some shade.

It can be propagated by seed or cuttings, and survives in fairly harsh conditions.

The commercial seed and plant availability is good, and there are several improved varieties.

This is a great plant for a windbreak or shelterbelt, a wildlife redirecting barrier, or around chicken pens.

Common name: Redosier dogwood AKA redstem dogwood or redwillow

Scientific name: Cornus sericea ssp. sericea

Growth habit: Shrub or tree

Growth form: Multiple stem

Growth rate: Moderate

Height at base age: 5ft

Height at maturity: 5-20ft

Lifespan: Long

Nitrogen fixation: Medium

Resprout ability: Yes

Soil adaptation: Adaptable to all soils

Minimum Precipitation: 24″

Minimum temp: -38°F

Uses: Native Americans used this dogwood for smoking, dreamcatchers, arrow and other tools, toothbrushes, baskets, and tanning and drying animals hides.

They also used it medicinally for treating diarrhea, weak kidneys, children’s bedwetting, poison ivy, headaches, and weakness.

Notes: Some dogwood species have delicious fruits. The redosier dogwood berries are tart yet edible.

Many different wildlife will also eat the berries, leaves and stems, as well as nesting for songbirds.

The bright red stems retain their color even after drying, and are popular in landscaping for this bright color.

They prefer soils that are water-saturated for at least part of the season, usually spring. They like it dry out by late summer though, and don’t like long-term “wet feet”.

One idea is to place them near water or a low spot that can be flooded in spring, then allowed to dry.

Natively it grows along the edges of lakes and ponds, streams and wetlands.

It also propagates easily from cuttings or seed.

Autumn olive berriesTop
Common name: Elaeagnus species – Russian olivesilverberry & autumn olive

Scientific name: E. angustifolia (Russian olive), E. commutata (silverberry), E. umbellata (autumn olive)

Growth habit: All shrubs, and Russian olive can be a tree

Growth form: Russian olive – single stem, silverberry and autumn olive – multiple stems

Growth rate: Rapid

Height at base age(10 years): Russian olive 35ft, silverberry 12ft, autumn olive 16ft

Height at maturity: Same

Lifespan: Russian olive – long, silverberry – moderate, autumn olive – short

Nitrogen fixation: Russian olive – high, silverberry & autumn olive – medium

Resprout ability: Yes

Soil adaptation: Generally most soils, but Russian olive & silverberry not adapted to fine soils

Minimum Precipitation: Russian olive 12″, silverberry 16″, autumn olive 28″

Minimum temp: Russian olive -25F, silverberry -38F, autumn olive -23F

Uses: Soil restoration projects on disturbed sites. Silverberry and autumn olive are rated medium for palatable browsing by animals.

Notes: Russian and autumn olive were introduced, but silverberry is an American native.

All 3 of these species are vigorous, hardy, cold-tolerant, highly drought-tolerant, and produce edible fruits.

They all are also easy to propagate by seed or cuttings.

Russian olive‘s tolerance to alkalinity, shaping into a hedge, and calcium carbonate is high.

Its success at surviving is also it’s weakness though. Thriving in hostile environments is leading to lots of hatred against it.

Russian olive (and less often autumn olive) are on many states’ “noxious weeds” lists because of their ability to reproduce and thrive where other plants struggle.

Russian olive is illegal to plant in Colorado because it takes over riparian areas and crowds out the native cottonwoods and boxelders. It changes the foods available to wildlife, and so changes the ecosystem.

If illegal and you’re seeking alternatives to Russian olive, see here.

Some of the options presented in that link are mentioned here (silverberry/autumn olive) or lower down in my list.

Autumn olive produces small pink to red fruits in abundance, up to 80lbs per plant. Many wildlife love them, and birds will widely spread the seeds.

Since it spreads so easily, one way to limit that is to eat the tasty berries, either raw or cooked into delicious pastries and preserves.

Just watch the occasional spines when picking.

Autumn olive doesn’t do very well in constantly wet locations or under heavy shade, though it tolerates some shade.

