EDIBLE ORNAMENTALS: BERRY BUSHES

There’s no need to choose between a beautiful landscape and one that produces food for you and your family!  There are many options for fruit trees, berry bushes, herbs, and even vegetables that are as ornamental as any traditionally grown for their appearance.  This year on phigblog I’m featuring a different all-star edible ornamental each month, starting with trees and working my way down to annuals.

Spectacular fall color of blueberry bushes in the landscape.

TOP FIVE ALL-STAR EDIBLE ORNAMENTAL BERRY BUSHES:

1. HIGHBUSH BLUEBERRY (Vaccinium corymbosum)

Blueberries are the poster child for a shrub that would be planted exclusively for its ornamental qualities if it weren’t already so well known for its fruit.  I imagine I needn’t say much about its edible qualities.  Some consider this nature’s perfect berry: delicious, easy to pick, no seeds, no spines.  Good fresh or in pies, preserves, or of course pancakes!  Along with apples and peaches, this is the fruit I get asked about planting most frequently.

Blueberries in bloom

But did you know that blueberries are also a stunningly beautiful plant in multiple seasons?  In spring, they’re covered with small urn-shaped flowers of white or pink that resemble the floral display of their landscape relative Japanese Pieris.  This is followed in summer by scores of attractive blue berries hanging among clean green or blue-green leaves.  Autumn is the most spectacular season for blueberries, with many varieties displaying bright crimson fall color rivaling that of Burning Bush.  Even winter holds interest, with new stems often transitioning to an attractive red hue.  It’s difficult to top this year-long combination of ornamental features even without considering the fruit.

Blueberries are native to the United States and relatively easy to grow.  They’re happy in sun or partial shade, although the more sun the more fruit.   Blueberries are partially self-fertile, but will produce more fruit if a second cultivar is planted for cross-pollination.  They’re largely pest and disease free, however netting is often necessary to protect the harvest from birds.  Some winter pruning of the oldest stems can help maximize fruit quality and quantity.  The primary limitation in growing blueberries is their requirement of very acidic soil, in the range of 4 to 5 pH.  Testing your soil in advance of planting is strongly recommended.  Soil pH can be lowered to the desired range by the addition of garden sulfur, peat moss, coffee grounds, pine needles, or other acidic materials.  Even after planting, it’s a good idea to keep adding these materials on an annual basis.  Blueberries are also well-adapted to container growing and this can be a good option where soils are very alkaline or to create a wonderful edible ornamental feature for a deck, patio, or rooftop garden.

Blueberries have something of interest in all seasons. . . including summer!

There are many varieties of Highbush Blueberries, generally ranging from 5 to 8 feet tall.  Cultivars differ somewhat in height, color of flowers, fall color, size of berries, and most significantly in time of harvest.  For the home gardener, it’s often nice to include blueberries of early, middle, and late seasons to extend the season from June through August.  Lowbush Blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium) are the classic Maine blueberry, with smaller berries and a low spreading habit.  For those in warmer climes (zones 8 or 9), the southern Rabbiteye Blueberry (Vaccinium asheii) is the best choice.  Rabbiteyes reach 10 to 15 feet in height and often require cross-pollination for fruit set.

2. CLOVE CURRANT (Ribes odoratum)

Another multi-season charmer, the Clove or Buffalo Currant is a handsome berry bush native to the Midwestern states.  Tart like other currants, Clove Currants are also sweet enough for fresh eating and of course make great jams and jellies.  Although black in color, they lack most of the characteristic musty flavor of European black currant.  Although this may disappoint a few gourmands with this acquired taste, most palettes will greatly prefer the sweeter, tamer taste of the Clove Currant.

The wonderfully fragrant, bright yellow flowers of Clove Currant in spring!

Although the jewel-like fruit of red and white currants may outshine them during fruiting, Clove Currants are considerably more attractive plants the rest of the year.  The display starts in spring, when they are covered with sulfurous yellow, trumpet-like flowers with a remarkable clove-like fragrance (hence the name!).  The multi-lobed leaves stay a healthy bluish-green throughout summer and then transition to often beautiful shades of red wine in the fall.

Wine red fall color. . .

Clove currants are easy to grow, with few pest or disease problems.  They are fairly rugged in character and tolerate drought, heat, cold, and a range of soils.  The growth habit is also somewhat wild and irregular, growing generally 5 to 6 feet in size, making them an excellent shrub for a more informal, natural border.  Clove Currants have a tendency to sucker and tip layer, although this is easy to manage as they are not wildly aggressive.  The primary maintenance task is pruning to maximize production, which consists of either removing some of the oldest stems each winter or cutting the whole plant back every four or five years.  Clove currants aren’t as common as they should be in the landscape trade, but are available from specialist native and edible plant nurseries.

