Ten Easy Species for the Edible Landscape

Spring 2011

Cornelian cherry dogwood
Cornelian cherry dogwood flowers in spring and fruits in summer. Jean English photos.
Cornelian cherry dogwood fruits

By Jean English

Want to increase the amount of homegrown food you produce, with very little work? Plant any or all of these 10 edible, perennial, ornamental species in your landscape. They’ll provide fresh, mouthwatering snacks and sustenance from early spring until well into fall, as well as preserves or tea for winter – all with just a little weeding (or mulching), a little pruning (for some), and compost from time to time. These plants require no support – no trellises, no arbors; they can be grown in the home garden with relatively little concern for pests; and many are quite beautiful!

Cornus mas, Cornelian cherry, is a type of dogwood with edible fruits that taste like tart cherries. The medium-sized tree requires full sun, has very few pests, and does not need to be pruned. Trees grown from seed tend to have fruits that are on the small side and seeds that are relatively large; while improved cultivars have larger fruits. The yellow flowers that appear on Cornus mas in spring are a joy to see.

Cornus kousa, the kousa dogwood, has flowers that look just like those of the flowering dogwood (C. florida) but are produced about a month later and are followed by beautiful red fruits that are bigger than the biggest raspberries. Collect a cup or two of these fruits and you can blend them with water for 15 seconds or so, strain off the seeds and pulp, and enjoy a sweet, tasty drink. Incidentally, another Cornus species, bunchberry (C. Canadensis), grows as a groundcover in shady areas and woodlands and also has sweet, edible fruits – with fair-sized seeds in them.

Hemerocallis sp., daylilies, bloom from early summer to frost, depending on the cultivar. Each flower lasts one day, but scapes can have several flowers. These plants are easy to grow in full sun or partial shade and in a well-drained but not overly fertile soil amended with organic matter. Mine grow around the trunks of fruit trees, where they help crowd out weeds (although bedstraw gets into the daylilies) and provide edible treats from time to time. Before flowers open, we sometimes pick the buds, dip them in batter and fry them in oil – or sauté them with mushrooms and onions. Chopped petals can garnish salads, or open flowers can be filled with dollops of herbed cream cheese, pesto or other ingredients. Young tubers are good raw, steamed or boiled.

Fiddlehead ferns
Fiddlehead ferns produce an edible crop around Mother’s Day. They later unfurl to produce a handsome landscape plant and fertile fronds that persist through winter. English photo.
Flowers of beach plums
The abundant spring flowers of beach plums add clouds of white to the landscape. They’re followed by edible fruits. English photos.
Beach plums fruits

Matteuccia struthiopteris, fiddlehead ferns or ostrich ferns, grow well in moist but well-drained soils and in full sun or partial shade. In Maine, the young, curled fronds emerge around Mother’s Day and are a traditional spring favorite, picked while they are still tightly curled, before the fronds unwind to form their typical fern-like growth. Then they become striking in the landscape, growing to about 2 to 3 feet tall. The University of Maine Cooperative Extension suggests brushing harvested fiddleheads to remove the brown scales on the “little rolls of fern,” washing them, then cooking them in a small amount of lightly salted, boiling water for 10 minutes, or steaming them for 20 minutes, then serving them immediately with melted butter. “The quicker they are eaten, the more delicate their flavor,” says Extension. They are also good sautéed thoroughly in olive oil with garlic and parsley. To freeze them, blanch them for two minutes, then cool, drain and pack them. Check the Web and you’ll find recipes for fiddlehead soufflés, casseroles, ragout, soup, salad, pickles and more.

Prunus maritima, beach plums, are native from Newfoundland to North Carolina, tolerate poor soils (such as sandy, salty ocean beaches), but grow well elsewhere too. Hardy to zone 4 (or possibly zone 3), they do best on well-drained, sunny sites with a soil pH of 6.0 to 6.5. Set out more than one plant for cross pollination. Many years ago, I started some beach plums from seed obtained from F.W. Schumacher of Sandwich, Massachusetts, and set five of the seedlings in my landscape. They are now about 5- to 7-foot-tall shrubs that produce beautiful clouds of white flowers in early spring, followed by light to heavy crops (depending on pollination, which depends on the weather during flowering) of grape-sized plums each year. The fruits ripen to rose and then deep purple as August ripens into September – and with that ripening comes the promise of beach plum jam, jelly, syrup and even liqueur. Raw fruits are rather bitter, although newer, named varieties (from Oikos Tree Crops, for one) taste better than the species. You can freeze the plums as soon as you pick them and make these jams and jellies later.

