Many of the plants that add color and texture to our yards also contain the right stuff for enriching our menus.
Hosta, that familiar shady-side perennial, is grown commercially in parts of Asia as an edible. Cook its shoots as you would asparagus, or wrap them in bacon. Its flowers are appetizing too, and make a good garnish.
Chard, with its bright assortment of stem colors, is a nutritional powerhouse packing loads of magnesium and potassium, as well as vitamins K, A and C. Use it in omelets and for augmenting or replacing spinach in recipes.
Other unlikely ornamentals that can deliver flavor and nutrition include bamboo shoots (stir fry), lilac blooms (tea), magnolia buds (salads), juniper berries (sauerkraut), daylilies (soups), mint (drinks) and dahlia tubers (coleslaw).
“Ornamental plants with edible parts are the superheroes of the garden,” says Ellen Zachos, author of “Backyard Foraging: 65 Familiar Plants You Didn’t Know You Could Eat” (Storey Publishing, 2013).
Blended gardens combining showy perennials, woody plants, trees and shrubs with standard vegetables and fruits can save time-pressed families a great deal of time and work, she said. “Why deal with two (garden) spaces when with the right plant combinations you need only one?”
Flavors that you can’t find at grocery stores are as close as your flowerbeds and borders, agreed Leda Meredith, author of “The Forager’s Feast: How to Identify, Gather and Prepare Wild Edibles” (The Countryman Press, 2016).
“I do think many wild or gleaned foods are tastier than cultivated foods,” Meredith said. “A big part of the reason is that they are harvested at their absolute peak, without concern for shelf life or how well they’ll hold up to long-distance transport.”
Many wild and ornamental plants have more nutritional value than their cultivated counterparts, Meredith said.
“For example, wild spinach (also called lamb’s quarters) is a common garden weed with more than three times the calcium of ordinary spinach,” she said. “Purslane, another common weed, contains the same omega 3 fatty acids that make fish oil and flax seed so healthy for us.”
Don’t overharvest, Zachos said. “If you’re picking fiddleheads, you should never take more than three from each fern. Over-picking leaves the plant too weak to thrive,” she said.
And try every new food in moderation.
“I have read a few reports of people having allergic reactions to eating daylilies,” she said. “I know of many more people allergic to seafood and strawberries, but if this is your first time eating daylilies, start small.”
Harvest your plants with a view toward aesthetics as well as the kitchen. “When picking young shoots of plants like hostas, you should cut from around the outside of the clump, snipping new growth just above the soil line,” she said. “As the remaining leaves unfurl, they’ll cover the cut stems and the plant will look whole.”
“If eating rose hips, you may have to put up with some insects or black spots,” Zachos said. “You may want them to look perfect, but chemicals make them inedible.”