by Mike Mugridge
“Edibles in the Landscape,” championed by designers like Rosalind Creasy, has been a popular trend for many years. Incorporating vegetables into ornamental arrangements and vice versa is an ecologically, aesthetically, and economically sound idea—and the design possibilities are endless.
It’s worth noting, though, that most “ornamental” gardens and landscapes, created across the globe and throughout time, have always contained many kinds of edible, nutritious, and delicious foods, whether by design or by accident. What may be currently sold as a beautiful, blooming tree or shrub in U.S. nurseries might have been prized for millennia in its native range for other attributes—like food or medicine.
For context, more than 70% of global agriculture is dedicated to the production of a relatively small variety of annual grains and vegetables that must be planted, harvested, and replanted each year. This has created a host of cascading environmental, social, and economic disasters and gross inequity around the planet—far too much for this particular blog post to explore. Though we are unlikely to easily replace the staple calories that these annual crops provide in typical American diets, an important conclusion is that we must widen our ideas of food and expand our taste palettes to include the nutrient-dense foods that come from perennial plants, trees, and shrubs.
This blog post will explore just one example of a commonly-planted perennial—in this case a small tree—that is prized for it’s ornamental value, but which surprises most people when they learn it also produces abundant, delicious fruit.
Cornus kousa is a mid-sized, typically multi-stemmed and highly ornamental tree often referred to as “kousa dogwood” or Korean/Japanese Dogwood. This is a commonly-planted landscape tree and it shouldn’t take you long to spot one featured in a residential landscape. Kousa dogwood is hardy, disease resistant, and has both beautiful fall foliage (purple, bronze, and red) and showy spring flowers each year. Known for its profuse bloom of white blooms covering the entire tree, the “petals” are actually bracts surrounding the dense green center of true flowers.
After Kousa’s bloom come thousands of large, bright red and orange, berry-like fruits (technically drupes, surrounding a few pit-like seeds). These brightly-colored fruit are a part of the tree’s ornamental value, displaying vividly amongst the neat foliage in late summer and early fall. Upon closer inspection, the fruit is quite unique, with an interesting geometric pattern across its entire surface and a textured skin. This patterning and texture comes from the fruit’s many carpels, fused together into a single sphere and presenting as a ‘berry’.
Even though they may look strange, Kousa Dogwood fruit are fully edible–and delicious. Throughout its native range in Asia, the fruit is eaten fresh and used to make wine. Kousa Dogwood fruit makes great jams, jellies, and fresh juice, as well. When they are fully ripe, soft, and dark red, the Kousa “berries” taste like a tropical fruit, with textures and tastes reminiscent of fig, papaya, and strawberries. This can be a sweet surprise—especially if you’ve had a Kousa growing in your landscape without knowing you could eat the fruit! Make sure the fruit is truly ripe to get the sweet and tropical taste, or else you may find the taste is bland, almost like squash or pumpkin.Some fruits have a single seed, and some have multiple, about the size of a cherry pit. It’s best to squeeze the fruit, eat the inside, and spit out the pits and discard the skins. While not a large fruit, the taste and sheer abundance on each tree make it worth enjoying.
If the Kousa Dogwood isn’t to your liking, without looking too far you are likely to find the related Cornus mas in a landscape near you. This is a similar tree which is extremely common in the ornamental landscaping trade, but with yellow spring blooms. Cornus mas is often referred to as “Cornelian Cherry”.
Take a wild guess why…