Rheum raponticum, rhubarb, can help bridge the fruit gap between last year’s frozen cranberries and blueberries and this year’s crops. Stalks of rhubarb can be cut into half-inch-long pieces and used in muffins or pies, much like berries; or the pieces can be cooked in water and then strained to make a vitamin C-rich, pink rhubarb “lemonade.” The chopped pieces can also be frozen for later use – no blanching needed. Purchase rhubarb roots in the spring and plant them in full sun in a fertile, well-drained soil that is well amended with organic matter and has a pH of about 6.0 to 6.8. I have a few plants growing around an espaliered apple tree at the edge of the garden.

Three Rosa sp., R. rugosa (rugosa rose, beach rose or saltspray rose), R. glauca (redleaf rose) and R. pomifera (apple rose), have large rose hips (fruits) that are edible and high in vitamin C. These shrub roses, grown on their own rootstock, are easy to grow. The don’t need to be trellised; they can grow without pruning (but can be pruned to control growth); and they don’t need to be treated for pests. The rugosa and redleaf roses are hardy to zone 2, have fragrant flowers, and the rugosas are even salt-tolerant. Redleaf rose has handsome blue-green foliage and fewer thorns than most roses. The apple rose is hardy to zone 5 and has fragrant flowers. Rose hips can be collected after they turn red and then be made into jams, jellies, teas, syrup or wine and can be dried or used fresh. To dry hips for tea, cut them in half, scoop out the seeds, and dry the fruit pieces in a single layer on a screen, then store them in an airtight container.

Vaccinium corymbosum, highbush blueberry, makes a beautiful and productive landscape plant, with one bush producing up to 8 pounds of fruit per year. Blueberry foliage turns a deep, brilliant red-purple in fall. Highbush blueberries need a pH of 4.5 to 5.5 and a well-drained soil that is high in organic matter. They are hardy from zones 3 to 7, although hardiness varies with variety. Plant more than one variety: Some varieties will self-pollinate, but more and larger fruits are produced when different varieties cross-pollinate – and growing different varieties can extend the harvest season. A little pruning in the spring will keep blueberries productive. You may need to expend a little effort to repel birds, such as hanging aluminum pie plates around the plants so that they move in the wind; or covering plants with netting. Our bushes grow close to the house and we pick ripe fruit each evening, before birds get them, from about mid-July into September. Occasionally a catbird or cedar waxwing will land in the bush and nibble while we pick. That’s nice.

Rhubarb forced into early production. English photo.
Rosa rugosa flowers and hips
Rosa rugosa flowers and hips. English photo.


Edible Landscaping Nursery, Rt. 2, Box 77, Afton VA 22920; 800-524-4156; www.eat-it.com

Fedco Trees, P.O. Box 520, Waterville ME 04903-0520; 207-873-7333; [email protected]; www.fedcoseeds.com.

Lawyer Nursery, Inc., 950 Highway 200 West, Plains, MT 59859-9706; 800-551-9875; www.lawyernursery.com (Seeds and plants)

New Hampshire State Forest Nursery, P.O. Box 1856, Concord, NH 03302-1856; 603-271-3456; www.nhnursery.com/

Oikos Tree Crops, P.O. Box 19425, Kalamazoo MI 49019-0425; 616-624-6233; www.oikostreecrops.com

Raintree Nursery, 391 Butts Rd., Morton WA 98356; 360-496-6400; www.RaintreeNursery.com

Saint Lawrence Nurseries, RFD 2, State Rt. 345, Potsdam NY 13676; 315-265-6739; www.sln.potsdam.ny.us

Schumacher, F. W., Co., Inc., P.O. Box 1023, Sandwich, MA 02563-1023; 508-888-0659; www.treeshrubseeds.com. (Seeds)

Sheffield’s Seed Co., Inc., 269 Auburn Road, Rt. 34, Locke, NY 13092; 315-497-1058; www.sheffields.com. (Seeds)

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