It can survive in thin soils (only 18″) and has a medium tolerance to calcium carbonate. Like the other two it has a high drought tolerance.

It does an excellent job of controlling soil erosion, and is a good choice for a food-producing slope stabilizer.

Browsing by deer doesn’t seem to affect it much, and it leafs out early and retains leaves late into the fall.

Goats and sheep will also readily eat the autumn olive’s foliage and bark, and these animals can be used to control it where necessary.

There are improved varieties of autumn olive available, sweeter and more productive, and in different colors.

I have a “Red Cluster Autumnberry” that’s 3 years old and 5 feet tall.

The deer seem to like eating the twigs and leaves, which concerns me about getting fruit, and I’m hoping for fruit next year.

Silverberry is an American native and grows naturally on sandy and gravel soils along waterways. But it grows best in loamy soils, and can be found at high elevation, up to 8000ft.

It’s also found in open forests and thickets, and is relatively intolerant to shade.

Silverberry is also often found in meadows especially in areas of disturbed soil.

It’s widespread from Colorado to Alaska and Washington to Minnesota but also somewhat uncommon to find in the wild.

Silverberry is used as an ornamental for its silvery leaves.

It’s a food used by many different wildlife. Silverberry’s palatability is rated poor for cattle and horses but fair for sheep.

Alaskan natives fried the fleshy fruit in moose fat.

The fruit and seeds of silverberry are edible raw or cooked, though quite astringent unless fully ripe.

It spreads by rhizome or seed, but cuttings take up to a year to root. However, cutting back the silverberry severely to old wood will make it resprout.

Silverberry is also top-killed by fire and regrows slowly thereafter, so don’t put in in your fire sector.

Silverberry has improved varieties and is readily available from commercial nurseries.

Common name: Seaberry AKA sea buckthorn

Scientific name: Hippophae rhamnoides

Growth habit: Shrub

Growth form: Multiple stem

Growth rate: Rapid

Height at base age(0 years): 18ft

Height at maturity: 18ft

Lifespan: Moderate

Nitrogen fixation: Medium

Resprout ability: Yes

Soil adaptation: Generally most soils, but not to fine soils

Minimum Precipitation: 26″

Minimum temp: -38°F

Uses: Nutrient-rich food and medicine, soil stabilization and improvement, hedge, barrier.

It was traditionally used for treating many different diseases and health problems.

Notes: Some sources say it’s the most widely grown cold-hardy fruiting plant in the world.

Ben Falk of Whole Systems Design plants, grows and sells them.

Seaberry is highly tolerant to fire, alkalinity, shaping as a hedge, and calcium carbonate. It has medium drought and salinity tolerance.

It grows naturally at up to 14000ft in sandy soils. They are adapted to coarse or medium soils, but they don’t like fine soils with a lot of clay.

Seaberry likes good soil drainage, and is intolerant to shade so give them full sun, at least 8 hours a day.

It rapidly spreads through roots and can create thickets.

This plant is a powerhouse of healthy disease-fighting goodness.

Being dioecious, seaberry has separate male and female plants, so make sure to plant both to get fruit.

It makes lots of bright orange berries on the dense stiff thorny branches, around 3 tons per acre.

Commercially the branches with berries are cut off, then harvested from the branch. This is the easiest way to avoid the many thorns.

Many products are made from it worldwide, though not as much in the US.

Canada has invested heavily in seaberry production since the climate is compatible and the economic benefits are so large.

Seaberry has lots of antioxidants, is high in Vitamin C (one variety is called “Russian Orange”), and has Vitamin E, K, and carotenoids.

As if that wasn’t enough, it’s also very high in oils like Omega-3, especially in a fruit, as well as flavinoids.

Juiced and sweetened it tastes like passionfruit, and seaberry is sometimes blended with other fruits as well.

I planted one in the duck pen, but I didn’t protect it so the geese ate and killed it.

I’ll have to plant another next year with more protection.

