There are many ornamental shrubs and small trees with edible fruits, leaves etc that can often be seen growing in ornamental gardens but with some TLC there’s no reason why you cannot then bring them on in your own garden. Below is a list of just a few suggestions for you to consider growing.
Juneberries produce blackcurrant-size juicy fruits in July (which is why we call them juneberries!). If you can get there before the birds you will find that the fruits have a pleasant apple- like taste. The main problem is that birds like the fruits so much they will often eat them under-ripe and will not leave many for you to try. The plants are exceedingly beautiful when they flower in early to mid spring. All members of this genus produce edible fruits, though some are not very desireable, and plants range in size from small shrubs to tall trees. Our favourite is A. alnifolia, it grows about 2 metres tall and produces suckers. The fruit, which is very juicy and relatively large, can be protected from the birds relatively easily because of the small size of the plants. Others that we also like include A. canadensis, a suckering tree growing about 6 metres tall that has become naturalized in Britain and A. lamarckii which is about 6 metres tall – this species does not sucker. There is also a cultivar A. ‘Ballerina’ that is often found in garden centres, this plant has larger than average fruits with a pleasant sweet taste.
Arbutus unedo – Strawberry Tree
An evergreen tree that can grow up to 30 feet tall, but there are smaller growing varieties. One that has been particularly recommended is ‘Croome’, which is said to fruit more freely and has an attractive red tinge to the flowers. The tree succeeds on most soils and produces edible fruits in late autumn. It is particularly beautiful at this time because it is also in flower. Whilst not highly flavoured, the fruits have a nice, subtle taste.
Arundinaria species and Phylostachys species – Bamboos
Evergreen grasses that make very attractive specimen plants in lawns and can also be used as screens. Many species have edible shoots in spring and their canes make good plant supports.
Berberis species – Barberries
This genus includes some extremely ornamental evergreen and deciduous shrubs and they tend to tolerate most soils and locations. None of them have poisonous fruits though many of them are unpalatable. B. vulgaris was once quite commonly grown in the fruit garden but has fallen out of favour in recent times. This plant is also the alternate host of the black stem rust of wheat, so it has virtually been eradicated from our hedgerows and woodlands by farmers. Other species to consider include B. aggregata, B. angulosa, B. aristata, B. asiatica, B. buxifolia, B. darwinii and B. lycium. The fruits are acid but can be eaten raw (best after a frost) or used to make conserves, jams etc. They can also be dried and used as a substitute for raisins. Some species can be used to make very ornamental informal hedges (B. darwinii is especially good).
Chaenomeles species – Quinces
Not the true quince, which is Cydonia oblonga, but the fruits of these deciduous shrubs are so similar that you would hardly notice the difference. They vary in size from about 2 feet to 15 feet and, for best fruit production, should be grown in a sunny position, though they are not really fussy. Harsh and astringent raw, the cooked fruit becomes very aromatic and can be added to other cooked fruit (especially apples) or used to make jams, jellies etc.
Comptonia peregrina asplenifolia – Sweet Fern
Not a fern, but a beautiful deciduous shrub about four feet tall with fern-like leaves. It requires a lime-free soil and, in its natural habitat, grows on poor, dry, sandy soils, so it won’t need much feeding. The fruits may be eaten raw, the dried leaves make a refreshing tea, and the fresh leaves are used as a lining in fruit baskets to help preserve the fruits.
Cornus mas – Cornelian Cherry
A deciduous shrub, up to 20 feet tall, but can be kept smaller in cultivation. Formerly cultivated for its fruit, it is now often found in the ornamental garden where it is valued for its early spring flowers. It prefers a chalky soil but tolerates most soils and fruits best when in a sunny position. The fruit can be eaten raw, an edible oil can be extracted from the seeds, and the wood, which is very tough, is much valued for making tools, cogs etc. Crataegus species. This genus includes our native hawthorns (see our leaflet on hedge plants for details of these). All members of the genus have edible fruits but, whilst the fruit of a hawthorn is edible, it is far from being appetizing. However there are several members of the genus that have absolutely delicious fruits and I would highly recommend them as a fruit crop. The trees are very easy to grow, they tolerate most soils and situations including drought and occasional waterlogging. They are very ornamental when flowering in the spring and also when in fruit. Most species fruit abundantly in Britain. Our two special favourites are C. arnoldiana and C. schraderiana. Their fruits are about the size of a large cherry and usually have a group of five seeds in the centre. These seeds stick together and so the effect is of eating a fruit with one large seed. The soft juicy flesh is very well flavoured, and can be eaten in quantity. I would certainly prefer a bowl of these to a bowl of strawberries. Other members of this genus that also have very nice fruits include C. azarolus (the azerole is sometimes cultivated in the Mediterranean but I have not yet tried it), C. douglasii, C. durobrivensis, C. ellwangeriana, C. opaca and C. tanacetifolia. This last species has a much firmer flesh and is decidedly apple-like in its flavour.
Many of the species in this genus have quite pleasant tasting fruit and they are often cultivated, particularly in the Orient, for their fruit which is used to make drinks and sherbet. This is another group of shrubs that are not too fussy about soil conditions though they tend to fruit better when grown in a sunny position in light soil that is not too rich, and many of them can be grown as an informal hedge. Species to consider include E. angustifolia, E. commutata, E. x. ebbingei, E. glabra, E. macrophylla, E. multiflora and E. pungens, which is said to be the best of the genus.
Diospyros lotus and D. virginiana
These two trees produce some of the most delicious fruits we have ever eaten from plants growing in Britain. They are related to the persimmon or sharon fruit that is sometimes seen in greengrocers and are very similar in shape but smaller, ranging in size from a large cherry to a small crab apple. Only eat the fruit when it is absolutely ripe and squidgy soft or has been dried, otherwise its taste is bitter and unpleasant.Last modified: December 30, 2020