In northern Sampson County, 200-year-old Jackson Farm is growing with the times, an operation that hearkens back to past generations but offers a getaway where visitors might get a taste of something new to them.
The family farm is located at 13902 Dunn Road, Godwin, just a few miles north of Halls Store. While just a few old farm houses can be seen from the road, nestled just past the roadside is a farm steeped in history, tradition and an appreciation of everything nature provides.
As with other farms, there are traditional crops and fruit trees rising from the ground, but one of the delicacies cultivated on the farm are flowers that can be used for cooking.
“It’s not a new thing,” said Jan Jackson, who has been dabbling in edible flowers since the early 1980s. Tom and Jan Jackson run Jackson Farm, which has been in Tom’s family for six generations. People have been cooking with flowers for much longer than that. “People didn’t just garnish their salads with flowers to make them pretty. They ate them.”
A main expanse of 100 acres makes up the 150-acre farm. There are 20 acres that the Jacksons cultivate, in close proximity to a clearing where they also host weddings each year. As Jan Jackson walks through her garden, she points out the great number of flowers that hold uses exceeding the aesthetic.
There are garlic flowers, sage flowers — which she said are great to put in vinegar — coral honeysuckle, rosemary, all of which have culinary uses.
“I like flowers and it gave me an open door to grow all the flowers in the world,” said Jackson. “A lot of these plants we sell.” And still more niche heirloom vegetables and flowers are utilized in her own recipes.
She makes nasturtium butter, sprinkles violets and marigold petals in salad and uses various herb and fruit blossoms to make tea — and the aesthetic value definitely doesn’t hurt. A flower petal here or there can add a ton of color and something new to a dish, while providing an experience that is truly unique, but natural, Jackson said.
One particular dish she cooks uses lemon slices in chicken with lavender, before sprinkling the top with thyme.
“All herb blossoms, all these blossoms, are edible. All these blossoms taste like the herb plant. It doesn’t mean they taste good,” she laughed. “It means they won’t kill you. You can cook with them, garnish with them and make tea with them. I have sage tea all the time, bee balm tea, Oswego tea.”
The flavors they offer can range from the citrusy to the minty, with Oswego packing a spicy mint punch, Jackson noted. Another is hibiscus tea. “Whatever color the hibiscus,” she said, “that is the color of your tea.”
Jackson also grows bronze fennel, a dark furry plant with a licorice taste.
“We sell it to restaurants,” said Jackson. “It is great in fish dishes. It will also attract beneficial insects, like Monarch butterflies, that will attack the ones we don’t want.”
There are bachelor buttons, violets, chrysanthemums and day lilies, whose petals can add a burst of color to a salad or chicken dish, while she has beer battered elderberry.
“It is a beautiful, lacy flower to eat,” she said. “Everyone is surrounded by something they can eat and they don’t know it. There are just so many flowers. Gardenia flowers are probably my favorite. That perfume you smell is somehow imparted into the flower. It is a chewy, nice texture and everybody has them. Two-thirds of people in Sampson County have a gardenia bush and they didn’t know they could eat it. It will expand your taste buds.”
Roses pretty much started it all.
Jackson mentioned the popularity of roses in Roman times, even earlier. Some roses, especially Rugosa roses, form hips that are as big as apples. From the petals picked from the flower, to the hips — a round bulb at the top of the stem — left after it, roses have plenty to offer the senses, Jackson said. Rose water was introduced long ago, and roses have been used for centuries as food, medicine, perfume and cosmetics.
“Roses are probably the most popular edible flower in the history of flowers,” she said. “It was a crop. They just thought of it different. Old heirloom, Rugosa roses, you can eat them. There is also rose hip jelly. It is fascinating.”
Jackson has cultivated her love for natural cooking by using numerous books as her guides, from “The Forgotten Art of Flower Cookery” by Leona Woodring Smith to “The Art of American Indian Cooking,” by Yeffe Kimball and Jean Anderson.
As she has learned and grown familiar with various flowers over the years, Jackson has experimented with many combinations She said she loves growing and cultivating, studying flowers, crops and the history of cooking and how she can apply that to Sampson County. She has taken her research so far as to trace the latitude of Jackson Farm, which matches Tuscany, Italy. She has tried out radicchio, arugula and other crops here — each thrived.
“All the popular things they have grow here,” she said.
Just as with those leafy crops, she is not afraid to experiment with the flowers. Among the many mixtures, Jackson said the licorice flavor of bronze fennel complemented sage. When crushed with sugar, it was a tasty combination, she said.
“Once you find out what is truly edible, you backtrack and find out what you can do with them,” Jackson attested.
She said those who wish to try out some edible flowers should look them up first and use caution. Those wishing to try it out should avoid those sprayed with insecticide and roadside flowers, as they may have been exposed to exhaust or other toxic chemicals, she cautions. As for others, look them up and don’t be afraid to experiment with those deemed safe.
Tom Jackson said he and his wife grow the flowers for fun and money, and he’s glad they’re becoming popular again.
“Edible flowers are coming back in style,” said he said. “The culinary world is very trendy. If something is on the table in San Francisco today, it will be this time next year in Raleigh. I’m glad they’re coming back. They’re more fun to grow than turnips.”
The 100-year-old house
At Jackson Farm, there are crops specifically planted for the large amount of wildlife so they will not eat away at what the Jacksons have planted for themselves. Similarly, there are flowers planted so that some insects might stay for a while.
“There are plants for wildlife and plants for bees. Bees love the flowers,” Jan Jackson said. “If you’ve got stuff for bees, you have all that army propagating these blueberries. Everything dovetails together. Mother Nature does a great job and sometimes we help it along.”
An Outer Banks native, Jan Jackson met Sampson native Tom at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. After college teaching stints that took them across the continent, the couple eventually made it back to Jackson Farm more than 30 years ago. Tom Jackson continued to teach at UNC-Chapel Hill and, more recently, at Fayetteville State University.
Jackson is truly at home on his family’s farm, and has numerous projects going on, including one to restore his great-grandfather Joel Jackson’s home on the front of the property. The entire property holds a special place in his heart.
“My father farmed it, my grandfather farmed it, my great-grandfather farmed it and my great-great grandfather farmed it,” said Tom Jackson.
Located on the farm property, but hidden in the woods, is a guest house that was built more than 100 years ago and has been renovated by Jackson over the years. While the house comes with a wedding package to those couples getting married on the grounds, it can be reserved by those who are not.
“We started the wedding business as a way to rent the house,” Jackson laughed.
The house, acquired by Tom Jackson 30 years ago, is located on a 10-acre preserve and provides a natural setting at the side of a small lake. Among the animals roaming the property are deer, bears, coyotes and bobcats, to go with a lake that offers a plethora of fish.
Numerous trails wind through different habitats lining the back edge of the property. There is vegetation in some trails, those immersed in wooded areas and sand covering other trails. There are sweetgum and blackgum trees, as well as long leaf pine and turkey oaks around the property. Each habitat, whether wooded, sandy or lush, a conscious decision by Jackson to attract several different animals and birds.
More than just a way to earn money, the house serves as an invite to others to enjoy the atmosphere at Jackson Farm — from the trails to the edible flowers — or a respite from the rest of the world.
“Jan should take most of the credit for all of this, because she said we could rent out the house and have people here,” said Jackson. “To us, it seems ordinary, but it’s not something people see all the time. Jan and I are just really and truly interested in wild flowers and wild animals. It’s nice to have access. If we didn’t own this, we would be somewhere looking at it.”
Those interested can visit Jackson Farm online at www.jacksonfarm.com, or call 910-567-2978.
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at email@example.com.