Common name: Northern bayberry

Scientific name: Morella pensylvanica

Growth habit: Tree or shrub

Growth form: Colonizing

Growth rate: Moderate

Height at base age(0 years): 7ft

Height at maturity: 7ft

Lifespan: Long

Nitrogen fixation: Medium

Resprout ability: Yes

Soil adaptation: Generally most soils, but not to fine soils

Minimum Precipitation: 32″

Minimum temp: -28°F

Uses: Soil stabilization, wildlife cover/food. Early Americans used the berries for wax

Notes: Native to the Atlantic coast of the US and Canada, it’s common on the back sand dunes.

Bayberry is salt and wind tolerant, and retains some leaves for most of the winter.

This makes it a habitat for wildlife, and the berries hang out of the snow providing food throughout the winter months.

The highly scented berries are still used in candle-making.

Bayberry is also dioecious like seaberry, with separate male and female plants.

There is an improved variety of bayberr

Bayberry grows by its root suckers into into bare areas of sandy soil, but not into grass or cultivated areas. It doesn’t tolerate competition well.

So you can plant it to improve and stabilize the soil, then easily outcompete it with more desirable plants at a later date.

Locust podsTop
Common nameBristly locust & Black locust

Scientific nameRobinia hispida var. fertilis (Bristly locust), Robinia pseudoacacia (Black locust)

Growth form: Tree, and bristly can be shrub

Growth habit: Bristly – rhizomatous, black – multiple stem

Growth rate: Rapid

Height at base age(20 years): Bristly 7ft, black 40ft

Height at maturity: Bristly 7ft, black 60ft

Lifespan: Bristly – moderate, black – short

Nitrogen fixation: Bristly –  high, black – medium

Resprout ability: Yes

Soil adaptation: General all soils, but bristly not adapted to fine soils

Minimum Precipitation: Bristly 32″, black 16″

Minimum temp: Bristly -30°F, black -37°F

Uses: Bristly – erosion control on steep sites with active erosion. Black – fence posts, timber, firewood

Notes: Both of these are woody leguminous trees, that fix nitrogen like beans.

Bristly locust spreads mostly by rhizomes (root suckers), and can live in highly acid to alkaline soils.

The Maine DOT uses it as a living fence along highways to trap snow.

Under light shade it doesn’t inhibit growth of perennial or annual herbaceous plants.

When erosion exposes the roots, bristly reacts by growing more root suckers to stabilize the soil better.

It’s attractive when in bloom but isn’t recommended for a landscaping trees or residential planting.

Bristly is really beneficial for highly disturbed sites on slopes.

It is available commercially, and there is at least one improved variety.

Black locust is sometimes called the “sweetheart” or “darling” tree of permaculture.

This idea is not without merit, because black locust has lots of beneficial features.

Black locust has high calcium carbonate, fire and drought tolerance. It has a low precipitation requirement, and is not tolerant of shade.

Good for erosion control and wildlife cover, black locust has a shallow aggressive root system.

It’s also an excellent bee fodder plant.

It’s a fast-growing timber tree whose wood is strong, hard, and durable. Black locust can be made into furniture or for construction, and it’s used by many woodworkers.

It is also an excellent firewood due to its high BTU content, and can be coppiced for RMH fuel or fodder (but see below about toxicity).

Because black locust naturally has a fungicide in it, it resists rot extremely well.

So it is sometimes called ironwood (not to be confused with the 20-odd other ironwoods) and it’s very popular for fence posts that last a long time.

A story I heard went something along the lines of “after 50 years in the ground you turn the post over and replant them for another 50 years.”

Black locust can be propagated by bare root, cuttings or seed, and has a high seedling vigor.

There is conflicting information on the subject of feeding the twigs leaves and pods to animals.

Some sources says it’s toxic, yet other sources analyzed it as fodder and compared it to alfalfa (lucerne).

Other articles said it’s only toxic to horses, so do your own research before deciding whether to feed it or not.

For much more info (and some opinions) see the Permies discussion here.

For me, it’s a great tree I want to grow many more of.

