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Edible plants often overlooked in Florida landscapes


Published:   |   Updated: September 4, 2013 at 04:29 PM

DUNEDIN — Jacklyn Rhea loves to walk in her yard and neighborhood, sampling from the readily available and often overlooked variety of edible plants in the landscape.
 
Speaking before a Aug. 24th assembly at the Dunedin Community Center, the horticulturist bemoaned the fact that “people walk by so many plants each day that are edible.”
 
She told how her appreciation for unconventional edibles began when she started eating flowers as a child. The 1980 novel “Clan of the Cave Bear,” a saga about people and relationships in the prehistoric Ice Age, provided inspiration.
 
Rhea went on to study environmental horticulture at the University of Florida, specializing in landscape design.  As a certified horticulture professional, she enjoys creating landscapes that are not only beautiful, but useful as well.
 
That could include short and long-lived plants, annuals or perennials, and various fruit trees, shrubs, cacti, flowers or herbs.  Depending on the species, it might be valued for its leaves, roots or fruit.
 
Using annuals is a quick way to add edible plants to the landscape, she advised.  They may be used as or in borders, with lavender as an example, or in a dedicated plot bed. A grocery plot might be planted to supplement food bills while providing superior nutrition and taste, and a wider choice of varieties. That would involve a higher level of management, in addition to water and fertilizer needs, and likely a semi-annual rotation of plants.
 
Rhea said there’s some flexibility in growing seasons in Florida, but she acknowledged that, depending upon the time of year, “the insect populations determine if plants succeed.”
 
The speaker said her own garden is for foraging.  She long has enjoyed the beautiful red flowers of the common sleeping hibiscus, also known as the Turk’s cap. Cranberry hibiscus is another favorite for both its leaves and flowers.
 
Aloe plants may be sliced open and the gel scraped out to add to smoothies, when it isn’t needed for treating burns, and it will grow very well in either sun or shade. 
 
There are many edible flowers, including the geranium, fuchsia, begonia, nasturtium, chrysanthemum, lavender, pansy, violet and dandelion. Even the flowers of the cactus species known as the night blooming cereus may be eaten, she said.
 
Some common weeds may be consumed as well: wild purslane, plantain herb, stinging nettle, lamb’s quarters and pepperweed, for instance.
 
“Edible Wild Plants” is one of Rhea’s favorite resources.
 
During her presentation, she showed photographs of various planting arrangements. One attractive and accessible garden design used bricks to line the perimeter of the site, while a compost bin was installed in the center of the plot.  A seating area was surrounded by a trellis, not just for providing respite, but to facilitate the growing of cucurbits (climbing or trailing plants that include squash, pumpkin, cucumber, gourd, watermelon and cantaloupe) or some pollinator-attracting flowers. 
 
Flower towers, Topsy Turvy planters or vertical hydroponic totems also may be incorporated to maximize the use of available space.  Rhea described how a simple totem could be improvised using large metal rings available at hardware stores, mounting them to a post and then slipping a potted plant into each ring.
 
Gesturing toward an image of a lush sweet potato vine climbing the corner of her house, the speaker concluded, “Edibles can be quite beautiful.”
 
Following the presentation, lists of some edibles and planting suggestions were made available to the audience of about 100 people.
 
 On Sept. 26, the Dunedin Community Garden program will focus on nutrition in the garden, the health benefits of Florida garden plants. It will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the Dunedin Community Center in Highlander Park. The public is invited.

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