The appeal of growing your own food is a powerful draw for experienced and would-be gardeners of all ages. To be sure, traditional stalwarts such as tomatoes, herbs and blueberries have enduring charm, but today’s edible gardeners are seeking unique, unusual edibles as well. You can meet that desire and appeal to the individuality and global mindset of modern consumers by growing and selling unexpected edibles to your independent garden center customers. Consider these unusual, uncommon or unexpected edible picks.
1. Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) – Shoppers perusing their local Whole Foods and 365 stores find aronia concentrates, powders, dried and frozen berries, and more. It’s only natural they want to grow them, too. With the highest antioxidant levels of any temperate fruit, this North American native begs an edible label to go with its established ornamental one. USDA Zones 3-8
2. Goji berry (Lycium barbarum) – Also known as wolfberries, goji berries boast centuries of health-enhancing use in China and Europe, but they largely remain relegated to specialty food shops in the U.S. Gojis can be left to ramble or taken vertically in containers, offering royal purple blooms as well as their brilliant red super-fruits. USDA Zones 5-9
3. Lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) – Popular throughout Scandinavia and Canadian provinces where they grow wild, lingonberry is capturing a broader audience, thanks to media reports on its nutritional powers. Consumers may also know this plant as cowberry, fox berry or alpine cranberry. Dwarf varieties are especially in demand as small-space urban gardeners discover this blueberry and cranberry relative excels in containers. USDA Zones 2-8
4. Loquat (Eriobotrya japonica) – As an ornamental, loquat is prized for its boldly textured, lustrous, leathery leaves and profuse, fragrant autumn blooms, but the spring fruit sometimes goes untouched. Rare fruit growers in California and the Southeast already appreciate these succulent treats, and now gardeners in other regions are taking notice. Dwarf varieties open up container options, giving retailers intriguing alternatives to potted citrus. USDA Zones 7/8-10
5. Passion fruit (Passiflora spp.) – Purple passion flower (Passiflora edulis) is this vine’s best-known edible species, but it’s not the only one that serves up deliciously tart, egg-size fruit. Scooped straight from the skin, passion fruit is a memorable pleasure – and few plants can match these gorgeous blooms. Adventurous northerners can enjoy this tender plant in containers. The name alone lures gardeners in search of exotic edibles. USDA Zones 10-11
6. Paw paw (Asimina triloba) – It’s hard to resist America’s largest fruit, especially with cultivars producing fruits weighing up to one pound each. High in protein and vitamins, paw paw’s large, oblong fruits taste like a sweet tropical dish of banana/mango custard. Though paw paw is native to a large segment of the U.S., many gardeners still consider it a southern novelty. Expand their horizons and introduce them to this easy-to-grow, easy-to appreciate native edible. USDA Zones 5-9
7. Pineapple guava (Feijoa sellowiana) – Spectacular blooms and silver-backed leaves make it easy to overlook this versatile shrub’s edible potential. Some simple reminders help your customers envision possibilities. The flowers’ thick, fleshy petals are worth nibbling on their own, but they add a tangy accent to salads. Customers can scoop and eat the pulpy, pineapple-flavored fruit fresh or add its tropical touch to dishes from puddings to baked treats. USDA Zones 8-10
8. Prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica) – Yes, getting to the edible portions of these spiny plants isn’t for the faint of heart, but that’s just the kind of challenge intrepid edible aficionados seek. The plant’s flat, broad pads – minus their bristles – yield the meaty “nopales” strips enjoyed in authentic Mexican food. The vitamin-rich, pear-shaped fruit, sometimes called Barbary figs or “tunas,” yield a seedy but refreshing treat. Do customers a favor and include de-bristling instructions on this one. USDA Zones 8-10
9. Sweetberry honeysuckle (Lonicera caerulea) – Also known as honeyberries or haskaps, this extremely hardy plant is the perfect answer for customers seeking blueberry-like fruit without the fuss over soil pH. Tasty enough to pluck and eat fresh from the plant, the elongated, thin-skinned fruit has a flavor somewhere between plump, ripe blackberries and sweet blueberries. The uniquely shaped fruit (or a picture of it) generates plenty of oohs and ahhs. USDA Zones 2-6
By expanding your edible offerings with these and other unusual alternatives, you can offer IGCs high-value products and satisfy their established customers’ yearnings for edibles unique and new. About the author: Jolene is a freelance writer and former hort professional based in Madison, Wisconsin. She is a frequent contributor to GIE Media Horticulture Group publications.