Come spring our dinner guests often find a ramekin of Japanese Solomon seal flowers by their plate. Reliably as sunrise, one will smile and say, “Are you trying to poisonous us Frank?” I pop one of the sweet, succulent flowers in my mouth and say, “Of course. Why else invite one’s frenemies to dinner?”
By the end of a meal filled with stories, laughs and compliments to my tolerant wife, the chef, I note that each of the ramekins is empty and we haven’t toted anyone out on a stretcher. And several guests have asked me to keep them in the loop.
I offer a class revealing the secret identities that I call Ornamedibles: ornamental plants with edible parts that few gardeners know about, like sedum leaves and hibiscus flowers. I didn’t coin the term but I use it in a different way than most. Generally the term “ornamedibles” has been applied to vegetables that sneak out of their backyard ghetto and infiltrate the front yard’s ornamental garden district.
But I’m too lazy to figure out how to balance the needs of annual vegetables and perennial flowers in the same beds. Instead I just eat the parts of ornamental perennials that are safe, delicious and sweet as trout lily leaves. Doing that makes me feel like I’m a part of nature. Not just a spectator.
The young chartreuse leaves of sourwood trees were one of my first ornamedibles. I learned about them from a forester and planted a tree in my front yard. They have the lemony taste and texture of French sorrel. Perfect for sandwiches or in a soup. You certainly know the fruit of American beautyberry? The purple ones have a mild flavor, but a striking color when sprinkled on a green salad. Surprisingly, the white beautyberries are much sweeter.
I discovered the ornamedibility of hosta leaves after hearing clients complain about long-legged rats (aka “deer”) treating their beds like a drive-through lane. I was curious about their appeal. When no one was looking I took a nibble myself (and then spit it out just to be safe). But the perfectly mild flavor and texture spurred me to investigate further. Turns out spears of young hosta shoots are so tender and delicious that Hosta montana is a vegetable crop in Asia. Flavors vary between varieties, but they are all good, mild-flavored and more nutrient dense than spinach. I eat the steeples of hosta shoots raw, grilled or sautéed. Unlike deer, I have the sense to only harvest a third of the shoots so we won’t deplete this scrumptious perennial. After the leaves toughen up in summer, I can still eat the very sweet flowers.
Not every ornamental plant has tasty parts of course, or most flower gardens would look like a mown lawn. And some that are tasty aren’t good for you, like daffodil flowers. They’re sweet, yet unsettling, shall we say. I’ve learned much of what I know by word-of-hungry-mouth from other two-legged herbivores. But there’s plenty to be learned about ornamedibles–and the delicious weeds that accompany them–in books by foragers like Ellen Zachos and Leda Meredith.
So, whether I’m eating the asparagus-flavored shoots of Japanese Solomon seal in spring (double score!), yucca flowers in summer, Chinese elm seeds in fall, or tapping a black walnut for syrup in winter I’m living off my own little lagniappe of land. I’m gathering beauty and fragrance and flavor through the year. And even when the vegetable garden gets planted late, there will still be something scary but delicious to serve my frenemies.
From our September-October 2021 issue.
Frank Hyman studied horticulture and design under Dr. J. C. Raulston at NCSU. His newest book is called How to Forage Mushrooms Without Dying: An Absolute Beginners Guide to Identifying 29 Wild, Edible Mushrooms.