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Friday, Oct. 19th 2012

Eat Your Landscape

Check out this article from the MO Gardener Newsletter

Eat Your Landscape
by Martha Swiss – September 2012

Here are some easy-care ornamental plants that are beautiful to look at and delicious to eat. 

Vegetable gardens aren’t the only way we can grow our own food: plenty of delectable eats can be had from attractive woody trees and shrubs, as well as herbaceous perennials we can grow in our yards.

Like other edibles you grow, a harvest from woody ornamentals and perennials on your property provides the very freshest food you can get. You can share the bounty with others and it’s satisfying to know where your food comes from. Woody ornamentals and perennials generally require less of a time commitment than annual vegetable plants because they are planted once — you don‘t have to buy them then tear them out at the end of the growing season.

It is important that you only eat fruits, foliage and flowers from plants that you are certain have not been sprayed with pesticides. Wash all edibles thoroughly before preparing or eating. Also, don’t take chances if you are not 100 percent certain you know what the plant is. Pregnant women, small children and those with compromised immune systems should be especially careful about foods they eat.

Here is a sampling of woody ornamentals and perennials that are not only beautiful but also a source of food.


The many species and cultivars of serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.) are difficult to tell apart. Several are native to North America. This is a terrific small tree or multi-stemmed large shrub that is covered in small white flowers in early spring. Birds adore the early summer fruits — you have to act fast to pick some before the birds gobble them all. The taste is something between a blueberry and a raspberry. They are delicious on cereal, in fruit salads and pies and make wonderful jam. The foliage of this four-season tree turns yellow, orange or red in the fall, and the smooth light gray bark and delicate branching structure are beautiful in winter, especially with a dusting of snow. Serviceberry is easy to grow in sun and light shade locations and is tolerant of a wide range of soils.

The North American native Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) has become a popular small landscape tree. New introductions such as ‘Forest Pansy’ and ‘Hearts of Gold’ have widened the appeal. Heart-shaped leaves, small stature (to around 12 feet), a cloak of purple flowers in spring and a delicate branching habit are some of the tree’s best assets. But did you know the spring flowers are edible? They have a pea-like taste (the tree is in the Legume family) and can be eaten raw in salads and are also good in stir-fry dishes. Seeds can be shelled and roasted too.

Take a cue from Native Americans who were the first to roast and eat the seeds of Eastern redbud. The flowers are edible too.

Littleleaf linden (Tilia cordata) is a popular street tree due to its strong constitution and ability to withstand a variety of growing conditions. It reaches a height of 60 to 70 feet when mature, with a spread of 35 to 45 feet. The overall growth habit is pyramid-shaped and densely branched. It makes a fine shade tree. In early spring, you can harvest the leaf buds and young leaves and use them in salads and on sandwiches. They have a slightly sweet taste.

Other ornamental trees and their edible parts include:

  • Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) — root bark
  • Apple (Malus spp.), cherry (Prunus spp.), pear (Pyrus spp.), peach (Prunus persica), pawpaw (Asimina triloba) and plum and apricot (Prunus spp.) — fruits
  • Walnut (Juglans spp.), hickory (Carya spp.) and Chinese chestnut (Castanea spp.) — nuts
  • Chinese toon (Toona sinensis) — young leaves


Most people plant blueberry shrubs (Vaccinium spp.) for their fruits. But the plant itself is very ornamental and the vivid fall color is splendid. Compact varieties like ‘Top Hat’ work well in small gardens. Once established, blueberry shrubs require little care. Because they are so ornamental, you can plant blueberries in mixed borders, rather than relegate them to less-visible parts of your yard. However, if you are intent on gathering a serious harvest of berries, plant more than one variety for good pollination and cover the shrubs with netting to keep the birds from eating them all.

If you have lots of space in your garden, consider planting an elderberry shrub (Sambucus canadensis). This hulking, coarse, North American native is not for timid gardeners, though. That said, elderberry has more than its share of merits. It is a terrific screening plant for full sun to part shade areas because it grows into a dense thicket, 6 to 12 feet tall and wide. The large creamy-white flowers look like giant disks that cover the plant in June and July. Pollinator insects love them! The blue-black fruits that follow should not be eaten raw, but can be made into jams, jellies and wine, as made famous by Elton John with a song of the same name.

