Patti is a horticulturist who blogs about her passion of growing plants and gardening at She is the greenhouse manager for the biology department and curator of the Fabiano Botanical Garden at Central Michigan University.

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Selecting Woody Plants for an Edible Landscape
by Patti Marie Travioli       #Feature

With careful selection, your landscape can be beautiful while also providing you with a bountiful harvest. Apples, pears, peaches and plums have their place in the edible landscape, but you may enjoy growing minor fruit crops or newer introductions, as well. Consider your site and growing conditions before adding these common to unusual woody plants to your landscape.


My all-time favorite edible woody plant is the highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum). Hardy in Zones 3 to 7, it has a naturally oval to rounded shape that can grow up to 8 feet tall under ideal conditions. 

The white urn-shaped flowers bloom in spring and look like ringing bells as bees visit them. You need to plant at least two varieties for optimum pollination and fruit set. This antioxidant-rich berry has many cultivars, which produce early, mid and late season. Blueberries are eaten fresh, used in jams, pies and baked goods. 

They are easy to freeze for use in the later winter months. They prefer an acidic soil with a pH ranging from 4.5 to 5.5, so plant them with other acid-loving plants. Amend your soil to reduce pH as necessary. Depending on the variety, the blueberry’s brilliant bright red-orange color makes a bold statement in the autumn landscape.   

Highbush blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) provide brilliant autumn color. 1

Paw paw tree flower. 2


A multistemmed shrub or small tree producing an almost tropical-type fruit is the pawpaw (Asimina triloba). Favored by many, paw paws are native to the eastern United States and are hardy in USDA Zones 5 through 8. 

Naturally growing as an understory tree 15 to 20 feet tall, pawpaw prefers early morning sun, but will tolerate full sun. Inconspicuous maroon-colored flowers appear in spring before the large showy leaves unfold, making this an attractive choice for the landscape. You will need at least two unrelated trees for pollination. In nature pawpaws tend to form colonies in moist soils near rivers. 

Fruits begin to ripen in early fall turning a yellowish-brown black. The flesh resembles a banana with a creamy texture and similar flavor. Eat these fresh because they don’t have much of a shelf life.

Harvesting the whole fruit cluster from this elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) will ensure less damage to fruits. 3


Another native species to grow in your landscape is the elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), which produces a cluster of beautiful, purple fruits high in vitamin C, starting in late August. S. nigra is the European species of elderberry.

These fruits, used fresh or dried, are highly valued by Native Americans for medicinal and food use and to make wine, pies, jams and sauces. Elderberry is considered a small tree or a large shrub growing 5 to 12 feet tall, depending on the species. Elderberry is the 2013 Herb of the Year.

Elderberry is quite winter hardy and have a wide range growing in Zones 3 through 9. Pruning out old canes is the most common task a gardener will need to perform during the dormant season to make elderberry a good border or background shrub. Without pruning, the plant may tend to have a wild look. Do not eat the fruit from Sambucus racemosavarieties, which produces a red berry. This fruit is toxic.

Goji Berry

Newest for the edible landscape is the goji berry (Lycium barbarum). Native to China, it is hardy from Zones 5 to 8, with some cultivars showing promise in Zone 3. This shrub can grow 8 to 10 feet tall and 5 to 7 feet wide. It can be pruned to grow on an arbor or trellis, or planted in a container to keep small and to control growth. 

Some gardeners have had success overwintering these plants left in the container. Goji berry prefers an average soil pH of 7.0 and likes to grow in full sun. Its purple inflorescence easily identifies it as a member of the nightshade (Solanaceae)family.         

The little teardrop-shaped orange berry is about the size of a small pea. It has become one of the most popular “super fruits,” high in antioxidants. The fruit, which has a slight tomato flavor, can be eaten fresh or dried. Look for new introductions from breeders and specialty growers this year if you haven’t seen goji berries in your local garden centers.

Goji berry (Lycium barbarum) flowers are similar to others in the Solanacea, or nightshade family. The small orange fruits of the goji berry (Lycium barbarum) are high in antioxidants. 3

When selecting woody plants for your garden, consider choosing plants that offer an edible option, as well as adding natural beauty to your landscape. Many species that are native to your region already provide edibles that have been gathered and used throughout history. Finding the right plant for your landscape style is the best place to start.

More Edible Woody Plants To Try:

Check with your local garden center, conserv-ation organization or state extension for varieties or cultivars that are best suited for your region. If you can’t find plants locally, explore the Internet for mail-order retailers.

· Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana): Large, 30-foot tall tree; fruits for fresh eating; Zones 4-9.

· Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas): Small tree; fruits eaten fresh or in jams; Zones 2-7.

· Saskatoon serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia): Small tree or large shrub; fruits for jams; Zones 2-7.

· Hardy kiwi (Actinidia arguta): Perennial vine; need male and female plant; Zones 4-8.

Saskatoon bears fruit in summer. 4

Persimmon fruit is frequently used in pie. 5

Hardy kiwi grows on a vine. 6


1. Photo courtesy of Patti Marie Travioli
2. Photo courtesy of Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp
3. Photo courtesy of Patti Marie Travioli
4. Photo courtesy of Scott Prokop/Fotolia
5. Photo courtesy of Wasowski Collection/
6. Photo courtesy of Park Seed

From State-by-State Gardening March/April 2013.


Posted: 06/18/14   RSS | Print


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