Eat Your Hostas: Common Landscape Plants That are Edible, Too
Ellen Zachos was warned as a child never to eat the fruit of a certain shrub in her Manchester, NH backyard. That shrub was quince, a plant grown primarily for its vibrant coral-red flowers in spring but whose fruit, when cooked, is delicious. The advice to avoid eating unknown plants is sound, however Zachos, author of Backyard Foraging, 65 Familiar Plants You Didn’t Know You Could Eat (Storey Publishing 2013) notes that fear has prevented many of us from realizing the bounty that lies within a few feet of our homes. The notion that there is a veritable menu of edibles masquerading as ornamentals in our own urban or suburban landscapes is new to many; here are just a few to whet your appetite.
“Daylilies are the gateway plant for the home gardener,” claims Zachos, referring to their accessibility. The shoots, buds, petals, and tubers are all edible; there is a part of the plant to suit every taste. To use daylily shoots, collect from the time they emerge in spring until they are about five inches long. Snip off the shoots at the ground level and sauté as you would a crisp scallion. Use the flower buds until they are about three inches long and just showing color. They can be chopped to add crunch to a salad or sautéed in olive oil. To use a daylily flower, pick one or more just after opening. Remove the pistils and stamens from the inside and serve the whole flower as a dessert vessel, or the petals (dried, fresh, chopped, or crushed) as a garnish or to add color to rice or pasta. Daylily tubers are like mini potatoes. Dig the tubers in the spring or fall when they are plump, coat them in olive oil, salt and pepper, and roast at 450 F.
Cautionary note: There are thousands of daylily species and cultivars. It is important to note that Zachos advocates eating Hemerocallis fulva, or the common orange daylily only. If you are unsure of the species, it is best not to eat it.
Dahlia tubers have been roasted as a substitute for coffee and consumed in Central American cuisine for at least five centuries. Not only are they a food staple for some, dahlia tubers are also healthful. “Like many members of the daisy family,” Zachos says, “dahlias store nutrition in the form of inulin in their roots and tubers. Inulin is a good source of fiber, increases calcium absorption, and unlike the starch in potatoes, it does not raise blood sugar.”
Because dahlias are not cold hardy in New England, the tubers need to be dug up after the first frost and stored over winter. This is a good time to save a few for noshing. Select young, plump tubers and thinly slice or grate them to add to a salad, or to make coleslaw. “The grated flesh can also be used like zucchini or carrots to make a quick bread,” Zachos says.
New Hampshire’s state flower is not only sweetly fragrant, but the flowers are delicious as wine. The blooms are edible and make a beautiful garnish, but they aren’t particularly flavorful. Instead, add them to your next wine-making venture for a whole new meaning to the term intoxicating. “There is nothing quite like uncorking a bottle of lilac wine in January to release the sweet fragrance of spring,” notes Zachos.
To enjoy the plant at its best, pick young stems before the leaves unfurl. Simply chop or stir-fry the shoots and treat them as you would asparagus. The flowers are edible, too, and make a nice addition to a salad.
Cautionary note: While hosta is safe to eat in all growth stages, its taste variesaccording to species and cultivars. “You’ll have to experiment and see which you like best,” she suggests.
Rose of Sharon
For many, Rose of Sharon is a harbinger of summer, one of the last shrubs to push forth masses of large single- and double-flowering blooms in vibrant colors. According to Zachos, its value lies in a lesser-known feature: the abundance of flowers and uniquely shaped leaves are edible. Although the foliage is not particularly flavorful, the unique leaf shape adds a lovely addition to salads. The large flowers, on the other hand, are useful in myriad ways -- stuffed whole with soft cheeses, chopped for use in cold soups or quiches, or to add color to nearly any dish.
Cautionary note: Rose of Sharon is not toxic to humans, though parts of the plant might be mildly toxic to pets.
Artwork by Thomas Callahn Call