University of Illinois Extension

Landscaping with Edible Plants

Recognizing that some common landscape plants offer food for the table and that many food plants have practical and aesthetic landscape value can double the benefits of gardening, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

Historically plants that provided food for the family dinner table were the primary plants around the home.

Barbara Bates

“Historically plants that provided food for the family dinner table were the primary plants around the home,” said Barbara Bates. “Today, most urban dwellers think in terms of low maintenance, beauty, screening for privacy and noise, and energy efficiency when they choose plants for their landscape.

“Many plants that offer functionality and aesthetic appeal also offer interesting, tasty, healthful food.”

A popular landscape plant for year-round landscape interest is Amelanchier or Serviceberry.

“It is an understory tree or large multi-stem shrub, with showy white flowers that precede the foliage in early spring,” said Bates. “Fall color ranges from red to golden. Sweet blue-black berries ripen in June and are so delicious birds may beat you to them if you are not quick. The berries make an excellent pie.

“There are several species of Amelanchier, each with its own unique habits. A. alnifolia is a native species with a shrubby habit while A. arborea has tree form. Native Americans used the berries of Amelanchier in pemmican.”

Viburnums are a large family of plants that offer multiple seasons of interest with showy flowers, attractive fruits, and colorful fall foliage. Many of the species are known for their fragrance. For eating, Bates recommended planting the native species V. prunifolium or Blackhaw.

“The purple-black fruits ripen in fall and are tasty eaten right off the plant or made into jams and jellies,” she said. “Another native, American cranberry bush--V. trilobum, has bright red, edible fruits in the fall.”

Rose of SharonIf edible flowers are of interest, Bates recommended Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) (right). It is an easy-to-grow, sun and drought-tolerant plant yielding masses of nutty-flavored blooms in late summer.

“Traditional fruit trees such as pear, peach, plum, and apple should not be overlooked as landscape plants,” she added. “Their form and bloom in the landscape is seasonally attractive. Rather than separate them into a home orchard, integrate them into borders and hedges.

“Dwarf varieties, many of which have mature heights of less than 15 feet, can be effectively used as foundation or patio plantings. Remember that these plants need full sun for best fruit production, are pollinated by insects--including bees, and may require more than one plant for pollination. Look for self-pollinated types when purchasing. Once planted with food production in mind, failure to harvest fruit can create a messy landscape that will attract birds, squirrels, and yellow jackets if not cleaned up.”

Vines such as grapes (Vitis sp.) and kiwi (Actinidia sp.) can solve aesthetic challenges in narrow vertical spaces, or serve to provide shade in arbors, while producing fruit at the same time.

kiwiKiwi (left) is a dioecious plant, which means you will need to plant both a male and a female plant for pollen to generate fruit production,” said Bates. “Actinidia arguta and A. kolomikta are hardy in the Midwest, but are not the taste equivalent to A. deliciosa, the tropical fruit available at the supermarket. Hardy kiwis are better sources of vitamin C than oranges and are high in potassium content.

“They can be mixed in salads and with other fruits.”

Grapes, she added, need to be cut back severely each winter, and thinned to two main branches with five to seven growing points for best fruit production the following year. Espaliered apples and pears can serve a similar purpose, but annual training and pruning can be a chore and limit fruit production.