Common name: Silver buffaloberry & russet buffaloberry

Scientific name: Shepherdia argentea (Silver buffaloberry), Shepherdia canadensis (russet buffaloberry)

Growth habit: Shrub, silver can also be tree

Growth form: Multiple stem

Growth rate: Rapid

Height at base age(10 years): Silver 18ft, russet 6ft

Height at maturity: Silver 18ft, russet 6ft

Lifespan: Moderate

Nitrogen fixation: Medium

Resprout ability: Yes

Soil adaptation: General all soils, but not adapted to fine soils

Minimum Precipitation: 15″

Minimum temp: Silver -38°F, russet -63°F

Uses: Palatable browse rated medium, also human edible

Notes: These are both native to the US. Both are edible by humans and animals, as well as being cold-hardy fast-growing N-fixers.

They also don’t require much moisture and so are a good option for drylands soil improvement.

Calcium carbonate tolerance for both is also high, while salinity tolerance is medium. Both can also be treated as a hedge.

The berries of both buffaloberry species contain a little bit of saponin (soap), that foams when added to water.

So probably best to eat them in moderation when fresh.

Cooking breaks down the saponin, which is great since they make excellent jellies.

They are both dioecious and has separate male and female plants, and the berries will persist until spring.

Silver buffaloberry gives good cover and nesting for many birds, as well as browsing for many different wildlife.

It has bright red to orange fruit, silvery gray (hence the name) leaves on top and bottom, and thorns.

Silver has moderate suckering, thought the suckers aren’t strongly competitive and it is usually grown from seed.

The berries can be eaten fresh (sweeter after a frost) or processed slightly under-ripe (because of the higher pectin levels) into jellies.

Silver has limited shade and drought tolerance, to rather than shading it, make sure to water it some in a drought.

It might be available at a native plant nursery or some state tree nurseries.

Russett buffaloberry were used for food and medicine by many Native American tribes. They used it to treat heat attacks, indigestion, induce childbirth, eyewash, and as a plaster/bandage for broken limbs.

Russet berries and foliage are eaten by many different wildlife, and is sometimes used for ornamental planting.

Unlike silver, russett prefers partial shade or partial sun to full sun, so it could be a part of a guild under a taller tree.

It is commercially available, and there are some improved varieties.

N-fixers honorable mention:

  • Honeylocust (Gleditsia triacanthos) – related to black locust. May or may not fix nitrogen more than it needs, but has better fodder for animals. Trees from seed have wickedly long strong thorns, improved varieties are thornless.
  • Silverthorn (Elaeagnus pungens) – only hardy to USDA zone 7. Evergreen leaves, thorny branches. Similar in many ways to silverberry
  • Scotch broom – hated and considered invasive in the Northwest and Eastern US. Bright yellow flowers, it grows in dry sandy soil, and tolerates highly acidic conditions
  • Kudzu – also hated. It naturalized in the southern US. Not a tree, but part of the pea family. It grows very fast and kills plants underneath by shading out. Edible by humans, and a high quality palatable livestock forage
  • Mimosa or silk tree (Albizia julibrussin) – Very pretty flowers; deer, drought and alkaline soil tolerant; bee and butterfly forage; lots of falling leaf, flower and pod material for composting or cleaning up, depending on your view.


We use nitrogen-fixers for many purposes, to fix soil, prevent erosion and restore damaged and disturbed sites.

These species are only a few of the ones available to you.

For more help in picking plants for your food forest, see my article on How To Pick Plants For Your Food Forest.


If you’d like to know more ways to live better, we’ve partnered with Claire Goodall to offer the Everyday Roots ebook. It’s over 350 pages of home remedies, natural beauty recipes, and DIY household products.


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OK, that’s all folks! Do you have any questions or comments about food forests, sustainable homesteading, permaculture design or anything else? Ask your question down below and let’s talk! You can also use the contact form, or email me at info at thepermaculture dot life.

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One reason permaculture designers want a nitrogen-fixing tree is as a pioneer to stabilize and improve soil conditions. They also can act as a