Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of shady overhanging trees can keep these five fantastic edible landscape plants from becoming standards in the Southeastern garden: crabapple, yucca, sunflower, native rose and pawpaw.
“Forgiving” is what I call these attractive plants. That’s another way of saying they aren’t terribly fussy about temperature or soil, they don’t fall prey to pests or diseases and they don’t need much pruning – yet they all produce delicious, organic food while adding drama to the garden throughout the year. At their blooming best they attract birds, butterflies and beneficial insects into the yard, filling space with subtle motion and fragrance, too.
A delicious part of South American cuisine, fried yucca root is often served with spicy cream sauce.
By paying attention to each plant’s favored growing conditions and matching them to particular microclimates, as I call them, any gardener can pick and choose the strongest candidates for their yard.
Some of these plants can even fix problem spots in the garden. For example, yucca grows best in thin, sandy soil where moisture can dissipate quickly, as at the top edge of walls. The lovely pawpaw tree needs shade to get established, so it is ideal as a specimen plant at the edge of woods or in deep shade.
But eating yucca, roses and crabapples? Yes, yes and yes.
Rose hips – the rather dry, seed-filled fruits of rose bushes – contain many times the vitamin C of orange juice and can be made into tea, syrup and sauce for basting roast meats. Yucca roots provide a delicate starchy food, and the magnificent flowers can be sautéed with onions for a savory relish. Crabapples yield delicious juice that will keep all winter if pasteurized or made into jelly.
Here are a few good reasons to add some of these plants to your garden.
Prettier than it sounds, and more fun to eat, the rosy fruit of crabapple (Malus coronaria) adds tang to apple pies and other standard apple dishes, and makes an outstanding pink-orange jelly that works equally well on buttered toast or as a glaze for meat.
Of all the many crabapple varieties, the ‘Callaway’ crab (M. ‘Callaway’) yields perhaps the sweetest fruit, quite juicy when ripe in early fall and wonderful as a child-sized treat. Plant a crabapple tree or two for bright spring color, which can range from white to magenta, with many pink shades.
The yucca plant (Yucca filamentosa) looks good year round – in summer with 6-foot arrays of white flowers, and in winter with snow resting in the evergreen crevices. It’s always delicate with curling filaments along the spiky leaves to soften their edges.
Naturalizing freely, the yucca withstands frigid temperatures and high winds, as long as water doesn’t stand on the roots. Yucca also tolerates blasting heat.
Ripening heads of the mammoth sunflower exude sugar that draws bees and other insects.
The tuberous roots, cleaned and cored, can be boiled and then mashed or grilled and served as a delightful potato substitute. Yucca fries are good with spicy sauces.
Sunflowers come in all shapes and sizes, annual and perennial, and in habits that favor sun or shade, damp ground or dry.
The best for eating include the annual ‘Mammoth’ sunflower grown from seed (Helianthus annuus), which grow up to 12 feet tall on thick stalks and produce pounds of seeds, and the perennial Jerusalem artichoke (or “sunchoke,” H. tuberosus), which grow as a wildflower and store its starch in edible roots. Jerusalem artichokes are particularly attractive in a large yard where their early autumn blooms attract goldfinches until first frost.
Roses bring cheer to the garden all year, especially hardy, naturalizing species such as the wrinkled rose, Rosa rugosa. (R. rugosamay be considered invasive in some areas; check with your local county extension office before planting. – Ed.) Its bright red hips encased in ice look like glowing rubies. White or pink flowers can bloom throughout the growing season, and the bright green foliage looks fresh even as other perennials begin to lose their allure in late season.
Rose hips are packed with vitamin C. They’re too tart to eat fresh but excellent when cooked, strained and sweetened for further processing. Simply dried, the hips make a healthy tea that’s fine with honey.
The small tree called pawpaw (Asimina triloba) glows golden in the fall, with its large drooping leaves visible here and there in the forest. When grown in the sun, the pawpaw can produce a lot of fruit, but young plants need protection from the sun until established, and the long taproots must receive adequate water.
Pawpaw fruit is not well known in stores because when ripe it is too fragile to ship. The flavorful pulp of the bean-shaped pod – sometimes half a pound apiece – is creamy with tropical overtones. A beautiful native plant, pawpaw needs cross-pollination for fruit.
Salty-Roasted Sunflower Seeds
Harvest ripe heads of ‘Mammoth Russian’ or ‘Russian Giant’ sunflowers as they begin to dry, but before the birds eat the seeds. Continue air-drying the heads indoors on paper until seeds are completely dry, and then rub individual seeds from the flower disk.
Rinse seeds in water to remove dust, and soak overnight in salt brine – ½ cup salt to 4 cups boiling water. Drain.
Bake at low temperature (180 F) on cookie sheets or in baking pans for 2 to 3 hours, turning seeds every half hour to ensure even baking. Do not overcook.
Cool and store in clean jars.
(Photos by Nan Chase)