Roses are quintessential garden plants and have been adored for centuries. Shrub rose varieties are among the easiest to grow. They provide an abundance of flowers, fragrance and, yes — flavor! The flower petals can be used fresh or dried in so many ways: in cakes, dessert breads, candy, sauces, butters, sugars, teas, salads, jams and more. The seed pods or “hips” have a bright, citrus taste and contain lots of vitamin C. When fresh, the hips can be made into jelly. They can also be dried and steeped to make tea (they are a main ingredient in Red Zinger® tea). When reconstituted, they can be used like raisins. Shrub roses that have single flowers tend to produce the best hips.

Two in one: the seed pods or “hips” of shrub roses are ornamental as well as edible.

More ornamental shrubs and their edible parts include:

  • Lilacs (Syringa spp.) — spring flowers
  • Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) — summer flowers
  • Hardy fig (Ficus carica) — fall fruits; plant requires winter protection


After enduring the past hot, dry summer, many gardeners are rethinking what to plant in their gardens. Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) is a great choice for full-sun locations. Its lavender flower spikes reach a height of around 3 feet and are pollinator magnets, blooming non-stop during the height of summer. This plant can go long stretches without water. The edible parts are the tiny flowers that make up the flower stalk. Pick one off and savor the wonderful sweet anise taste. You can gather and use the flowers fresh in breads, cakes and other baked goods — wherever a taste of mild licorice would work. Dried flowers and leaves can also be used in tea.

Sometimes we are so intent on growing a plant for food that we fail to see that it is quite beautiful too. Such is the case with asparagus. The early spring shoots are the part we eat. Left to grow, the young stalks turn into a light green 4- to 5-foot feathery mass. Don’t feel you have to relegate asparagus to the vegetable garden because it can be used as a backdrop in a large bed or to add texture in the mixed border. Asparagus sings its swan song in the fall, when the cloud-like foliage turns bright yellow.

Another drought-tolerant stalwart is culinary sage (Salvia officinalis). The thick pungent leaves are most often used fresh or dried in Thanksgiving stuffing and savory dishes. With its silvery foliage, the plant is useful for adding color and texture in the garden too. Its purple summer flowers are also attractive. Culinary sage is a semi-woody plant and grows to about 18 inches tall and 3 feet wide. It prefers full-sun conditions and requires almost no care once established.

Sage’s silvery foliage combines well with any color scheme. Have fun mixing it with other sun-loving plants in the garden.

More ornamental perennials and their edible parts include:

  • Lavender (Lavandula spp.) — summer flowers
  • Bee balm (Monarda spp.) — summer flowers
  • Oregano (Origanum spp.) — foliage and summer flowers
  • Thyme (Thymus spp.) — foliage and summer flowers
  • Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) — foliage and summer flowers
  • Strawberries (Fragaria spp.) — spring fruits
  • Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) — young spring leaf stalks
  • French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) — foliage
  • Borage (Borago officinalis) — summer flowers
  • Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) — spring flowers

2 Comments on “Eat Your Landscape”

  1. Janeil Eggr Says:

    I am hosting book club flower garden party the first week in June. I am looking for recipes featuring flowers / shrubs / trees for that season that I could use in hors d’oeuvres or canapes or punch or dessert. Ideas? Picking early and maintaining flowers, etc., in fridge?? Any “how-to” info appreciated!!

  2. mggkcblog Says:

    Sorry about the delayed response. You raise an interesting topic, and one that I personally am interested in learning more about. I have found the following websites to have good information about what flowers bloom at the time you are having your dinner party and what blossoms or plant parts can be used plus recipes for using them. I think you will find some good ideas from them.

    This website has information about flowers that bloom in late spring or early summer:

    This website has recipes that use the blossoms of flowers and also lists poisonous flowers that should be avoided.

    This website has both recipes and more information about flowers that can be used and grown in your own garden and seems to be quite thorough about the topic and talks about storage of the plants:

    You could also contact or visit Powell Gardens’ Heartland Harvest Garden where they have quite a bit of information about edible plants and flowers.

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