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Ask a Master Gardener: Not Just a Pretty Face: Your Favorite Ornamental Plant Might Be Delicious

By Jeremiah “Pepper” Woolsey, Mobile County Master Gardener,

In the past few years, interest in growing your own food has risen. Especially with the disruption of supply chains via pandemics (both human and avian), our food security is much more top of mind. Since 2020, the Alabama Extension program “Grow More, Give More” encourages Alabama home gardeners to grow food for themselves and also to give any excess harvest to others who can use it. Given the facts of how far your food travels to get to your table, we understand the benefits from the Farm-to-Table movement, but Backyard-to-Table distances and freshness are even better!

Not everyone has a garden plot at their home, but growing food in your front yard while preserving landscaping aesthetics is possible with a number of popular ornamental and edible plants grown in the Mobile area. The loquat, pineapple guava, and the pindo palm top the list.

The loquat (Eriobotrya japonica) is an evergreen shrub or tree with large tropical-looking leaves that blooms in the fall and early winter with the very tasty yellow-orange fruit arriving in the early spring. Loquat trees are very cold tolerant and can handle temperatures down to 8° to 10°F, though if a freeze hits the young blossoms, fruit set may not occur. Many Mobilians are familiar with fruit from the seedlings, which are smaller than those from the cultivated named varieties like Golden Nugget, Champagne, Yehuda, Bradenton, and many others. Leaves can be steeped and made into an herbal tea. While the seeds are not edible, toxic even if eaten, they can be made into a grappa if infused with alcohol. This subtropical grows well along the Gulf Coast, generally south of I-10, and is a favorite of landscapers and wine and jelly makers alike.

Pineapple guava (Acca sellowiana), also called Feijoa, is a cold-hardy, moderately salt-tolerant, slow-growing evergreen shrub with blue-green foliage, used extensively for landscaping in our area. It produces a green fruit whose taste has been likened to a blend of kiwi, pineapple, and mint. Additionally, the white flower petals taste just like cotton candy. In Mobile, common landscaping cultivars may or may not fruit, though named varieties are much more likely to. There are pineapple guava cultivars that have been selected primarily for fruit production. Some are self-pollinating but will produce a better fruit-set with another cultivar planted nearby. It can be propagated reliably by planting seed taken from the ripe fruit or by rooting summer cuttings.

The pindo or “jelly” palm (Butia capitata) is popular for landscapers around town because of its tropical look and its cold tolerance. It produces bright yellow dates that can be made into a jelly. The palm is native to South America but very well suited to Mobile’s climate. It is a slow grower, so don’t expect overnight production. Did I say they’re known to make a good wine as well?

The appeal of these ornamental fruit trees is that they are perennials and are perfect for the lazy gardener in all of us. Plant them once and, aside from the occasional pruning, they produce for years without having to till, sow, spray, or weed every year, unlike your veggie patch.

These three edible ornamentals are just part of the story. One local group leading the charge to beautify our urban-suburban landscapes and expand our horticultural outcomes is the Auburn University Ornamental Horticulture Research Center in Spring Hill on McGregor Avenue in Mobile, in operation since 1928 with a break during WWII. Director Kyle Owsley and his team are continually researching, developing, and trialing new plants that will thrive in our area to provide local nursery businesses and home gardeners alike with new growing opportunities. They have several research trials underway that could literally change the landscape of our area with increased recognition of what is edible. Look for that story here in the Ask a Master Gardener column in the new year.

Jeremiah “Pepper” Woolsey is also a Certified Permaculture Designer, and Founder of Facebook pages “Your Backyard Food Forest” and “The Royal Order of Gumbo.”

Pineapple Guava. Photo by Jack LeCroy.

Loquat Starting to Bloom by Pepper Woolsey

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