August 2, 2021

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Ornamental Edible Shrubs for the Southern Plains

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If you’ve ever stopped to appreciate an okra blossom or admire the lush foliage of a pawpaw tree, you’ve noticed that edible plants can be just as beautiful as ornamental plants. One area where beauty and utility combine flawlessly in the landscape is in the shrub layer. Providing flowers, fruits, and sometimes colorful foliage, edible shrubs add interest throughout the year.

Use forms and textures to guide placement

Edible shrubs are easy to incorporate into the ornamental landscape, so there is no need to relegate them to an isolated corner of the yard. I like to let plant forms guide me in choosing where to place the plants. Just as ornamental shrubs play different roles in the garden, some edible plants also lend themselves better to use as a focal point, while others can play a supporting role. Figs, for example, make a distinctive specimen with bold foliage and a multibranching habit. Blackberries, on the other hand, look lovely in a mixed bed where their arching stems add structure and movement.

Selecting shrubs based on climate

As with any landscape shrub, plant selection is the first step toward success. With our combination of intense summer heat and cold winters in the Southern Plains, it is important to pay close attention to the subtle variations between varieties when choosing edible shrubs. Some varieties have greater cold tolerance, allowing them to thrive in the more northern parts of our region, while others are better suited to heat. The following shrubs are a few of my picks that have great value in ornamental designs as well as delicious fruit that you can harvest.

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Pomegranates are almost worth it for their vibrant, salmon-colored flowers alone. Photo: Ann E. Stratton

Pomegranate

Punica granatum, Zones 6–10

With vibrant, tropical-looking orange blooms, pomegranates are widely planted for their flowers alone and make a beautiful accent or focal point in the garden. ‘Salavatski’ is considered the most cold-hardy variety available and can successfully produce fruit in Zone 6 when planted on the south-facing wall of a home. Provide protection for pomegranates from cold winter winds. The ideal planting site in colder parts of our region is a west- or south-facing wall in full to partial sun. Pomegranates are naturally drought tolerant and require well-drained soil. Plants are self-fertile and ripen in late fall.

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‘Regent’ serviceberry has dense, light-colored foliage and can grow in partial shade. Photo: Kim Toscano

Serviceberry

Amelanchier alnifolia, Zones 2–7

Serviceberry might be the tastiest fruit you haven’t tried. The flavor is a cross between blueberry and grape. While designing an edible garden several years ago, I was excited to discovered ‘Regent’ serviceberry, which is a compact variety that reaches only 3 to 6 feet tall and wide. Serviceberries grow well in full sun to partial shade. If you’re growing at the southern limits of this plant’s growing range, a bit of afternoon shade will be helpful.

‘Regent’ tolerates a variety of soil types, including heavy clay, and it grows in wet or dry sites. In the hotter parts of our region, gardeners might want to try a western species, Utah serviceberry (A. utahensis, Zones 5–9), which is more drought and heat tolerant. Although drought tolerant, serviceberry needs to be irrigated to produce plumper, juicier fruits. Serviceberry attracts a variety of pollinators, and you might have to compete with birds for fruit, which matures in late May to June.

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Figs have large, broad leaves on treelike shrubs. Photo: Kim Toscano

Fig

Ficus carica, Zones 6–10

For much of the Southern Plains, winter is the greatest limitation to growing figs. Plant breeders have been working to select ever hardier varieties, as well as more-compact selections. Though there are newer varieties available, I have had success with ‘Brown Turkey’, also called ‘Texas Overbearing’. This variety produces a dependable crop of brown to maroon fruits from June in Texas (later farther north) through frost.

I recommend planting figs in full sun to partial shade on the west or south side of the house, where plants can benefit from radiant heat in winter. Shelter plants from harsh winter winds, and cover them when temperatures dip below 10°F. Though the roots will survive at those temperatures, stem dieback can delay fruit production. Give ‘Brown Turkey’ plenty of room to spread out, especially in warmed climates where plants easily reach a mature size of 10 feet tall and wide. If space is an issue, look for one of the newer compact varieties such as ‘Little Miss Figgy’. Figs tolerate heat and just about any soil, as long as it’s not too acidic.

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These blackberries have been expertly pruned into a hedge. Photo: Kim Toscano

Blackberry

Rubus fruticosus, Zones 5–9

You don’t need a trellis to grow blackberries, and with the newer erect, thornless varieties bred specifically for home garden production, blackberries are easier than ever to maintain. One of the tastiest thornless blackberries is ‘Ouachita’ (named for my favorite place to hike in Oklahoma). Plants produce large, sweet berries on very erect stems. Plant it among anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum, Zones 4–8) and other edible flowers and ground covers in a mixed bed.

For sturdier stems and increased yields, tip canes when they reach chest height. Canes may bend when laden with fruit, producing a lovely arched effect. ‘Ouachita’ has a low chilling requirement, making it suitable even in the warmer areas in our region. Plant on berms to improve drainage in heavy soil. Though blackberries are rugged plants, regular irrigation will promote better yields. Grow them in full sun.

More to love

Plant breeders have latched onto the edible landscaping trend, producing ever more ornamental varieties of our favorite fruits. Many of these varieties push fruit production into places never before possible. As you select fruits for the landscape, pay attention to cold hardiness as well as heat tolerance, and plan for access to water. Even drought-tolerant varieties will produce better yields with regular irrigation. Finally, consider incorporating stepping-stones or a narrow pathway in beds to access shrubs for maintenance and harvest.

—Kim Toscano is a horticulturalist, entomologist, garden designer, writer, and graphic designer. She previously hosted Oklahoma Gardening, a weekly PBS television program produced by the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service.

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