3. NANKING CHERRY (Prunus tomentosa)

Prolific bloom in early spring.

Cherry blossoms are certainly a reason to celebrate and the Nanking Cherry is no exception.  In spring, every stem and branch of this large multi-stemmed shrub is covered with pink buds that unfold to beautiful white flowers.  This stunning display is a true harbinger of spring, occurring before leaves have unfurled in early April.  The abundance of this floral showing is matched by an equal bounty of bright red fruit covering the entire plant in early summer.  The small cherry-like fruit is tasty and falls somewhere in between a sweet and tart cherry in flavor.  The great quantity of fruit not only makes a for a second season of beauty, but also ensures that they’ll be plenty for people as well as birds.  Although the downy matte-green leaves and fall color aren’t especially notable, Nanking Cherries do feature a third season of visual appeal.  Especially on older plants, winter interest is created by bronze-colored bark with prominent lenticels and a tendency to peel and curl like birch bark.

In addition to its tasty fruit and multiple seasons of interest, the Nanking Cherry features a rugged hardiness that makes it very easy to grow in many climates and conditions.  Native across much of Asia, it is very adaptable to both cold (zone 3) and drought and has few pest or disease problems compared to other stone fruits.  Nanking Cherry grows quickly as a multi-stemmed shrub, generally 6 to 10 feet in height and width.  Size, habit, fruit and flower color, and flavor can all vary from plant to plant.  Two seedlings are required for pollination and fruit set.  Occasional renewal pruning can increase fruiting, but otherwise Nanking Cherries require minimal care.

Heavy fruit set of the Nanking Cherry makes another spectacular display in early summer.

There are also other types of bush cherries to consider.  Similar in many ways to the Nanking is the Korean or Japanese Bush Cherry (Prunus japonica), which reaches 7 to 8 feet in height and is self-fertile.  For those with more limited space or extreme cold climates, the tart Mongolian Cherry (Prunus fruticosa) reaches only 3′ in height and is hardy to zone 2!  The great fruit breeder Elwyn Meader also developed the Dwarf Bush Cherry (Prunus japonica x jacquemontii), which has tasty sweet-tart fruit on a 3 to 4 foot shrub.  There are three cultivars of Dwarf Bush Cherry: ‘Jan’, ‘Joy’, and ‘Joel’ and two are required for pollination with ‘Joy’ being known as the best pollinator.  All bush cherries feature a fine floral display and prolific, attractive fruit set.

4. ELDERBERRY (Sambucus spp)

Even ignoring its edible qualities, I would rate certain varieties of eldeberry bushes as among the most ornamental of all plants!  In particular, I’m not sure there’s a more beautiful shrub of any kind than the ‘Black Lace’ European Elder (Sambucus nigra ‘Eva’).  Like a cutleaf Japanese Maple, the Black Lace Elder features finely dissected, intensely purple leaves from spring through fall.  Add to that a showy display of star-like flower clusters in late summer, made more star-like by their contrast to the night-sky-colored leaves, and you have a truly stunning, sublime specimen plant!  There are other European Elder beauties to consider and planting two is recommended for best fruit production anyway.  ‘Black Beauty’ has similarly purple leaves, although lacking the fine dissection, but with more intensely pink flowerheads.  ‘Lacinata’ has the cutleaf quality but with green rather than purple leaves.  There are also multiple very attractive variegated forms, including ‘Pulverunlenta’, ‘Madonna’, ‘Marginata’, and ‘Aureomarginata’.  All European Elders are large shrubs, generally reaching up to 15 feet in height.

EDIBLE ORNAMENTALS: SHRUBS

Black Lace elderberry. . . the most beautiful of all plants?

But the fun doesn’t end there!  There is also the native American Elder (Sambucus canadensis), which flowers in early summer and is somewhat smaller in form (8-12 feet).  More breeding has been done for production rather than ornamentality, but there is a variegated variety ‘Aurea’ and a cutleaf variety ‘Lacinata’.  There is also the Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) from Eastern Europe, which is again somewhat smaller in stature but features attractive bright red clusters of fruit in late summer.  ‘Sutherland Gold’ is a variety with handsome, deeply cut yellow foliage.  ‘Golden Locks’ is a dwarf yellow variety and ‘Tenuifolia’ resembles a Japanese Maple in form.  Elderberries of all three species feature attractive flower clusters.

