1. Life & Culture

5 ornamental edible plants for Tampa Bay landscapes

The canopy of a lanky moringa tree sports lots of small leaves — some of the most nutritious on the planet.
The canopy of a lanky moringa tree sports lots of small leaves — some of the most nutritious on the planet.
Published Jul. 24, 2014

If your kitchen windowsill has sprouted little pots of herbs in the past five years; if eggplants grow in a patio container where the chiminea used to stand; if you've perfected the art of roasted homegrown kale chips, you've joined the crowd.

Growing edibles has taken off with all the passion of lovebugs in May. More than one of every three American households now plant stuff to eat, up from less than 20 percent five years ago, according to the National Gardening Association. (During World War II, more than half of us grew edibles.)

Getting in on the fun can pose a challenge for people without free yard space. That's an issue in Pinellas County, the most densely populated in Florida.

And yet, at the June meeting of St. Petersburg's Sustainable Urban Agriculture Coalition, the program on edible plants for our steamy summer gardens drew more than 50 people — double the usual attendance.

"We brought a lot of plants to share, and it was a feeding frenzy!" says Bill Bilodeau, a founder of the four-year-old nonprofit coalition.

Containers and vertical gardens offer solutions for patios and balconies, but balmy Pinellas also has yards brimming with beloved ornamental tropicals. Who wants to replace food for the soul with food for the body? It's a tough call!

Happily, plenty of edibles double as ornamentals. Plant them among the crotons and under the royal poincianas, don't use pesticides, and you'll have your pretty garden and eat it, too.

Bill suggests these easy bread-and-roses plants:

Moringa, a fast-growing tree, can get up to 50 feet tall; keep it cut back so you can harvest the super-nutritious leaves and seed pods. It does well in sun and sandy soil, is drought-tolerant and bounces back after a freeze. The leaves have a strong, tart flavor.

"It's easy to (overdose) on the flavor — I did for a while; I was using it a lot in smoothies because it's so nutritious," Bill says. "You have to restrain yourself."

Katuk, Sauropus androgynus, is a large shrub with tasty leaves — they have a nutty, almost savory, flavor and are 49 percent protein.

Katuk requires rich soil and regular water, and does best in part sun or light shade because it doesn't like to dry out. It needs protection when freeze threatens.

"It's not the prettiest, but it tastes the best," Bill says. "It's deciduous, so it loses its leaves in winter. I just cut it back to about a foot."

Chaya, Cnidoscolus aconitifolius, is a drama queen, with huge, maple tree-shaped leaves. A stunning plant, Bill says. It can grow 10 to 15 feet tall, takes full sun and is very drought-tolerant. Because the leaves contain cyanide, they must be cooked at least 5 minutes before eating — the cyanide burns off and the cooking water is poison-free.

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"I cook them about 30 minutes to soften them up," Bill says.

Season as you would spinach.

Sweet potato's heart-shaped leaves create an attractive, full-sun, low-maintenance ground cover. Cut 6 inches off new shoots and saute for a delicious dish that tastes like artichoke hearts, Tampa urban farmer Tanja Vidovic says.

The University of Florida recommends planting certified pest-free slips — pieces of sweet potato that have sprouted young plants.

But you can also get a tuber from the organic section of your grocery store, stick the whole thing in the ground and watch it take off. You can plant until the end of July.

Sweet potatoes like our sandy soil and require little to no fertilizer, though they do need water during dry periods. They mature in about four months. For the record, showy ornamental sweet potato vines also produce tubers, but they don't taste good!

Dinosaur kale, or lacinto, is Bill's favorite edible ornamental.

"It looks like a whole herd of dinosaurs at a convention," he says.

Crinkled, blue-green leaves grow 2 feet tall, forming a striking, V-shaped plant.

"Take out the center stem and steam the leaves, or massage them with lemon juice and salt and eat them raw — they're extremely nutritious," Bill says. "You can saute them in olive oil with garlic, and they're great for kale chips . . . I really love this plant!"

Start them from seeds in September.

Contact Penny Carnathan at or her blog,, or Facebook, Diggin Florida Dirt.Follow @DigginPenny.