I still remember some years back when I got the call from my daughter’s preschool letting me know that she had eaten a holly berry. As a horticulturist I know that Ilex fruits are poisonous but unfortunately the teacher in the outdoor classroom that day had been talking about edible fruits and did not emphasize those that are poisonous. After a call to the local poison control we breathed a big sigh of relief, since it turned out that a child the size and weight of my daughter would have had to eat 4 or more berries to cause her harm.
These days Georgia likes to graze in our garden but is much more careful and asks before she eats, whether it’s basil, parsley or mahonia berries, Mahonia bealei, which my friend visiting from Seattle was enthusiastic about. Personally I can’t get too excited about this mahonia as it seeds freely and pops up uninvited all over my garden. The one mahonia I do like is Mahonia ‘Soft Caress’ a hybrid introduction from ItSaul Plants with leaves that are soft to the touch and which blooms in late fall.
While I support the concept of a sustainable landscape where one grows food to eat, in my own garden I don’t discriminate against non-edible fruits. I seek out and grow all types of plants including those that are beautiful, useful and edible. It’s hard for me to imagine the fall garden without the colorful but non-edible fruits of ornamentals like American beautyberry, Callicarpa americana, viburnums, and winterberry, Ilex verticillata, as well as other deciduous hollies. I consider these plants to be food for my soul.
On a recent trip to Raleigh, NC, where I visited some lovely private gardens, I was reminded that some plants like the Japanese persimmon, Diospyros kaki ‘Tanenashi’ for example, produce fruits that are both ornamental and edible. In the case of Japanese persimmons the tree and the fruit make for a handsome addition to the garden. When growing persimmons it is useful to know whether the fruits are astringent, like our native persimmon, Diospyros virginiana, (I love this tree for its winter silhouette and chunky bark) which means they are bitter and astringent until fully ripe and soft, or non-astringent when the fruit is crisp and sweet even before they are fully ripe.
Other edible fruits that are also ornamental include blueberries, fig trees, pomegranates and pawpaws. I have eaten pawpaws, Asimina triloba, (a custard-like fruit that tastes like a cross of banana, strawberry and some say mango) that were growing along the C and O canal in Maryland. They are hard to miss, especially in the fall when they are loaded with 2” to 6” oblong fruits and large leaves up to 1’ long; they tend to grow in large groups. Reaching 20’ to 30’ tall or taller at maturity, I would like to try the dwarf species, Asimina parviflora which is reported to grow 4 to 5’ tall.
Whether your garden is large or small, there are many plants that you can grow that are not only beautiful but productive too, offering ornamental and delicious fruits.
Erica’s pick: Japanese persimmon
Botanical name: Diospyros kaki
About the plant: Depending on the cultivar this lovely tree grows 20’ to 30’ tall and produces beautiful and edible orange to orange-red fruit in the fall. The green foliage becomes glossy as it matures, adding to its ornamental appeal. The leaves may turn shades of red, orange and yellow in the fall. Non-astringent types include ‘Fuyu’ and ‘Giant Fuyu.’
Use in the garden: A good choice for creating a tropical feel and providing colorful fall fruits and foliage.
Planting and care: Plant persimmons in full sun or part-shade in a moist, well-drained soil.
Source: Ashe-Simpson Garden Center, 4961 Peachtree Industrial Blvd, Atlanta, GA 30341, 770-458-3224
Erica Glasener is a horticulturist and host of "A Gardener's Diary" which airs at 6:30 a.m. Fridays on HGTV. For questions visit Erica Glasener's Web Site.
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