So why don’t Elderberries rate #1 on this list?  In general, they aren’t a fruit to eat fresh off the bush and according to some sources, can be poisonous if uncooked.  That said, they do have have considerable edible and medical qualities to recommend them.  The prolific berries do make fine jellies, pies, syrups and even wine!  Sometimes they are combined with other berries to dilute their strong flavor, but many do enjoy it on its own.  Elderberries are also well known as a medicinal, being very commonly used to treat cough, cold, and flu.  They function as an immune system booster and contain high levels of anti-oxidants.  What’s more, the fruit isn’t the only edible part of the Elderberry plant; the flowerheads are  even more tasty than the berries.  In Europe, elderflower-flavored beverages are quite common, but the flowers can also be eaten raw or even fried and consumed as delightful elderflower fritters!

The fruit of the Red Elder are especially attractive, but don't forget that the flowers can be eaten too!

The fruit of the Red Elder are especially attractive. . . but don’t forget that the flowers can be eaten too!

All varieties of elderberry are easy to grow and tolerant of partial shade and wet conditions.  Their habit is multi-stemmed and somewhat irregular, although a more uniform and upright habit can be encouraged via winter pruning.  American Elders tend to sucker and can form very wider thickets if unchecked.  Other than occasional maintenance pruning, very little is required in terms of care and elderberries suffer little from pests or disease.  Leaf burn can occasionally be a problem for some of the variegated and yellow-leaved forms.  Some of the ornamental varieties have become fairly commonly available in the landscape trade in recent years.  If you are more interested in fruit production than the specific ornamental qualities, many varieties selected for size and quantity of berries are available from specialist edible plant nurseries.

5. OREGON GRAPEHOLLY (Mahonia aquifolium)

Few beautiful landscapes are complete without some evergreen element. . . why should an edible landscape be any different?  Although there are relatively few options for food-producing evergreen plants, Grapeholly tops my list for the most ornamental.  While adding much needed green through winter, what makes Grapeholly so exceptional is its multiple seasons of interest.  The broad holly-like leaves emerge in spring with colors from bronze to almost chartreuse, followed by deep green in summer and maturing to purple tones in winter.  I’ve found that a few older leaves will also suddenly change to bright orange or red and that this can happen any time of year, creating a startling ornamental accent.  As if the leaves weren’t enough, Grapeholly also features a very early spring display of fragrant, sulfur-yellow flowers.  This is followed by bright blue, grape-looking fruit in summer.  Grapeholly berries are tart and not especially suited to fresh eating, but are commonly made into tasty jellies by folks in their native Northwest states.  The fruit is also much beloved by birds.

The bright blue berries of Grapeholly contrast multi-hued leaves in summer!

Oregon Grapeholly is very shade tolerant and quite cold hardy for a broadleaf evergreen (zones 5 to 8).  It does best with some protection from winter sun and wind and although fairly adaptable, does prefer well-drained and acidic soils.  Due to its somewhat irregular and often suckering growth habit, Grapeholly is probably better suited to naturalistic landscapes rather than formal ones.  It usually reaches 6 feet in height at maturity, but some forms are more compact and lower growing.  Closely related are Leatherleaf Mahonia (Mahonia bealei) and Japanese Mahonia (Mahonia japonica), which differ primarily in having larger, broader leaves that give them a striking and distinctly pre-historic appearance.  Their leaves retain their green hue rather than turning purple in winter and their flower display is even earlier (often February!).  All Mahonia berries are edible, although I haven’t seen a comparison of relative flavor.  At least on the East Coast, Leatherleaf and Japanese Mahonias are more common in the landscape trade, although Oregon Grapehollies can be found as well.

Unusual winter flowers, irregular habit, and wide green leaves give Mahonia a distinct pre-historic appearance. . .

There are a few other options for edible evergreen shrubs.  Did you know that the ubiquitously planted Barberries (Berberis) are edible and all the rage with certain high-end restaurants these days?  There are also many evergreen bamboo species that feature tasty edible young shoots, although as always be aware of their spreading nature when considering planting.  Folks in warmer climates have a much wider range of options to consider.  Here in zone 7 Philadelphia, we’re experimenting with Evergreen Huckleberries (Vaccinium ovatum), Tea (Camellia sinensis), Chilean Guavas (Myrtus ugni molinae), Pineapple Guavas (Feijoa sellowiana), and Olives (Olea europea), all of which are extremely attractive in addition to their food production.

What other shrubs almost made this list?  With a criteria of combined edibility and ornamentality, I  gave serious consideration to Saltspray Roses (Rosa rugosa), Flowering Quinces (Chaenomeles speciosa), and Chokeberries (Aronia spp).  I’ll be tackling edible ornamental perennials next and please also see my earlier blog article on edible ornamental trees