Tilling, seeding, watering, weeding, slug-picking, and… lick your lips! Almost ready… Nope. Sorry, now it’s bolting.
Hmmph. If only salad grew on trees… But, what’s that? You say it can?!
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Trees With Edible Leaves – Salad Does Grow on Trees!
We all know what a delight home-grown leaves can be, but as with all annuals there tends to be a lot of time and effort we have to put in to produce them – and all without any promise of success in return.
Planting trees with edible foliage cuts out every last job involved in growing your own leaves, bar picking them and devouring their delicious goodness.
Here’s my rundown of 5 of the very best edible tree leaf crops you can easily grow in a temperate garden.
1. Small Leaved Lime (aka. Small Leaved Linden) – Tilia cordata
Coming in at the top of my list! It really is difficult to beat the young, succulent leaves of Tilia cordata – the Small Leaved Lime or Linden tree.
Excellent eaten straight from the tree, tossed into a mixed salad, or sandwiched between two slices of bread – their subtle nutty flavor and silky texture make them the ideal alternative to lettuce.
Lime leaves are at their very best when the buds are just breaking. They can be enjoyed all the way up until mid-summer, after which they may become a bit “chewy”. You can however extend this season substantially by coppicing some shoots in the spring, which will then burst forth into fresh growth later on. Learn more about coppicing at Verge Permaculture.
Whilst wild specimens of Linden can grow up to an almighty 130 ft high, you have little to worry about if you only have a small garden. Simply cut back your tree’s growth to a manageable size every few years to ensure a steady supply of leaves at a convenient height.
Incredibly easy to grow, and an essential addition for anyone interested in perennial edible gardens. So good that I even made a short video about Linden, which you can watch above.
2. The Chinese Toon (aka. Chinese Cedar) – Toona sinensis
Much less widely known in the West than the lime tree – this leaf crop from the Orient is a well-kept secret.
Whilst Toon is sometimes cultivated in arboretums and ornamental gardens, few people seem to know what a delicacy is on offer whilst wandering underneath their aromatic foliage.
When I was in the highlands of Taiwan some years ago, I smelled this tree before I saw it – and had to follow my nose to its delicious source! The photo above shows the Toon tree I found growing in the mountains of Taiwan, in the foreground on the right-hand side.
So, what have we been missing?
The leaves of Chinese Cedar have an incredibly rich, complex flavor, reminding most people simultaneously of onion and egg!
It’s like putting an instant omelet in your mouth! They have to be smelled and tasted to be believed…
Whilst they can be eaten fresh from the tree, the strong flavors lend themselves well to cooking. You might even suddenly understand what that secret ingredient in your favorite Chinese dish has been all this time!
The tree is moderately easy to grow given a sheltered position and well-drained soil. I tend to protect its tender young shoots with fleece, as late spring frosts can really damage its foliage and subsequent growth – but mature trees can take winter temperatures right down to -25°C.
Chinese Toon can be kept to a manageable size through coppicing, although the suckers can be a little unruly – popping up many meters away from the parent tree.
Still, it’s a show-stopper and highly recommended for those looking for an unusual twist to the vegetable garden! Try out the ornamental cultivar “Flamingo” to add a splash of pink to your garden’s skyline.
You can buy Toona sinensis from Amazon as plants or seeds.
3. Norway Spruce – Picea abies
Better known to most people as the tree to leave presents under every December – yet in its native habitat of Northern Europe, the young tips of Christmas tree branches are a prized annual delicacy!
Even with my background in agroforestry, it wasn’t until I came to Latvia that I saw people relishing this very unusual “leaf crop” (save making a separate category for “needle crop!”)
Although the season for soft edible growth is rather short, the young shoots can be preserved in various ways. Here in Latvia, keeping them submerged in honey is a favorite. This not only preserves the delicate young shoots but also flavors the honey with a distinctive resinous flavor.
Whilst it is a great salad ingredient, I’ve also experimented with putting young needles into soups and stews – where they give a character reminiscent of Juniper berries.
Spruce Trees aren’t emminently suitable for training, and may not be a top priority for small plots. Yet if you have a larger garden or space for a tall evergreen windbreak, Spruce shoots can offer you a unique taste sensation to look forward to from late-April to mid-summer every year.
4. White Mulberry – Morus alba
The White Mulberry is famous for two things: its fantastic health-giving berries and as a food source for the silkworm. Its use as a perennial leaf crop has thus been often overlooked, but it certainly shouldn’t be forgotten!
The leaves of White Mulberry are highly nutritious, containing a whopping 18-28% protein when dry. They are also considered a good tonic for regulating blood sugars – meaning you’ll be receiving medicinal benefits every time you chew on a few.
As with other tree leaves, Mulberry leaves are best when young and tender in the spring. They can be eaten raw but are perhaps better boiled gently or steamed. They can be layered in a lasagne or stuffed like vine leaves to make dolmades. One of my friends, Sagara, even hales Mulberry leaves as one of his favorite of all perennial vegetables!
Well worth trying out for its multiple uses – especially if you have a dry or rocky garden, which these trees thrive in.
5. Hawthorn (aka. Bread and Cheese) – Cratagus monogyna
Its nickname in old English folklore, “bread and cheese,” clue us to how popular Hawthorn leaves used to be! This must have been a reference to how commonly they were eaten, almost as a staple.
Young Hawthorn leaves have a lovely nutty kind of flavor. I look forward to their first buds opening every spring – and they have the advantage of being earlier to leaf out than almost any other tree I know of.
In the UK, I’ve even seen them leafing in March! They make a very welcome snack at this time of year, as our bodies crave some fresh nourishment after the dark days of winter.
Whilst you might not plant Hawthorn solely as a leaf crop, it will also bless your garden with abundant flowers and fruits which can both be eaten or used as a medicinal tea. It is also great for wildlife and an excellent hedging plant, very amenable to being pruned and shaped to your heart’s content.
The Sky is No Longer the Limit For Edible Greens
So, when it comes to growing greens, the sky need no longer be your limit!
Although there are more tree leaf crops out there, these are five of the best, and I’m sure you’ll have fun savoring their flavors, whether in your own backyard or in the wild.
Be adventurous, and prove to your friends and neighbors that delicious greens really can be grown on trees!